28 September 2006

Team Greece winning uphill battle for survival

In that regard, the members of Greece's national hockey team and the rest of its small, close-knit hockey community were just like players the world over. Once upon a time, they never thought their toughest battle would be to simply have a place to play. But circumstances beyond their control left them without a single viable rink in their country and no funding for the national hockey program.

That's when a determined group of Greek hockey players, driven only by their love of the game and desire to play for their country and for one another, banded together. They fought both for the survival of their team and of hockey in their homeland.

Since 2003, Greece has been just one of one three European countries without a rink in the country, along with Albania and Malta. But the players of Team Greece have gone to extraordinary lengths to stay together on and off the ice. All the while, they've lobbied anyone who'll listen for a place to practice and play in their country.

The story of the Greek ice hockey team starts in the mid-1980s. In 1984, a group of Greek nationals returned home from hockey countries abroad to form the first national league in Greece. Soon the league consisted of five teams of amateur players; two in Athens, one in Pireus, one in Salonica and one in Chalkida. The first official game was played the following year in Athens.

Over the next four years, the rag-tag league gained better organization and stronger infrastructure for training. In 1989, the first Greek ice hockey championships took place on an Olympic-sized ice surface at Peace and Friendship Stadium, marking the first time organized hockey games were played on an International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) regulation-sized rink.

With growing youth participation in the sport, the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation formed the first Greek national junior hockey team in 1990. The team participated in the IIHF Pool C World Junior Championships in Yugoslavia. The next year, Team Greece took part in the IIHF Under-20 tournament held in Italy.

In 1992, the first adult-level version of Team Greece took shape shortly before the upcoming IIHF Pool C World Championships in South Africa. Despite having only two weeks of serious training, the squad won the bronze medal in the tournament.

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