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The qualification process for the three open spots in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament starts this weekend in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

The Winter Palace will host the qualification game between Bulgaria and Georgia. The winner will advance to Group K of the
Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 1. In total 28 teams will play in this four-stage battle to join the top-8 teams and Korea, who are already qualified as hosts, in PyeongChang.

Saturday, 10 October 2015 will mark the debut in the Olympic ice hockey competition for Georgia and the return for Bulgaria after not entering a team for the qualification to Sochi 2014. The start of the new campaign at home brings back great memories for the Bulgarian ice hockey community – the participation in the 1976 Olympics. Almost 40 years ago Bulgaria was one of the 12 teams in Innsbruck.

The start of this historic journey was with a qualification game against powerhouse Czechoslovakia. The game is fondly remembered by then-Bulgarian captain Ilia Bachvarov, who will turn 72 next week.

“It was a very special moment for me. I had chills before the game and during the performance of the national anthem of Czechoslovakia I was singing in my mind as this is my native language,” recalls Bachvarov, who was born in Prague, lived there his first 15 years and played ice hockey and football. “Frankly, we had no place there. We didn’t earn our participation in Innsbruck. Sweden withdrew from the tournament and we got the invitation.”

Bulgaria managed to play in the 1970 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships B-Pool and was ranked 14th overall – the highest position all-time. In 1975 the team finished second as host of the C-Pool and next year, after the Winter Olympics, had another showing in Group B.

“For me the biggest success of our national team was in 1992 when Bulgaria played in the B-Pool and secured the spot for one more year after three wins in the tournament. But being part of the most prestigious stage – the Winter Olympics – was amazing and will stay forever in our memories. We lost to Czechoslovakia 14-1, but this was a great result considering the difference in the level of play. Their team was winning world titles and had great players in Josef Augusta, Jiri Holik, Vladimir Martinec, Jiri Bubla, Frantisek Pospisil and many others,” says the Bulgarian ice hockey legend.

Bachvarov has two certain moments from the game against CSSR very clearly in his mind: “Bubla broke his stick and had to go for a change. Suddenly I was alone in front of the net, Georgi Iliev made a great pass to me and with trembling hands I was able to score a goal, our only goal against Czechoslovakia!

“There was also a moment of great fair play by our opponent. I shot the puck and it accidently hit the leg of my teammate Ivan Atanasov. He writhed in pain on the ice but the referee didn’t stop the play. Then Pospisil took the puck behind his net and waved to us to carry our man to the bench. He waited there till we did that and made the change.”

After the qualification games in Innsbruck the winners battled for the medals and the defeated teams formed Group B and had a round-robin tournament. Bulgaria lost all matches – 6-2 to Austria, 8-3 to Switzerland, 8-5 to Yugoslavia, 9-4 to Romania and 7-5 to Japan.

“We won against Austria the last time we played and in Innsbruck we scored the first goal and had two goals disallowed. After the loss the tension in our dressing room increased very much and the team fell into separate groups. There were some preconditions for that because our team had a training camp for two-and-a-half months before the Olympics and as young men we were nervous and tired of each other,” explains Bachvarov.

“In our time we were beating teams that are now in the top division such as France and Denmark. It was a different story in the ‘70s and ‘80s. For 20 years we had training camps in the Soviet Union with top Soviet players and we built a great relationship with them. The legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov wanted to prove that his system can work wonders even with players of our level. It was very helpful for us to be on one ice sheet with the greatest players of that time. As part of CSKA Sofia I was able to practise regularly with the stars from CSKA Moscow. At one time Veniamin Alexandrov was coaching CSKA Sofia. Levski Spartak had visits to Czechoslovakia as well. We became friends with Vladislav Tretiak and he was describing us as ‘good middle level players’. At that time there was great enthusiasm in Bulgarian hockey. We had some exceptional technical players like Milcho Nenov and Georgi Iliev,” Ilia Bachvarov recalls.

His younger brother Marin was also on the Bulgarian Olympic ice hockey team. Ilia’s son Stoyan (nicknamed Toni) was a long-time member and leading scorer of the national team as well and played in the Olympic Qualification the last time Bulgaria participated. It was for the 2010 Olympics and Bulgaria finished second in a three-team tie for first spot behind Spain and before Mexico and Turkey at the tournament in Ankara in October 2008.

Toni, who was born in 1967, had five points (2+3) in three games against Mexico (6-2 win), Turkey (8-0 win) and Spain (6-2 loss). Now he is the General Secretary of the Bulgarian Ice Hockey Federation and is busy with the organization of the qualification game with Georgia.

Odds-on favourite Bulgaria will face Georgia on Saturday evening and the winner of the game will play against Estonia, Mexico and Israel in Group K in Tallinn, 5-8 November. The winner of the two groups in Tallinn and Valdemoro, Spain, will advance to the next preliminary round played 11-14 February in Italy, Hungary and Japan. The Final Olympic Qualification will be played 1-4 September 2016 with groups in Belarus, Latvia and Norway.


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