SARAJEVO – Three decades ago Bosnia & Herzegovina was the venue for the Winter Olympics and Sarajevo had a team in the highest Yugoslav league with opponents from Jesenice, Ljubljana, Zagreb or Belgrade and thousands of fans watching hockey at the Zetra Olympic Hall.
However, the almost four-year long civil war that overshadowed the break-up of the socialist federation in the early ‘90s destroyed a lot especially in Bosnia & Herzegovina – also hockey. Playing ice sports was not a priority and many once blossoming Olympic venues turned into a miserable state.
Things slowly started to improve years later when ice hockey enthusiast founded an ice hockey federation in the newly independent country that gained IIHF member status in 2001 but getting ice in a country of less than four million people that belongs to the least wealthy ones in Europe remained an issue until recently.
It is determination and the art of improvisation that keeps many things going in post-war Sarajevo and hockey is no difference. The ice rink from the ‘80s was rebuilt as a multifunctional arena in 1999 and most recently got three to four months of ice in the winter months.
While the men try to get back on the international stage and will play in the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III in Turkey next spring, women’s hockey is an even more exotic phenomenon in the capital of Sarajevo.
However, it has come into existence recently and there’s potential to improve with the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend as a perfect opportunity for promotion. But what to do when there’s no ice in the country in October and it’s 27°C hot? Right, improvise.
“We booked a square at the Sarajevo City Center shopping mall next to the parliament building,” said Anthony London of the Ice Hockey Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
There the organizers and six girls from the age group 14-17 set up an info desk with recruiting material and two goals and offered newcomers to practise shooting and passing and use hockey equipment. Girls and boys from the U10 program were also in attendance to support and inline hockey was played too.
“You were able to see girls like eight-year-olds go by with the parents and look at us so we say ‘Come in, do you want to try to shoot?’ It was really catching their eye,” said London. “Once the parents saw their child was curious, they approached and enquired about the programme and accepted material. Some families stayed with us for over an hour, allowing their girls to really become involved and enjoy themselves. We always knew that hockey is the greatest sport in the world – now Bosnian parents are learning that too!
“Hockey hasn’t been a very popular sport here so we try to build it. We had over 100 leaflets and registration forms and they were all taken so there’s certainly a lot of interest. There were at least 20 girls who were shooting and passing for at least an hour. I don’t know how many stick to the program and return but we only have six girls between 10 and 20 and another ten girls between 5 and 10, so we could potentially double our numbers or even triple them.”
London grew up in Canada – in Victoria, British Columbia – and has been living in Bosnia & Herzegovina for nine years. He came for human right works like assisting with bringing refugees back to their houses. Meanwhile he’s married to a wife from Sarajevo, has kids and has become a citizen of the country.
In men’s hockey Bosnia & Herzegovina has a four-team league. “Last year we played 16 regular-season games plus playoffs and a cup competition,” he said. “We have a junior team that plays exhibition games with Croatian and Serbian teams, a three-team U15 league and a U10 program that is the largest group with 50 kids in a league and tournaments in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia.”
In women’s hockey the country is not as far yet with the number of players but London has ambitions in this category too for the future.
“We try to get enough girls that we can create specific teams for each age group – U10, U15 and U20 so they can compete with girls’ teams from our neighbouring countries and then form the basis for a national women’s team,” he said, “but that goal is a couple of years away.”
Amra was one of the current players who helped setting up the event.
“It was a great day full of hockey. I’m playing in my fourth year. It’s really exciting that so many people were able to see us play. We need more players to improve. We can make these girls good players and maybe in two years we’ll have a perfect team,” she said.
“They were all interested and want to find out more about hockey and what the sport is like. It’s a dynamic sport with team play. They can learn how to communicate with other people. It’s a way of living.”
She hopes that they can form a team and one day have a women’s national team she could hopefully be part of.
In the meantime London and his crew hope to improve the ice situation in the country and they already found land for a new rink.
“We’re working on building a private ice rink and looking for December for that to happen and in the future have seven, eight-month seasons rather than the typical three months a year we’ve had since they started to rebuild hockey,” London said.
“That’s why we want to go with a private facility. It would be only a few kilometres away from Zetra and we found a rink to buy in Slovenia. We’re as close as we’ve ever been to a permanent ice rink.”
Until it opens the players, female and male, junior and senior, will continue to improvise and travel, and to dream of an easier future for ice hockey in Bosnia & Herzegovina.