About Time: a Stanley Cup for Dainius Zubrus

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After 19-seasons in the NHL, San Jose’s Dainius Zubrus truly deserves to have his name on the Stanley Cup (Photo Credit: AP Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez).

With the Los Angeles King now safely eliminated by the hands of the San Jose Sharks, and with no obviously imminent playoff disaster in sight, I feel that I can safely say who I am personally rooting for in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs – veteran Dainius Zubrus of the Sharks. I am a hockey traditionalist, and with less and less ties to the NHL’s game of the 1990s and prior, I always get a pang in my heart for seeing long time veterans getting their name on the Stanley Cup for the first time. Last year for me it was Chicago’s Kimmo Timonen. This year, it has got to be Zubrus.

It is almost difficult to fathom that the 37-year old Lithuanian has been a regular in the NHL since the 1996-97 season. How time does fly. Zubrus actually was a part of a run to the Stanley Cup Finals as an NHL rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers, who would fall in four games straight to the Detroit Red Wings. In the 1997 Finals, the 18-year old Zubrus would go pointless in the series, and would finish a minus-4.

I first became enamored with Dainius Zubrus when he briefly joined my hometown Buffalo Sabres, coming at the trade deadline during the 2006-07 season in exchange for seldom used Jiri Novotny and a 1st-round draft choice. Though I had seen Zubrus play many times prior, even in person from time to time, I had never paid him much mind until he wore Buffalo’s blue and gold. I could then see firsthand what he brought to his hockey club from night to night. Zubrus is a very large man, standing at 6-feet 5-inches and weighing 225-pounds. He is incredibly strong along the boards and in the corners. Zubrus ended up playing 19-regular season games with Buffalo that year, recording 4-goals and 4-assists to add to his point totals from earlier in the season with the Washington Capitals who had traded him to the Sabres; he finished the year with a very solid 24-goals and 36-assists for 60-points across 79-total games between Washington and Buffalo.

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Dainius Zubrus swatting for a loose puck against Vancouver. (Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/GettyImages).

But where I was most amazed with Zubrus that season was how fierce he played during the Sabres’ playoff run that saw them make it all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals for the second year in a row. In 15-playoff games that season, Zubrus seemed to hit everything that moved, constantly throwing his imposing frame at the opposition, especially when fighting for the puck around the net. Despite knowing that Zubrus had immense size, I never had realized previously that he was the furthest thing from being a soft player. By no means did he fit the European stereotype that I immensely hate and am often infuriated by its implications. Zubrus is a prime example of how false that stereotype is. While he did not score a goal during Buffalo’s playoff run, he did put up 8-helpers for his team that postseason; third most on the Sabres behind Danny Briere and Tim Connolly. But he also played inspired, devil-may-care hockey, and that seemed to make an enormous difference for Buffalo’s push throughout the playoffs. I had greatly hoped that Buffalo would recognize how much of a positive difference having Zubrus on their roster would be and that they would decide to keep him in the offseason, but it was not to be. Dainius would end up signing with the New Jersey Devils that July, and would remain with them for 8-years.

Fifteen years after his rookie run, Zubrus would have a second shot at winning Lord Stanley’s Cup, this time with New Jersey. The 2011-12 Devils were led by the explosive firepower of sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as veterans Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, David Clarkson, Petr Sykora and Zubrus, all of whom hit double-digits in goals. 33-years old at the time, Dainius Zubrus appeared in all 82-regular season games that season for the Devils (17-goals, 27-assists, 44-points) and all 24-playoff games as well (3-goals, 7-assists, 10-points). Despite the strong push from New Jersey’s offense and their ageless goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, the Devils would lose in the Cup Finals to the Los Angeles Kings, falling 4-games to 2. In the 6-game Finals series, Zubrus would finish with 1-assist and as a minus-1. In 15-years, he would fall significantly short in both Stanley Cup Finals appearances.

After the 2014-15 season, his last in New Jersey, I had feared that Dainius Zubrus’ career was over. In July 2015, the Devils placed Zubrus on waivers, with the intent of terminating his contract. Then, after being invited to a late-October tryout with the St. Louis Blues, he would fail to earn himself a contract after the Blues decided to sign another veteran instead, Martin Havlat. Fortunately though, San Jose Sharks’ General Manager Doug Wilson, who is well-known to be a willing participant in giving veteran players the opportunity to extend their careers (i.e. Sandis Ozolinsh, Claude Lemieux), decided to offer Zubrus a tryout of his own on November 16th, 2015,and then signing him to contract a mere 8-days later.

