During the 2021-22 season of the IIHF International tournaments, 55 nations were able to participate in the championship or division tournaments. Despite that, 82 nations are members of the IIHF, which leaves 27 members unable to have a stable, yearly tournament to practice and remain interested in the sport.
There have been multiple solutions for that problem. The Asian Challenge Cup, the LATAM Cup, and for the third time, The Development Cup.
In May, six nations without a way to play in the main IIHF tournament will get a change to help develop and lead a path that will hopefully grow hockey in those areas. The six nations that are playing in this tournament are Ireland, Portugal, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Algeria, and Colombia. The latter three will play in the Development Cup for the first time.
The teams in The Development Cup are in the infancy of their development. Not only are they looking to win, but the tournament offers a chance to showcase the sport to the people of the nation, and also the government in hopes for funding.
“The event is to show governments and potential sponsors that hockey is played in this country,” said Co-founder Aaron Guli. “Here is team Portugal or Colombia traveling all the way from South America to Europe to play in an IIHF-sanctioned event.”
COVID-19 hit the world, and thus, hit a lot of the development for these countries in their quest to be represented in the main tournament. Algeria was one of the countries that needed to pick themselves up again after the pandemic.
“COVID happened. Just as we became members in 2019 and we were ready to fly, we were knocked down to square once again,” said Karim Kerbouche, President of Algeria Ice Hockey. “This tournament gives us the opportunity to show to the government that we are still serious about growing the sport here.”
To get into the main IIHF-sanctioned tournaments, a nation has to achieve a certain number of goals. Among the requirements they must meet are for the nation to have an Olympic-sized indoor ice rink, with another being they must have a league.
Portugal, Andorra and Algeria have an indoor ice rink in the country, but because the rinks don’t meet the qualifications for the IIHF, they are unable to move onto the main tournament. Portugal does have an ice rink in their country, but it’s located in Elvas, which is close to the Spanish border, and not to the population centres of the country.
“It’s one of the toughest parts of growing the sport,” said Portugal’s Head Coach, Jim Aldred. “Elvas has 23-thousand people, while capital Lisbon has over two million.”
The Development Cup isn’t only about development but a chance to represent the country. Liechtenstein has only played two international games before against Luxembourg. This tournament gives them the opportunity to for players interested in the country to represent their country.
“We have a few kids joining our team who mainly play in Switzerland,” said Silke Bernard, Co-President of Liechtenstein Ice Hockey. “Now they have the opportunity to represent the country that they hold as their homeland instead of having to represent another country.”
Liechtenstein is a small country in between Switzerland and Austria. Although the country doesn’t have an ice rink in its borders, they are still only a small drive away from an ice rink. “From where I live, it’s only a five-to-10-minute drive to get to a rink,” Bernard said.
Even though there is lots of opportunity off the ice with this tournament, and every country is rooting for each other to develop the sport, it’s still a competition. A new country will be named the winner of the Development Cup, with the first two winners, Morocco and North Macedonia, not taking part in the competition.
Andorra and Liechtenstein are both looking for their first international wins at the tournament. “We are looking for our first win,” said Gerard Avila Fitzsimons, Andorra’s top scorer. “We almost won against Ireland in the last tournament, but at the end, Ireland fought back. We still remember that loss and want to use it as motivation to get our first win.”
With it being the third Development Cup, Andorra, Ireland, and Portugal are the only countries to have been in each of the three competitions. “There is a little rivalry,” Guli explained. “But it’s a rivalry where we can go get drinks after the game and you win some bragging rights.”
With the newcomers, there is also history about to be set in this upcoming tournament. With Algeria and Colombia among the country’s partaking this time around, it will mark the first time that a South American team will face an African team in an official match. It will also be the first time a South American team will face a European team, as Portugal will be the first European team Colombia will face.
Despite the lack of resources and history for the sport, the six nations that will compete in Fussen will be the trailblazers for their nation’s future. In a world that has given them more “can’t” than “can”, this tournament gives them the opportunity to move forward, and for the “can’t” to only be a bad suggestion.