Life in exile
Life in exile
Steaua in third season away from home
Having experienced a roller-coaster ride following the closure of their home rink in 2012, they have since decamped across the mountains to Transylvania. While results have picked up of late, their impending return to Romania's capital still hangs up in the air.
In a bygone era when Romania’s national championship got down to the wire, playing against Steaua in the cauldron of Bucharest's ice arena Mihai Flamaropol was not for the faint-hearted. Backed ferociously by its passionate fans, the ice hockey section of the multi-sports army club enjoyed years of tremendous success rolling on to win 40 league championships and 33 domestic cup trophies.
This stands in stark contrast to the Steaua of today who play their home matches in the tranquil settings of Carta, a Transylvanian village that is home to 2,500 inhabitants.
A magnificent view of a fortified Roman-Catholic church built upon a rolling green hill is visible from the windows at the far end of the arena, and only a ripple of applause by a group of the club’s youth team players and family greet the team as they step out on the ice.
It is here, a five-hour drive north of Romania’s capital, where Steaua found their refuge which now has entered its third season.
"For us the most important thing has been to stay alive," said Cristian Cirlan, President of Steaua’s ice hockey section, which is a far cry from when he first entered hockey in 2008 wowing to bring back the glory days to Steaua.
Cirlan was then instrumental in wooing the first NHLer, Cam Severson, to sign for a club which was re-branded as Steaua Rangers and also back then competed in the Hungarian-Romanian MOL Liga. But the economic recession put a spanner in the works and lack of investment for hockey in the capital region saw the lights finally go out of Bucharest’s run-down ice rink Mihai Flamaropol for good.
Steaua played their last competitive match there in March 2012 and since then Bucharest, home of over two million, has been left without an ice rink.
Refusing to let their hockey section fall into the grave, Steaua found salvation in the village of Carta where a newly built indoor rink offered ice time on favourable terms. The drawback was its location, a bumpy drive north and placed right in-between the two traditional league rivals in Gheorgheni and Miercurea Ciuc.
Speaking two-and-half years after the process of temporary relocating an entire professional team, Cirlan and the Steaua roster has since adapted to its new surroundings and the benefits it brings.
"Everything here is about hockey,” Cirlan said. "It takes five minutes for the players to get from the ice rink to their beds, and the big advantage is that they look like and act as a team."
With permanent accommodation provided by Steaua and with little else to do than focusing on your ice hockey, the players are given a couple of days off every two or three weeks when the schedule permits. While some players get behind their wheels to set out to family in far-flung Ukraine or Bucharest, Steaua’s most illustrious player can now hop on his bicycle to get from practice to his home in Balan, 17 kilometers up the road.
"I never expected to play so close to my home. My dream as a kid was to play for Steaua, but to be able to play this close to home has been a bonus, like a pay-back," said Ioan Timaru, who is in his 24th season as a senior professional at Steaua.
Club legends don't come bigger than Timaru. As humble off the ice as he is competitive on it, the 41-year-old has experienced a long and esteemed career laden with trophies and accolades including that of being decorated as Captain of the Romanian army for his services at the Military Sports Club Steaua Bucharest.
Timaru, who in April this year scored 2+4 in five games in Romania's second line en route to the gold medal at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A acknowledges that his playing career is in its twilight years. But thanks to his esteemed reputation and Steaua’s current location close to his home, Timaru's know-how is set to continue to come to good use even beyond his playing days.
With building blocks in place for the opening of the hockey and development center Steaua Balan, Timaru's role will be instrumental in introducing a new generation of players from between the ages 4-8 to the delights of the game in his home town of Balan, a former mining town which has fallen on hard times of late.
“Timaru is a proof that sport can change your life. He has represented Steaua and Romania, travelled the world and it shows you that you can make it, even from a small village like Balan,” said Cirlan about the project where both the outdoor rink in Balan and the facility in Carta will be utilized and where Steaua players, such as Andras Kostandi and goaltender Adrian Catrinoi both hailing and living in the region also is set to play a part in.
With Steaua's new programs set to take off in a region with unforgiving winters and a proud tradition for hockey, it arrives at a time when participating numbers in the area are falling and where mass exodus of players of all ages for long has been a cause for concern. One recent example from this summer saw 16 under-18 players plus their coach depart from nearby Miercurea Ciuc to Gyor in Hungary where major investments in ice hockey make a prospering career at their neighbours’ look like a more viable prospect.
But while many burgeoning players may have departed, the senior level of the Romanian championship is currently enjoying a far more competitive edge to it with top players more evenly spread out amongst the teams. According to Steaua’s President Cirlan five teams in the national championship today can all beat each other, with two of them being HSC Csikszereda from Miercurea Ciuc and Progym Gheorgheni which temporarily have become local as well as historical rivals to Steaua, which is impacting on everyday village life for Steaua in Carta.
“People used to say hello in the beginning and it was like normal life and at one point. I would even say that they sympathized with us as we got beaten by 10-1 or 7-2 and our only goal was to keep existing,” said Cirlan.
“But when we started to be a solid team again and beat teams in Miercurea Ciuc and Gheorgheni, they changed their behaviour and all of a sudden it was not as nice as before. So us winning is a problem,” said Cirlan, who last year saw Steaua return to form before losing in the Romanian championship finals against Dunarea Galati.
But while Steaua is stirring up feelings in Transylvania, running their operations and playing from Carta is only a temporary solution. Cirlan himself clocks up 14-16 hours a day trying to juggle work as President of the hockey section with a position as vice-president of marketing and communication of the Steaua sports club, which includes 27 different sports.
While there is a contract is in place of the project for a new 3,000-seat arena to be built on the site of Steaua’s former home in Bucharest, its completion date for October 2016 is becoming more unlikely as each day passes with demolition work still to get underway.
On a more positive note is the training rink constructed near Bucharest’s Otopeni airport set to be completed this year, meaning that club’s junior sections from U10-U20 will have a place to practise in closer to home.
With Steaua pushing on for the proposed deadlines to be met, Cirlan is eager to start moving ahead with plans on future projects between Steaua's ice hockey section and the International military sports council as well as cooperation on all levels with clubs across the Balkan region, while also once again get back to winning ways and retain the national championship title they last won in 2006.
"Step by step we are building with one eye to the future. We are adding younger guys from our junior teams and giving them shifts on ice and try to develop them," said Cirlan.
"The supporters miss Steaua, but they miss that winning Steaua,” said Cirlan. “It is very important for us to have a winning team when we go back to Bucharest and it would be very nice to once again win a championship in front of our fans."
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