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After being released of opportunities to play with New Jersey and St. Louis since this past summer, an opportunity to win the Cup with San Jose is maybe Zubrus’ final chance to do so (Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports).

In 50-games this current 2015-16 season with the Sharks, Zubrus has recorded 3-goals and 4-assists; the lowest point total of his 19 NHL seasons, although he would finish the season as a plus-4. And while he was also a healthy scratch for the five games of the Sharks’ opening round defeat over the Kings, I feel content in knowing that Zubrus played enough games during the regular season to qualify for having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup should the San Jose Sharks finally get the monkey off their back and win it all for the very first time.

And that’s what I want. For I believe that if a player like Dainius Zubrus devotes 19-years to playing in the greatest hockey league in the world (it would have been 20-years if it were not for the lockout), then he deserves to finally have him name placed on the Stanley Cup. It would be a storybook ending, both for Zubrus and for the Sharks. San Jose has three players – Zubrus, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau – who having been playing in the NHL since the 1990s. I suppose that I could have even highlighted Marleau or Thornton instead of Zubrus, but Marleau and Thornton have also won Olympic gold medals and neither really had to worry about not being on an NHL roster this season. Zubrus on the other hand was close to going three strikes and out since the summer after failing to gain a spot with either New Jersey or St. Louis previously. He instead had demonstrate his workhorse capabilities once more, despite having 37-year old legs, in order to garner a spot on the Sharks roster. And now, he has earned himself one more, possibly final, opportunity to win the Cup. So as these 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs continue, and with the first round underneath their belts, I finally feel comfortable announcing that I want the Sharks to win it all. For San Jose. For Marleau and Thornton. And for Dainius Zubrus.

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“Adversity builds character”: Robert Cimetta, former Boston Bruin/Toronto Maple Leaf

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First round draft choice Robert Cimetta was just 18-years old when he debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1989. (Photo credit: National Hockey League).

A first round draft choice in the National Hockey League is an extremely rare title that belongs to only a select few. Of the billions of people who exist in the world, there are only a mere 1,172 individuals since the inception of the draft in 1963 that can lay claim to being a first rounder. One of them is former Boston Bruins’ and Toronto Maple Leafs’ player, Robert Cimetta. Selected 18th overall in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins, Cimetta experienced the fortune and the excitement of being drafted by an “Original Six” NHL team.

“It was definitely a dream come true”, Cimetta tells me. “An Original Six team… the history surrounding it… but it was just the beginning”. The actual beginning though for him was an entire 12-years earlier. Born in Toronto, Ontario on February 15th, 1970, Robert Cimetta started playing organized hockey at the tender age of six. “Growing up I lived a block away from the indoor and outdoor rink. I learned from the older kids that kept knocking me over” <laughs>. Little did he realize at the time that as his career progressed he would play his major junior hockey as well as a portion of his professional career in his hometown too.

Hailing from Toronto, Cimetta was definitely a Maple Leafs fan as a youngster, but his true hockey heroes with whom he would find inspiration were the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. Starting from the age of fourteen until he was already into his own second professional season, his idolized Oilers would win five Stanley Cup championships; the ironic part being that Edmonton defeated Cimetta’s Bruin teammates in the Cup Finals for their fifth championship during the 1989-90 season, though Cimetta himself would not see any playoff action. A handful of his Edmonton heroes, like Glenn Anderson, Andy Moog, Ken Linseman, Mike Krushelnyski, Dave Hannan, and Grant Fuhr, would all eventually become teammates of his as his NHL career went along.

Drafted into the Ontario Hockey League by his hometown Toronto Marlboros, Cimetta would have a remarkable major junior career. “I was drafted by Toronto. I debated whether I should wait to receive a scholarship to play at a college or university, but Harold Ballard (former Chief Executive of the Marlboros and former owner of the Maple Leafs) offered me a full ride to any Canadian university if I signed, so I committed to playing major junior with the Marlboros”. Cimetta would have three very productive seasons offensively with the Marlboros, increasing his point totals each year. Despite being limited to 50 out of 66 games, his third and final season was his most productive; Robert not only led Toronto in team scoring with 102-total points, but his 55-goals led the entire OHL. Arguably, it was this particular season that promoted Cimetta to being a heralded first round draft prospect consideration for any number of NHL teams, as well as a nod to the 1989 World Junior Championships for Team Canada.

