ISTANBUL – It is the time of year when hockey players can be excused when found relaxing with their feet up. For Erol Kahraman however, summer means little respite as attention is switched from stopping pucks to stopping footballs.
On home ice in Izmit at the end of April this year, Kahraman capped off an impressive World Championship debut between the pipes as newcomers Turkey secured their place in next year's Division IIB after toppling neighbours Bulgaria 6-3 in a fine final day victory. While ecstatic teammates were able look ahead to celebrating a happy ending to the season, Kahraman's season had only reached midway as his services were in urgent need elsewhere.
A seven-day working week is hardly ever enough for the 30-year-old jetsetter. As a full-time goalie both in ice hockey and football, Kahraman has become as accustomed to airport terminals as stadiums and rinks while clocking up the air miles for both sports.
From his base in Famagusta, a town in Cyprus close to the Green Line that separates the Greek and Turkish communities on the island where Kahraman also plays his football, he sets out to travel back and forth across the Eastern Mediterranean and over the Anatolian plains to Turkey's capital Ankara where his ice hockey team is based. It is an extraordinary commitment and passion shown for both sports, one that can mean up to six flights a week when the football and ice hockey seasons collide.
"I practise football four to five times a week and afterwards I often fly to Ankara to practice with my hockey team before returning to Northern Cyprus the morning after for football practise," he explains to IIHF.com on how a hectic working week could look like. "During weekends, our football matches start at 2 pm and finishes by 4:30. If there is a hockey match that same evening I hop on a plane to fly to the mainland for that game, so it's really a seven-day-a-week thing for me, but I wouldn't have it any other way as I enjoy it and I am living my dream."
Guarding the net for the top ice hockey team in the country, Baskent Yildizlari from Ankara, while also tending the goal for Magusa Türk Gücü in the Northern Cyprus top division in football, clashes for his services are inevitable.
He did miss the start of Turkey's training camp ahead of this year's IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B as three football matches of vital importance kept his busy, but made up for it thanks to impressive displays between the pipes when he arrived. He also enjoys the full support and understanding from both clubs as well as the Turkish national team which enables him to combine playing the two sports.
But special gratitude goes to one man, responsible for setting the puck sliding for Kahraman to live his dream.
Leaving no stone unturned in his attempts to try and develop Turkish hockey on all levels, Tarik Göcmen, currently Technical Director at the Turkish Ice Hockey Federation, had thanks to extensive research tracked down Kahraman in the Canadian province of Ontario and now harboured hopes of wooing him across the Ocean to make a contribution in developing the sport in Turkey, a young hockey nation that became an IIHF member as recently as 1991.
During the mid-1970s, Kahraman's Turkish-Cypriot parents had been forced to flee Cyprus during a especially turbulent period for the Mediterranean island. Born in the safer confines of Great Britain, the love for football was passed on from father to son during his formative years in north London.
Ice hockey entered Kahraman's life at the age of ten year shortly after the family had departed Europe to build up a life in Canada. He tasted success with the Elmira SugarKings as a part of the team that won the Sutherland Cup, Ontario's Junior "B" Provincial Championship trophy. He continued to play football at a high level while simultaneously working as a semi-pro hockey goaltender and goalie coach in Canada when Göcmen's approach stirred an interest. Soon after Kahraman boarded a plane destined for his parent’s home island. That was in 2010 and he hasn't looked back since.
Players combining two sports has become a thing of the past. Sweden's Sven Tumba, an IIHF Hall of Famer won three World Champions with Sweden as well as nine Swedish national championships - including one as a footballer in 1959.
A short hop eastwards across the southern Gulf of Bothnia, Timo Nummelin was named Finland’s player of the year in football in 1968 and in hockey thirteen years later, while his compatriot and former NHLer blueliner Kari Eloranta, played nearly 140 times for the Finnish ice hockey national team, but won his two domestic championship winner medals as a rugged central defender in football with Kuusysi.
A more recent example is the even more versatile Kathrin Lehmann of Switzerland, who stands out as being a goalie in football and a forward in ice hockey who has played in Sweden, USA, Germany and represented her country in both sports.
"I never try to make either sport more important than the other because I respect myself, my teams, the owners and my team mates," says Kahraman when being asked to compare being a goalie in both sports.
"In fact there are a lot of similarities like covering angles, rebound controlling, focusing and most importantly, the pressure on goaltenders that you can go from a hero to zero very quickly, but I thrive under pressure and I like to think it makes me a better goaltender in both hockey and football."
Following Kahraman's arrival to his ancestral roots he didn't need to wait long to taste success. During his three seasons in Turkish hockey, he has won three national championships - two with Baskent and one with Izmir - and received as many awards as the league's best goaltender. Out on the football field, he is currently in his second season in goal at Magusa Türk Gücü, a club currently occupying a mid-table berth in the top league in northern Cyprus, a part of the island that declared independence in 1983 but which so far has only been formally recognized by Turkey.
But while football is the undisputed first love in terms of sport in this part of the world, hockey is making strides in Turkey with Kahraman playing a key part in it. Having worked as a goaltender coach for over a decade his entrance into Turkish hockey saw him cut his teeth in preparing kids both mentally and physically for a future in goaltending, and he is today also working as goalie coach for the Turkish national teams while also helping other teams in the domestic league with the development of their netminders.
Meanwhile out on the ice, his performances has considerable raised the bar for the progress of the national team. Ever since his his debut for Turkey at the 2011 Winter World University Games in Erzurum, he has been the country's undisputed top goaltender between the pipes, lived up to the meaning of his full name "brave hero" and impressed Eduard Hartmann, himself a former goalie who represented Slovakia at the Winter Olympics and World Championships and appointed as Turkey's head coach last season.
"Erol was clearly our best player last season and I think it is because of him we were able to stay in the Division IIB of the World Championship," Hartmann says. "He is working hard during practices, and is a leader out on the ice and in the locker room. He is big, flexible, fast, dynamic, and he is also well trained also thanks to him being a professional football goalie."
As Turkey is now trying to consolidate its position in the division, while building up the next generation of hockey players, Kahraman is keen to continue paying back for the time and money invested in him in what he sees as exciting times ahead for Turkish hockey.
"There is a bigger interest in hockey in Turkey than I expected and I really see us being able to go somewhere. Hockey has transformed in the two years since Orhan Duman became president of the Turkish federation, but in order for it to continue to improve the first step we need is more support from the government," he says.
"We also need more people with hockey knowledge who will teach on grassroots level and also to have more camps in Turkey and Europe. We have several good Turkish players here, but patience, money and good coaching is what is needed and I will be willing to help in every aspect."