By George Da Silva – National Teams of Ice Hockey
Greek Ice Hockey has been suspend since 2014 we chatted with team Captain of the Greek national team Dimitris Kalyvas who is on a mission to get Greece back on the world stage.
Can you tell our audience little bit about yourself?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] Well, I was born in Montreal, Canada and moved to Greece at a very young age. I started playing hockey in Montreal, as most kids did back in the 70s, and fell in love with the sport. Moving to Greece was a lot easier when I found out that ice hockey is being played there. I started playing hockey in Greece from the minute the plane landed in 1989 and haven’t stopped since. As for the National Team, I was a member of the first Junior National Team that was formed in 1989. In the Men’s Team, I become captain from 1998 and remained until the last National Team in 2013. I’ve participated in 8 IIHF World Championships and I am the all-time top scorer of the National Team.
How did ice hockey get started in Greece?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] Ice Hockey started in Greece in 1984 by players that returned to Greece from abroad. There was a small ice rink in Athens. No boards, no Zamboni. But, it was ice hockey! At the beginning, it was just games being played amongst friends, but very soon things started to organize. Team were formed, a Federation was created (1987), and the first Junior National Team participated in the IIHF World Championships in Yugoslavia in 1989.
Greece played at the IIHF World Championships from 1992 – 1999 and from 2008 -2013, what happen between 1999 and 2008?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] In 1999 our last ice rink closed down and the IIHF did not allow us to participate anymore. After this decisions, players of the National Team started trips to the Czech Republic to take part in various tournaments. This lasted several years. In 2006 I went to the IIHF Annual Congress in Riga, Latvia as a delegate of the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation. There I heard a story about Mongolia hockey. A member of the IIHF council told us a story about how a team without a rink struggles to keep their sport alive. Mongolia was taking part in the World Championships at the time. I told myself: “What about a team in Greece doing the same?” When I returned to Athens, I wrote a long email to the IIHF council explaining the situation. I sent photos and game stats and asked the IIHF to re-evaluate our situation. I tried to show them that we had a competitive team and that we were able to compete at the Div.III level. The Greek Federation at the time was not agreeing with my actions. I don’t know why, but I honestly didn’t care at the time since my mission was to get the Greek National Team back in the Worlds. Many people don’t know these details. Actually, I am sure that very few know what I was going through at the time. I continued the emails, the calls and the face-to-face meetings with IIHF officials about the Greek Ice Hockey situation. My resiliency paid off since the IIHF decided to send 2 IIHF delegates to Athens in the summer of 2007 to evaluate our situation. As I said above, our Federation did not agree with my actions and when the IIHF announced that it will send 2 delegates, our president did not tell me when they will be getting to Greece since he basically didn’t want me there. I went anyways. I had a long and great talk with the IIHF delegates. I showed them the progress of Greek Ice Hockey and also explained our struggles and obstacles. After their visit, the IIHF decided in September 2007, at the Semi-Annual Congress in Vancouver (which again I was a delegate), to allow the Greek National Team to participate in the 2008 Qualifications of the World Championships that took place in Bosnia. 2 years later we won a Silver medal. Friends that know the story tell me that I saved Greek Hockey. Who knows. Maybe I did. But I know that if a team didn’t exist back then, I would of never sent the initial email. So I see it as a team effort and a team victory.
Why did the IIHF suspend Greece after 2013 World Championships?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] The sole reason is the lack of an Olympic size rink. They decided to implement the strict rule and whoever did not have an Olympic size rink got suspended. We got suspended, together with Ireland and Mongolia. What upsets me is that they use this as their no.1 rule. Some countries now are lucky to have rinks, but they have nothing else. No leagues, no development. I had sent a letter to the IIHF explaining that our non-participation is killing the sport and gave them alternatives for the rule. You can read it below:
Greece has 3 rinks but no Olympic size, but unfortunately this is not enough for the IIHF.
Why hasn’t the Hellenic Ice Sports Federation fully supported your efforts to get Greek ice hockey back on the Map?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] I can write a book about this. Before I reply, I want to say that the Federation members have now changed. They are 100% fully committed to helping Greek Ice Hockey. Unfortunately though, 25 years of mismanagement is very hard to fix in a short time. Many people don’t understand this though. The former president passed away (who was president for 25 years) and everyone wanted improvement in just a few months. But like I said, the new management is fully committed and doing everything possible to help, with the little they have. (Government funding has completely stopped for Greek Ice Hockey in the past years, so everything needs to be from private funding or player registration).
Now, why the former president didn’t help? I don’t know why for sure, but if I need to reply, I believe it’s because he was getting fully funded by the government for doing the bare minimum, therefore he knew that by growing the sport, expenses will also grow but visibility of the sport would grow as well. Visibility would bring new people to the sport, new sponsors, new funding. This is something he didn’t really want. He had all the funding he needed from the Greek government. He was basically the King and didn’t want to give his crown to anyone else. Being low profile would definitely guarantee him being the King forever. Of course, he passed away recently, therefore I don’t want to elaborate further and he is not here to counter what I am saying. But if I sit down and think about it, I truly believe this is the reason.
As I said above though, everything has changed now, therefore I am confident that if the Greek National Team is back in the Worlds, it will be bigger than before.
How much as the IIHF suspension hurt the development of Ice hockey?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] It’s killing the sport. The decline in player registration is incredible. (you can see the graph below) I will be updating it soon with new figures). What I explained to the IIHF is that in developed countries (Canada, USA, Russia etc) the National Team is on the top of the pyramid when it comes to the development of the sport, but in Greece (and smaller countries) the pyramid is upside down – The National Team is the foundation that keeps everything else in place. Similar to any structure, if the foundation is removed, then everything above it will collapse. Without a National Team the government does not fund the sports, sponsors don’t want to give their money to local teams but rather give them to the National Team. This is what I tried to explain to the IIHF.