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Robert Cimetta was a member of Team Canada’s 1989 World Junior hockey team in Anchorage, Alaska and led the team in scoring. (Photo Credit: Hockey Canada).

The 1989 tournament was held in Anchorage, Alaska, and it would be dominated by the Soviet Union and their incomparable top line of Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, and Sergei Fedorov; widely considered by many to be the top forward line in the history of the World Juniors. Though Canada would finish fourth place in the standings and fail to medal, Cimetta was by no means a slouch in his contributions. While Americans Jeremy Roenick and Mike Modano were the leaders in tournament scoring with 16 and 15-points respectively, Robert Cimetta would lead the Canadians in team scoring, on a roster that included many longtime NHL players like Andrew Cassels, Eric Desjardins, Rod Brind’Amour, Sheldon Kennedy, and Mike Ricci, among others. In 7-games, Cimetta would score 7-goals and 4-assists; the 7-goals being three ahead of Fedorov, tied with Mogilny, and one shy Bure’s total for the tournament.

“I think around the age of fifteen you realize that the jump from major junior to the NHL is the next natural and attainable goal”, Cimetta surmises regarding his success during his teenage years. Being selected by an NHL team as historic as the Boston Bruins would in many ways be everything a hockey-crazed young man could have dreamed of, and it would not take him very long to find the opportunity to play for the organization. With the 1989 World Juniors wrapping up January 8th, Cimetta would play his first NHL game just weeks later on January 21st in a 6-5 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the Boston Garden. Beginning with the game against Buffalo, there would be a string of 5-games at the end of January where he would suit up for the Bruins, including a home-and-home series against Buffalo starting with that first game. Through those first five games, Cimetta would go pointless and was a minus-5; a bit of a rough start.

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While in Boston, Robert Cimetta further learned the game from veterans like Hall of Fame great, Ray Bourque.

It can be exceptionally trying for an eighteen-year old to not find immediate success in a new environment, especially after having been so highly productive prior to becoming a professional. Growing pains of sorts. Fortunately though for Robert Cimetta, there would be a strong veteran presence on the Bruins’ roster to help see him along, particularly the team’s captain. “Ray Bourque. Just a great leader, and he led by example”, Cimetta recalled of the superstar Hall of Famer and Boston’s longest tenured player at the time. Having gotten through perhaps the toughest portion of the big jump to the NHL, it would be over 2-months later during a second run with the team that Cimetta would record his first two points in the league; a pair of goals that he netted on April Fools’ Day during a 5 -4 victory over the Quebec Nordiques. Cimetta would finish out the year with one more regular season game to bring his total to 7-games for his first season. He would also make a playoff appearance during Game-One of a 1st-round Adams’ Division battle between the Bruins and the Sabres that year; Cimetta would record 15-penalty minutes in the lone playoff game of his NHL career.

Cimetta’s time with the Bruins would be relatively short-lived. The following 1989-90 season would be his first full season in Boston and it would be his final one. Though he would play a handful of games with the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate the Maine Marines at the tail-end of the season, Cimetta would spend the bulk of the year with the parent club Bruins from October through March. He would play 47-games for the “B’s”, registering 8-goals and 9-assists for 17-points. And then that would be it. The chapter on Cimetta’s career as a Boston Bruin would come to a close.

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Cimetta playing for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Fall of 1990 would see the Bruins trade the esteemed first-rounder to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for seldom used defender, Steve Bancroft, who would not even appear in an NHL game for Boston. The trip back home would be a bit of a comfort for Cimetta, and he would split his playing time fairly evenly between the Maple Leaf’s and their AHL affiliates. “Toronto was a good fit at the time for a trade”, he recalls. “They knew me pretty well from my time in junior. And playing in Maple Leaf Gardens itself was just a very special place”. While Cimetta would begin the 1990-91 season with Toronto’s Newmarket Saints of the AHL, he would eventually be called up to the Leafs in late-January and be able to contribute a pair of goals and 4-assists in 25-games. The following season was relatively the same but in reverse; he would begin the 1991-92 season with the Leafs, scoring 4-goals and 3-assists in 24-games, but would be sent down to Toronto’s new AHL affiliate, the St. John’s Maple Leafs in late-January. Cimetta’s final NHL game would come January 25th, 1992 during a 6-4 Toronto win over the Philadelphia Flyers; he would finish the game as a plus-2.

