By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

Iran didn’t officially participate in the ice hockey tournaments of the 2017 Asian Winter Games but collected first experiences in friendly games with countries participating in the men’s Division II tournament.

It was about one year ago when IIHF.com wrote about the interest of the vast country to start an ice hockey program with representatives reaching out during the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games about possibilities to join the International Ice Hockey Federation. Since then first steps were taken with the program such as bringing players of the national inline hockey team to the ice last summer in Asiago, Italy, after an inline hockey tournament.

At the Youth Olympics, Iran had two athletes – a male and a female skier. While snow sports have been practised for a long time in the country with mountain resorts, Iran wants to take steps to make ice sports more popular as three small-size ice rinks were opened in the last few years in the capital of Tehran, the second-biggest city of Mashhad and on the island of Kish.

“We’d really love to join the big ice hockey family. I hope we can become members and participate in ice hockey competitions in Asia. Iran is a huge country in Asia, we have a population of almost 80 million. Iran can be a really great destination for ice hockey. That’s why we want to work with the IIHF to have a vision for ice hockey in Iran,” Nasser Talebi, Chef de Mission of the Iranian team at the Youth Olympics, said one year ago and also mentioned the 12,000-seat multifunctional Azadi Indoor Stadium that was built for the 1974 Asian Games and could potentially be used for international ice hockey events.

While not everybody may think about ice hockey in Iran at first due to the hot summers, it can be said that some areas of Iran have cold winters too. Winters in Tehran tend to be slightly colder than in Hamburg in northern Germany and the winter temperatures in Mashhad resemble the ones of Stockholm. That’s also where one of the most famous hockey players of Iranian descent, the Ottawa Senators’ Swedish national team forward Mika Zibanejad, grew up.

“We have had skiing in Iran for 70 years so it’s time to also develop other winter sports. Iran is a huge country, we have cities that have -25°C now and others that have +25°C now. We can have summer and winter sports at the same time,” Talebi said. “We don’t have a championship yet but we have around 100 to 120 players, men and women, and it’s a new policy of Iran to improve winter sports, especially Olympic sports.”

The National Olympic Committee planned its international ice hockey debut at the 2017 Asian Winter Games that ended on Sunday, assembled players from Iran and recruited players with Iranian roots from abroad. That’s where the problems began. Despite being warned about the eligibility rules of the Olympic Council of Asia, which governs the Asian Winter Games, the Iranian delegation travelled to Sapporo with many players from abroad who have neither played nor lived in Iran and are citizens of two countries. The Iranians hoped to be granted an exception to compete in the Division II tournament but were treated by the same rules. In the end only eight players were eligible to participate – too few to play the tournament.

Luckily for the Iranians the ice hockey family got together and welcomed the remaining players with open arms. After discussions with the organizer in Sapporo, the scheduled games happened as friendly games and with some improvisation. The eight players were boosted by players from the other teams and the games were played without body-checking to make the start easy and do the best to avoid injuries for the new players and the other teams competing in the Division II event.

Like that the Iranian players had the chance to play with and against players from Macau, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkmenistan. It wasn’t the planned official debut yet but still a happy ending and an opportunity to get first experiences in ice hockey games for the players who usually rather put on inline skates. And hopefully it will be the start of something bigger once ice hockey grows in Iran.