By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

Andorra hasn’t been your usual place for international ice hockey tournaments. But at the 2017 Development Cup you don’t have your usual national teams either as Andorra, Ireland, Morocco and Portugal will play a four-team tournament between what one could call exotic ice hockey countries. 

The teams, and others that discussed a participation, come from countries that are not part of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program. In that program national teams are expected to have a background of competitive ice hockey at home to enable them to play competitive games in their World Championship division. The IIHF Statutes & Bylaws require minimum participation standards in terms of having a big enough pool of players domestically, a development program, a national championship of a certain size and having at least one permanent international-size ice rink in its territory to be able to play the ice hockey according to the official rules. 

One of the initiators is Aaron Guli, the President of the Irish Ice Hockey Association. 

“About two years ago I came up with the concept of doing something for non-competing IIHF countries. I contacted these countries and Morocco was one of the first to get back to me. At the 2016 IIHF Annual Congress in Moscow I met the other countries face to face and Aleix Manosas from Andorra got involved straight away. We were looking originally at a location in Germany and then Aleix said they had an Olympic-size rink and organized for us to use that location,” Guli said about how the vision became reality. 

“We spoke to some other countries but finances played a big part why they couldn’t come. But we have an interest from other countries like Greece, Armenia, Argentina and Brazil.” 

Other smaller European hockey countries with a smaller program that are currently not part of the World Championship program include Bosnia & Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Moldova. 

Andorra was the natural choice as a host since it’s the only of the four participating countries with an international-size ice rink, the 1,500-seat Palau de Gel with a 60-on-30-metre ice sheet located in Canillo in the north of the small country nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. 

In fact, the Palau de Gel (“Ice Palace” in Catalan) once hosted an IIHF event, the 1997 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship D-Pool. However, Andorra was not a participant and Spain the home team in the event won by Croatia. 

“We were talking with other non-full members of the IIHF at the Congress and the idea of such a tournament was born. I met a lot of hockey lovers and people who wanted to do new things. Two of them were Aaron Guli from Ireland and Adil El Farj from Morocco. In the beginning of 2017 the conversations between Morocco, Ireland and Andorra restarted. The Andorran Ice Sport Federation wants to develop ice hockey and I thought that this could be a good opportunity,” said Aleix Manosas, the President of the country’s only ice hockey club Andorra Hoquei Gel and Vice President of the Andorran Ice Sports Federation. 

“With the help of the federation, the ice rink management and the Town Hall, we had the agreement to host this international tournament for the first time. Andorra is a little but multicultural place. There are a lot of different communities, and the Portuguese are one of the biggest. Andorra has good relations with Portugal and we thought that could be nice to invite them too. Their answer was positive very soon so we were four teams. Once this process has begun, some other countries started to follow us and probably the next Development Cup edition is going to be formed by three or four more nations. 

“Andorra is very proud to host this first ever Development Cup and we are sure that it will help to make grow ice hockey in all the countries participating. For the first time, Andorra has a national team, and the local media has their eyes on us. This last weekend of September is going to be very important for the four countries and we will compete and, for sure, enjoy the Cup.” 

Like the hosts the other nations have small programs, but no full-size ice rink or even no rink at all in their country but hope to raise awareness and experience by participating in the tournament. And they hope to make this premiere an event played and organized annually between national ice hockey associations like other events in the calendar at higher levels such as the Euro Hockey Tour or the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge. 

“To really help kickstart our programs we need an event like this, something for our players, particularly our younger player. Being able via our website and social media to show our national team is playing at an international event gives a large amount of interest in the country and I think it will help our countries and sport authorities to take notice that we will take our sport,” said Guli, who will also put on his skates to represent Ireland. 

On Friday and Saturday the four teams will have a dense schedule with six round-robin games followed by the medal games on Sunday. Playing the event in fewer days than usual in international hockey will save the teams with limited funding some costs. 

According to Guli the teams will try “as best as we possibly can” to stick to IIHF eligibility rules when it comes to players with two citizenships but also allow few exceptions since some of the countries have a tough time assembling enough players. 

“For example I have a player born and raised in Lithuania [IIHF linesman Vytautas Lukosevicius] but he officially transferred to Ireland seven years ago and is married to an Irish woman and is in the process of getting the passport. He wouldn’t be eligible yet but we allow a few exceptions of that nature. There may be some foreign-born players at other teams too but once the countries have a rink there will be a stronger base for more players,” Guli explained. 

And who’s the favourite to win the tournament? The teams are cautious on that question. 

“Andorra has a good team and wants to win this Cup. It’s going to be hard, but not impossible. In a few days we will know the final scores,” said Manosas. 

“My personal feeling is that anyone can win. Nobody of us particularly knows the level of the other teams. I think we’ll have a very strong chance, I feel confident about our team but I’ve never seen any of the other teams play,” Guli added. 

The organizers will post live scores and delayed game videos on their Facebook page.