Robert Cimetta’s time in the NHL was unfortunately brief. I say “unfortunate”, because I believe that if he ended up with more opportunity to play with either the Bruins or Leafs, or even another club, he would have eventually made his mark in the league. Even Cimetta recognizes the challenges that he faced in order to make it in the greatest hockey league in the world. “I just could not stay healthy, unfortunately. I was feeling a lot of confidence as a player building up, but there were just too many injury setbacks”.  He would play two more seasons of professional hockey in North America, before making a dramatic change in his career. More importantly, he would also find his scoring touch once more. The 1992-93 season would see Cimetta play 76-games for the Saint John’s Maple Leafs, finishing second overall in team scoring with 28-goals and 57-assists for 85-points. The following campaign, 1993-94, he would move onto the IHL (International Hockey League), where he finished first overall in team scoring for the Indianapolis Ice with 26-goals and 54-assists for 80-points.

Despite the success both in the AHL and the IHL, Cimetta would opt to play overseas to finish out his professional career. “Playing in Germany evolved during the lockout year (1994-95 season)”, he tells me. “I did really well over there, and I was given a very lucrative deal that was relative to being a fringe NHL player at the time”. Cimetta would be a solid player in seasons with both the Mannheim Eagles and the Berlin Capitals of the German Elite League. “There were great life experiences and we won a few championships while I was over there”, speaking of the back-to-back championships that Mannheim won while Cimetta was on the team during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Thoroughly enjoying his time playing in Germany, it would not last forever. After those seven years Cimetta would officially retire. “I had a few meniscus tears, and at the age of 30 I had to stop”.

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Unfortunately, injuries would take their toll on Cimetta’s hockey career. (Photo credit: Tony Bock).

Looking back on his career, the game taught Robert Cimetta some key concepts. “Hard work, drive, and dealing with adversity are what build character and yield success”, which is very well stated to me by a man who accomplished much at a young age, and at the highest of levels – professionally and internationally, even. Cimetta qualifies his statement though by adding, “but we need some luck in there too”. While I agree with him that we do need luck, I think Cimetta’s achievements were more so accomplished by his own hard work and determination. When I look upon his career, I feel that what Robert accomplished at the 1989 World Junior Championships is what is most remarkable. He carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders at that tournament and did so quite wonderfully. After all, it is “Canada’s game”, and expectations were very high. But to see that his production was on par with Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup champions like Fedorov, Bure, Mogilny, Roenick and Modano, I cannot help but think that if he only had more of the luck he had mentioned that his name in hockey may have reached the same level as theirs, and that he could have produced similar numbers and results across a storied NHL career of his own. But alas.

There have only been those 1,172 first-round draft choices in NHL history. Robert Cimetta is forever one of them. And that is not because of “luck”. Instead, that is because of Cimetta’s “hard work, drive, and his having dealt with adversity”. Cimetta is a man with character.

 

“Until the very end”: Refika Yilmaz, Team Turkey

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Refika Yilmaz, 25-year old captain for Turkey’s women’s national ice hockey team. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

I can clearly picture her in my mind’s eye; a young girl, in-line skating in the orange haze of the Turkish sun. Alongside boys, firing balls and pucks from morning to night. Needing to move, needing to be active, and loving to skate. Her country, Turkey, is a most beautiful one; welcoming to foreigners with its delicious food, kindhearted people, and historic atmosphere. I know firsthand, having spent 2-weeks there myself in the Autumn of 2006. But it would hardly seem to be a place where you would come across a young athletic girl who was totally enthused with the game of hockey. In a land of Mediterranean sun and what seems to be eons worth of history, what is routinely called “Canada’s game” would not come to mind. Contrary to that thought though, I meet the inspiring captain of the Turkish national women’s ice hockey team, Refika Yilmaz.

While she is 25-years old now, Yilmaz started playing in-line hockey with boys at the age of 12. Born in the capital city of Ankara, Turkey,  she has been highly active from her youth to this very day. “My childhood was full of sports”, she tells me. “I would never stay in one place for a long time without moving. After school, I was always going to play football (soccer), or doing cycling, or in-line skating, or playing in-line hockey. I’m still the same now”. I tell Yilmaz that I am both amazed and proud of her when she informs me that she currently runs 8 to 14-kilometers everyday as part of a normal workout routine, but mostly for her own enjoyment. “I love running, and I want to attend some long distance races. In May, I will be doing a race in Izmir called ‘Wings for Life'”. I do not even know how Yilmaz finds the time, as she is currently preparing to move to Munich, Germany, so that she can complete courses for earnining her Masters degree at Cologne University.