Has there been any indication from IIHF officials about lifting the suspension on Greece?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] No. I got some momentum after my letter, but it quickly died down. I believe that without an Olympic size rink they will not lift the suspension.
Have you or anyone from Greece reached out to NHL players like Chris Chelios to help your cause?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] Yes, I have. Several times, but it seems that everyone is busy doing other things at the moment. All the NHL-Greeks know about us and know about our cause. Hopefully one day someone will decide to take action and help.
What is Greek ice hockey doing now to try to keep Ice hockey alive in the county?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] Friendly games, tournaments, event. Etc. Nothing fancy but something is better than nothing. We continue to create awareness about the situation with Greek Ice Hockey with the hope that someone will help us. We’ll see.
You just had 3 on 3 Greek Cup tournament how did that go?
It actually went very well and we will have our second one very soon. I am working on a surprise (don’t want to announce anything before it’s final), but we might have surprise visits in our next one!
1st Annual 3 on 3 Greek Cup
There was an international tournament played in Ankara, Turkey last month with Georgia and Bosnia are there any future plans to play in these type of events?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] If we get invited then we might definitely attend, but I believe that these kind of tournament are only for countries participating in the Worlds. It’s an IIHF tournament and I doubt that a suspended team will ever be invited. I hope I’m wrong and we soon see an invitation.
How many years was the Greek Ice Hockey League in operation and do you see it coming back in the future?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] It was on and off. A few years in the early 90s, and then again between 2008 and 2013. It coincides with the National Team participation I guess. When everyone knows that after the Greek League there will be a National Team, everyone wants to help. Even the ones that don’t play on the National Team. Having a league was a pre-requisite for the Worlds, therefore we had our league in order to be able to play in the Worlds. And it was a big league too. In 2013 we had 11 Men’s teams participating. (http://hisf.gr/icehockey/?page_id=200) But after the National Team was suspended, this folded as well. Today, I think there are 3 Men’s team’s actually still playing, and those barely.
If the National Team does not compete again, I doubt another Greek League will start again. This is what I told the IIHF. In Greece, the National Team is the foundation that keeps everything else in place. Without a National Team the government does not fund the sport nor do sponsors want to give their money to local teams, therefore everything needs to be covered by the players. Well, as Greece is facing a severe economic crisis, the player rather fund other things, or just come out once a week and play fun hockey with friends. It’s only logical I guess. I hope this changes soon though because I truly believe that Greece can create a great Pro League for all the Greeks around the World. Especially the Greek North American kids that don’t make the NHL. Instead of stopping or going to Europe and playing as foreigners, they can easily come to Greece, play pro hockey for a few years, get their Greek passports and then go play as Europeans in any league. This way, they will help raise the caliber in Greece but also attract sponsors and funding. This has been my dream all along, but without an Olympic rink this cannot be a reality. Back in 1990 we were playing in the same division with Italy, but the Italians did exactly what I described above. Today, Italy participates in the Olympics while we play hockey on our XBOXs. All we need is one Olympic rink and I am confident that Greece will participate in the Olympics one day. Hey, we have no rinks (or smaller rinks) and Greek Ice Hockey still exists. We even won a medal with no ice rink at the time. Imagine what we can do if we had the facilities and the funding. I know it’s a far-fetched dream, but sometimes dreams do come true.
You have played your entire career in Greece for club team Iptameni Athens, why did’nt you take your talents aboard?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] I think timing was not on my side. I had an offer once to play semi-pro in Belgium but it was during my University studies, so I declined the offer. Afterwards, hockey had momentum in Greece again and I didn’t want to leave this behind. I guess deep down inside I wanted Greek Ice Hockey to succeed more than my international career, so I didn’t really pursue this.
What have been some of the best games in your career and in Greek ice hockey?
[Dimitris Kalyvas] The first was in 2008 in Bosnia when we qualified for the World Championship. It was such a great feeling knowing that Greek hockey was back in the Worlds after almost 10 years. I remember we were all crying like babies afterwards as just a few months before we didn’t even know that Greek hockey had a future. September 2007 we were told that we can compete in the qualifications that were held February 2008. So basically 5 months to prepare for the biggest qualifications in Greek ice hockey history! These qualifications changed everything since an ice rink opened only after we qualified, and for this reason only. The government basically said: “If you qualify, we will invest in the rink”. If the team would not have qualified, everything that came after would not have existed today. From the Silver medal, to the kid playing hockey in Greece today. The 2008 qualification changed everything in Greek Ice Hockey.
The greatest though was in 2010 when we won the Silver medal. It was like a huge load was lifted off my shoulders personally. Like all the sacrifices and efforts finally paid off. Like I said above, many people don’t know everything that I have gone through all these years trying to get Greece back in the Worlds. I am a kind of person that doesn’t like to advertise actions as I believe that the results are enough for people to understand that the work has been put in. I worked hard to get Greece back in the Worlds and people that were close to me know my efforts, the obstacles that I had to surpass, the difficulties I went through, the enemies I made and the friends I lost. It was a very tough for me, but I would do it all over again knowing that for 6 years Greece was taking part in the World Championship, won a Silver medal and came very close in advancing to Division 2. It was all worth it.
Nothing of course would have happened if the team was not united as we were. Like brothers. I am certain that if the unity was not there, the team would have never accomplished what it did. I am so proud to be part of this team, and hopefully soon we can live great moment with the National Team again.