Armenia is still a small country in the eyes of the international sports community. Yes, it is strong in chess, weightlifting, and wrestling, did well in European competitions in those sports, and was represented at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The Armenian national football team is also doing well and looks to be on the right track to qualifying for the 2012 European Cup competition. Armenia’s sports reputation, it seems, is improving.
Then, there’s the Armenia national hockey team. Yes, Armenia has a national hockey team that plays on the international stage. Shocking, right?
A member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) since 1999, Armenia, who plays in Division III, the lowest division of international hockey, has a long way to go if they want to join teams like Sweden, Russia, and Canada in Division I and play in the Olympics.
Currently ranked 49th out of 49 teams, Armenia has had more than a few difficulties that has kept it from competing in games and tournaments. In 2003, the team wasn’t able to play in the D-III World Championship tournament, held in New Zealand, after failing to secure visas to enter the country. In the 2004 and 2005 D-III World Championship, the team finished last both times; it lost the 2005 game to team Mexico with an unimaginable score of 48-0. In 2006, Armenia won its first two games in team history by defeating Ireland and Luxembourg, raising the team’s confidence heading into 2007.
Yet, for unknown reasons, it once again missed out on the World Championship in Bosnia and Herzegovina, although it was registered to compete.
During the games in 2005-06, the IIHF, suspicious about the citizenship of Armenia’s players, conducted a thorough investigation. Armenia, it turned out, had submitted falsified documents about its Armenian American players, stating they had applied for or held Armenian citizenship. They didn’t, which meant Armenia was playing ineligible players. The team was immediately put on probation.
Having not played an official game since 2006, it was a bit shocking they were selected to host the 2010 D-III World Championships in Yerevan’s Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concert Complex.
“The ice rink at the Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concert Complex has enabled us to hold games in Armenia,” said Hayk Jaghatspanyan, the current president of the Armenian Ice Hockey Federation, in an interview just before the tournament.
To prepare, most of the players trained together—not in Armenia but in the United States. “Fourteen team members and I live and train in Los Angeles where I have at least three training sessions a week with a first-class coach. If we can get [in Armenia] appropriate ice hockey gear and coaches, we are ready to train in Armenia and develop this sport here,” said Manuk Balian, a 30-year-old veteran of the Armenian team, in an interview before the start of the World Championship.
In a warm-up game on April 12 in Yerevan, Armenia took on Georgia and beat them 22-1, giving the team a much-needed boost heading into the tournament.
Once the championship was underway, Armenia’s players showed their training had paid off by running through the competition, first beating South Africa, 9-2, then North Korea in a close match, 7-6, and then finishing their qualifying games on April 17, crushing Mongolia, 15-0.
Undefeated, the team found themselves playing North Korea—this time, for the gold medal and a promotion into Division II. It seemed Armenia was out to prove that it was better than a last-place team, and was going to quickly move up the international rankings.
Its fellow countrymen began to show an interest in the sport, although they still needed to learn the game. (Numerous stories came out of Armenia about spectators heading out of the arena after the second period because they didn’t know that, unlike football, hockey has three periods, instead of two halves.)
On the ice, during the gold medal game, Armenia played well, scoring two goals. North Korea, however, scored five goals and defeated Armenia by three goals to capture the gold medal and an automatic promotion.
Not even expected to win a game, Armenia finished with a silver medal. But the good feeling for the team and country quickly turned into sour grapes.
In the weeks following the tournament, the IIHF permanently suspended the team from all international play, said its games in the World Championship did not count, and stripped the team of its silver medals.
Armenia was suspended for the same reason it was put on probation in the first place: It had played with ineligible American Armenian players who neither possessed dual citizenship papers, nor had applied for dual citizenship. (The Armenian Federation had sent papers to the IIHF stating that they had.)
Perhaps the IIHF officials were tipped off after hearing the players talk to each other on the ice in perfect English.
A proud move up for another Armenian national team thus took a huge blow backwards, with no timeframe for when the IIHF will reinstate it.
For Armenian Americans to play for Armenia—legally—they must simply apply for dual-citizenship. (The rules were changed after the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, after Swedish player, Ulf Samuelsson, who played for the Swedish National team from 1984 to 2000, was ruled ineligible because he had applied for U.S. citizenship while still in possession of his Swedish passport. It was later found out by the IIHF that most of the international players participating at the 1998 Winter Olympics—from Sweden, Russia, Canada, and the Czech Republic—had either applied or obtained U.S. citizenship.)
A word of caution, however, for any American Armenian hockey player thinking of taking advantage of this new rule and playing for Armenia, once the team’s reinstated: Once a player plays for an international team, s/he cannot play for another national team, ever. So, if an American Armenian plays for Armenia, s/he cannot change his mind and then play for the U.S.
Armenia, with help, can create a strong program. They have the passion and will to succeed. They cannot, however, continue to play with Americans who do not possess the proper Armenian documents. And they cannot compete without monetary support, proper equipment, and a top-of-the line ice rink. Supporting a full ice hockey program on the international stage is expensive, with equipment costing $2,000-3,000 per player on the lowest scale, and the costs associated with maintaining and operating a hockey rink. The Federation is actively seeking sponsorship as we speak. To support the Armenian hockey team, visit their website, www.armenianhockey.com.