From the start of our interaction though, I still cannot shake the question over how a young girl in Turkey could come across the game of ice hockey. Yilmaz elaborates for me on how it came about. “Actually, I was playing in-line hockey with boys at the time. A player from the ice hockey league saw me, and wanted me to come play ice hockey because I was the only girl who was there playing with the boys. During these years, they were looking at starting a women’s ice hockey league and were trying to gain interest and find players. So I started playing ice hockey”. Playing space would be extremely limited for Yilmaz and her new found sport, and she and her mates really had to make the most out of what was to be had. “In Ankara there were not many opportunities to play ice hockey. There is actually just one Olympic size rink, and all of the hockey teams were having to go there so that they could practice; even as much as two or three teams at the same time. We would divide the rink itself into two or three parts, depending on how many teams there were, and then doing 40 to 45-minute practices as much as two or three times a week. Unfortunately, this rink has since been closed and there are no other rinks of this size in Ankara; just small ones to do smaller practices. Most teams cannot even do practices now in Ankara. I really hope that an ice rink will open up soon and teams will be able to start doing practices again”, Yilmaz pines. Relaying this to me, I am even more amazed that the opportunity for her to play ever came about; certainly not under the easiest of circumstances.

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Team captain, Refika Yilmaz, shaking hands with the opposing captain. (Photo provided courtesy of Rafika Yilmaz).

Wanting to get a better understanding of how thoroughly she is acquainted with the game, I ask Yilmaz to tell me about her hockey heroes. We find common ground quite quickly when the answer ends up being the legendary Jaromir Jagr.”I love him as a player because he has such great skill! I am sure that he is going to continue to play like a ‘young player’ until the end. Jagr has a great sense of humor too. When he is on the ice, I can’t stop watching him without smiling”. Even though Yilmaz is now a veteran, even at 25-years of age, she still has stars in her eyes over her hockey hero. “I really hope that I’ll have an opportunity to meet him!”. When considering her own longevity, he inspires her even more so. “I want to play for the national team as long as I can. I think that I will continue to play until the very end, just like Jaromir Jagr”.

For Refika Yilmaz, the magnitude of playing for her country is so much bigger than what it means in her own heart, even as the team’s captain. “Representing my country is the biggest honor of my life. Because I am representing my family, all of my friends, all the people whom I have never met, all of the people that live throughout the country, from border to border. When I step onto the ice wearing the national team jersey, I know that I am note there are ‘Refika’; I am on the ice as Turkey”.

Being team captain provides Refika with additional responsibilities that she does not shy away from. The responsibility to be that additional support her teammates need, and recognizing the struggles that can occur individually. “We are athletes. And in my opinion, athletes are emotional human beings, and many different environmental situations can affect an athlete; sometimes we can’t play as we do every time. When I see that one of us is not in a good mood, I try to talk with her one on one, face to face first. If that doesn’t work, we work to help each other and the sisterhood goes on”.

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Refika Yilmaz at the 2016 Women’s Division II-B World Championships in Spain. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

There is definitely a mental aspect to every game, and the mindset of Yilmaz and her teammates has to be understood. It is all about your point of view and approach to the games mentally. “Before games, we know that we will just play for 20-minutes multiplied by three times that we give everything for this game. I remind my team about that. We made many sacrifices to come to this level. Sometimes we didn’t go to school, didn’t see our families, didn’t see our friends – there was no social life. Just hockey. But within those three sets of 20-minutes, that is the time that we get our reward for all of those sacrifices”.

Sacrifices such as these are what led Yilmaz and her Turkish teammates to finish in first place for the 2015 Division II-B qualification, thus securing a spot and promotion to the 2016 Women’s World Division II-B Championships which were held in Spain from February 29th through March 6th, 2016. But it was through the qualifier games in Hong Kong in February 2015 that saw Yilmaz’s leadership skills come through while she was at her very best on the ice. Going 3-and-0 in the qualification games, Turkey’s women defeated Bulgaria, South Africa and Hong Kong. In the 3-games, Yilmaz recorded 5-assists and a was a plus-7.

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Team Turkey at the 2016 Women’s Division II-B World Championships in Spain. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

Unfortunately for Yilmaz and Team Turkey, the tournament this past March in Spain would not go as well. Turkey would lose all five tournament games, suffering a very lopsided goal differential of minus-32; having only registered 8-tournament goals as a team. But the important thing to realize is that Yilmaz and her teammates had made it into newfound territory for Team Turkey – the women’s national team had never made it this far before in international play. They learned from this experience and know what to expect going forward. And like newfound territory, it can be revisited, worked upon and improved upon. Refika Yilmaz knows that she and her teammates gave it their all and that they will continue to do so. “I just tried to do my best for my team and for my country. I am so proud of my team. From beginning to end. And I will be proud of us for my whole life long. The first place in the qualification championship was our first experience with this, and the best thing that we have done to this point. We were believing in each other. We love each other as a person first, then as teammates. Like sisters. Before and after games, we were talking about our mistakes and each game we tried to correct them”.

Yilmaz has some wise words, and has a strong understanding of how to guide a team that is still very much in its infancy in international competition. After all though, she has been doing it for quite sometime. “When I was 16-years old, I heard that the Federation would be choosing its first women’s national hockey team, and that we would have tryouts and elimination for roster spots on the team. You can’t believe how much I was doing at practices to be a good player and to be part of our first national team! Wanting to represent my country and wear my national team jersey. I was doing practices with boys and girls, it didn’t even matter, from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. I was attending any practices that I could find. It was my biggest passion, and I was playing with the same passion that I am with now. I just really wanted it and I got it. At 16, I was the youngest player on the national team”. Laughing, Yilmaz ponders, “Maybe I’m old now?… No, I’m still young”.

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Refika Yilmaz controlling the puck, fending off an attacker. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

Yilmaz’s enthusiasm for women’s ice hockey in her country is both obvious and contagious. I get caught up in her strong sense of pride for her country and for her teammates, and I really want to see this program foster throughout Turkey. Maybe especially because I have been there before, and caught a glimpse of the national pride that individuals like Refika Yilmaz imbue. I ask her about how the sport can be grown amongst a younger generation of Turkish girls. “There are many projects that could be run to go about this. First, we need ice rinks. I heard that there are to be some ice rinks built in Ankara, or at least around Turkey. I really hope that we see them soon. But for young girls, we don’t necessarily have to have an Olympic-sized rink. If it is too much, we can have many smaller sized rinks for beginners, or near elementary schools, or schools that wish to bring students to the rink to learn fundamental skating skills. Secondly, the Turkish Ice Hockey Federation can arrange meetings between the public and ice hockey players. Each player of a team can go to a university or a school, and can give a presentation about ice hockey. After some theoretical and practical knowledge, I think many people will have an interest in ice hockey, because ice hockey is one of the most impressive sports in the world”.

I believe that Yilmaz is definitely onto something here. The sport can be grown by spreading knowledge and information. I would be willing to bet that most Turkish people know very little about ice hockey, and likely have never seen it played. But if you can assign a spokesperson, ideally Refika Yilmaz herself, who is knowledgeable and passionate about the sport, but is also very articulate and engaging, possessing a strong belief in the building blocks for growing the sport she loves, I think that the way her plan is envisioned, it is already bound to work. Seeing how much pride Refika and her teammates have in their hockey team and in their country, I WANT this program to grow. For them. And for hockey.

Refika, keep doing your thing! Keep growing ice hockey in Turkey. It’ll work. For many years to come.

 

 

“Wolfpack Mentality”: Clara Hernandez, center for Team Spain

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Clara Hernandez moves the puck for Team Spain during a 3-2 win against Iceland at the 2016 Women’s Division II-B World Championships (Photo courtesy of Clara Hernandez).

I did a Google search for popular sports in Spain. The most popular sport, by far and wide, is soccer; that goes without question. Listed next in line after soccer are basketball, tennis, cycling, handball, motorcycling, Formula One racing, water sports, rhythmic gymnastics, golf and skiing. I would surmise that when most foreigners think of Spain, they envision the top sports as being soccer and perhaps stereotypically (if not a bit politically incorrect) bullfighting. It is not until after scanning over all of these sports that I even find a sniff of hockey, and even then it specifically lists “roller hockey” – not “ice hockey”. And although I love roller hockey and have played in roller hockey leagues myself, I begin to contemplate the question in my head – “does ice hockey exist anywhere in Spain?”. Low and behold, I end up meeting a young lady for Spain’s national women’s ice hockey team, Clara Hernandez.

“Yes, I’d say that roller hockey is way more popular here”, Clara tells me. “There are many more teams for roller hockey than ice hockey, and I think women’s roller hockey has a lot more history here too than what ice hockey does. But in Spain ice hockey is starting to grow pretty fast”. Though the 21-year old Hernandez did not initially find her hockey roots on the ice, roller hockey seems to be far more readily available to interested athletes, even in schools. ” I started playing in my school when I was nine years old. I was born in a small city called Avila but when I turned nine we moved to a bigger city called Valladolid. When you talk about roller hockey in Spain I would say that Valladolid provides a lot of opportunities to play. I am obviously very thankful that we moved there”.

Trying to beat boredom in a new school, Hernandez’s mother encouraged her daughter’s interest to get involved in playing organized sports, thus bringing about the first opportunity to play hockey. “I actually remember this moment very well” Hernandez says. “I was with my mom at the school. Just kind of bored; trying to choose some sport or other activity that I could do during the school year. But then I turned my head and suddenly saw some guys playing roller hockey, and I immediately said ‘Mom, I want to do that‘ “, she recalls quite fondly. It is interesting to see how the real hockey enthusiasts and the lovers of the game can recall so vividly those first moments of getting acquainted with their sport. The memories stand out so vividly in the mind’s eye, no matter if you are from Canada, USA, Russia, or even Spain. The raw beginnings of the love affair with hockey never seem to fall from memory.

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“The Wolfpack”, Team Spain – Clara Hernandez and her teammates at the 2016 IIHF Division II-B Women’s World Championships (Photo provided courtesy of Clara Hernandez).

Clara began to be fostered in the game of hockey, and developed an appreciation and understanding of what it takes to be a competitor; whether it is on a roller rink or on ice. Not necessarily versed in the global game of hockey at the time, a coach and a teammate come to mind when she considers her early hockey heroes. “I look up to my first roller hockey coach in school Andrés Portero ,and then also my teammate, Leticia Abrisqueta, because of their hard work, and because of their sense of taking care of every detail and taking care of the rest of the team”. Abrisqueta also plays alongside Clara currently on the national women’s ice hockey team.

After becoming proficient at her new found sport of roller hockey, within a few short years the opportunity to play on the ice and at the international level would begin to present itself for Clara. “Spain’s women’s ice hockey team is extremely young and really has not been around for very long”, she says. “I was only fourteen years old when they decided to start a women’s national team, and we first ended up doing a tournament in France before joining Worlds competition”. Considering that Hernandez is only 21 and the national ice hockey team began when she was 14, the sport truly is in its infancy for Spain. This makes it not only very exciting for the athletes, but also explains why there is such little information available about it. Still, for Clara Hernandez it is truly meaningful to be such a pioneer in the sport that she loves. “I was lucky enough to see the team born and to be part of it”. Grassroots hockey, so to speak.

Clara Hernandez plays center currently for the ice hockey club Kazkabarra Negu-Kiroletako Cluba. “I am living in Barcelona. And though there are not a lot of ice rinks in Spain, I decided to join this team, which was great”. This team is located in San Sebastian, Basque Country – a region in Spain in the western Pyrenees, spanning the border between France and Spain, and the Atlantic coast. This year’s club league is comprised of seven total teams, though Hernandez tells me that the number is steadily growing.

Where Clara Hernandez really was able to shine and demonstrate her puck-skills was at the 2016 IIHF Division II-B Women’s World Championship which was held from February 29th through March 6th, with none other than Spain as the host nation for the tournament. Six different nations comprised the teams competing, including Spain, Turkey, Australia, Iceland, New Zealand and Mexico. Hernandez and Team Spain were simply superb right from the start, pulling off an 11-1 shellacking of New Zealand on the Leap Year February 29th game. Clara recorded an assist, 2-shots on goal, and a plus-1 during the dominating victory.

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Clara Hernandez, prepared to receive her silver medal at this year’s Division II-B Women’s Worlds. (Photo provided courtesy of Clara Hernandez).

Throughout the rest of the way Spain would only lose one tournament game, and that at the hands of a 4-1 loss to Australia. Otherwise, Hernandez and her teammates pulled off wins with a 3-0 shutout over Mexico, a 3-2 victory over Iceland, and an 8-1 win over Turkey to secure the silver medal for their country. Hernandez would finish the tournament with 5-assists in 5-games, including a 3-assist production in the final game against Turkey; doing her part to ensure the victory and the second place medal. “We are very, very happy about our performance, but we have been chasing the gold since our first appearance at Worlds when we also got silver. But to me, it was just the best feeling, and always the best days in the year”.

The tournament was a huge success for not only Hernandez, but for Team Spain in general. Spain’s goaltender, Alba Gonzalo, was absolutely phenomenal between the pipes; in 5-games Gonzalo would post an astounding 95.28 save-percentage after turning aside 105 shots and only allowing 5-goals. Gonzalo would be named the tournament’s Best Goaltender, while one of Spain’s top defenders, Vanesa Abrisqueta, would be named Best Defenseman. Meanwhile Clara’s memories from the tournament seem to resonate hunger more than anything else; a hunger to get better as a team, and to begin competing at a higher level. Silver is great, but Hernandez wants better. “The best memories from the tournament are really from before the games when we are getting ready as a ‘wolfpack’ and just listening to our coaches’ words. A silver medal means a lot, but at the same time it only make us think about gold”.

Spain’s national women’s team has high expectations for it program. “In 3-years, we will be in the first division they say”, Clara tells me. And while they are currently demonstrating their impressive prowess at this level, moving up another division is not out of the question; especially considering this most recent silver medal run, and the fact that they have youngsters like Hernandez, who is already a veteran at 21, and the soon-to-be 19-year old phenom goaltender, Gonzalo. Hernandez tells me with self-assurance, “I will keep working so I can continue to be part of the national team and help us to go up to other divisions. I would like to get the gold. I want to improve and learn as a player, and play more tournaments just as every sportswoman would want. And to make it to the Olympics”.

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Clara and some of her “Kazkabarra Negu-Kiroletako Cluba” teammates, after they had received their silver medals and trophy. (Photo provided courtesy of Clara Hernandez).

Hockey enthusiasts, especially of the women’s game, may indeed not have long to wait before they see Spain in the limelight. While their team is growing out of humble beginnings, they possess strong ideals for cornerstones. You read Clara mentioning a “wolfpack” mentality amongst her teammates. Teammates. Team. Clara speaks it herself. “Being aware that I am part of a group. So the group/team always comes first. And most of all, I need to be thankful about all the moments that I have had the chance to live, and all the support that I have received from my family and friends along the way”. The foundation is indeed there. Now it is time for Clara and Team Spain to move onto bigger and better things as a hockey club. In Spanish “La mejor defensa es el ataque” means that “Attack is the best form of defense”. Spain is in attack-mode right now! Knowing that the team, the “wolfpack”, comes first and foremost, be prepared to see what Clara Hernandez and Team Spain can do. Odds are they will turn more than a few heads in hockey realms across the globe.

 

 

 

 

The Fighting Dane: Debbie Andersen

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16-year old ball of fire for Team Denmark, Debbie Andersen taking the face-off draw. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

These days, the game of hockey stretches to all corners of the earth, and particularly throughout the European Union. While its Scandinavian brethren Sweden and Finland have long been hockey hotbeds, the game has also been embedding its roots into the country of Denmark. This current 2015-16 NHL season has seen seven Danish players crack NHL lineups, including regulars like Anaheim goaltender Frederik Andersen, Colorado’s Mikkel Boedker, the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen and Montreal’s Lars Eller. Possessing a strong interest in the women’s game, it makes me wonder as to whether women’s hockey has much of a presence in Denmark as well. I end up meeting a 16-year old ball of fire for Denmark’s national U-18 team, forward Debbie Andersen.

“My favorite hockey player is Sidney Crosby”, Debbie tells me. I am sure that even the NHL would be impressed to know that an aspiring 16-year old female hockey player in Denmark calls the face of their game her favorite NHL player. “My favorite team is the New York Rangers”, she says; even better. But Debbie has her own personal heroes too that fall a bit closer to home. “There is also a player on my team who never gives up, and I really look up to him; I want to be better than him someday; his name is Joah (Aalling)”. Debbie and Joah play for Denmark’s Aarhus IK hockey club. Speaking more about Joah, it is obvious that Debbie knows that in order to succeed in hockey and to remain at a successful level, she needs to work on her game constantly. “He is a player who wants hockey more than anyone else that I’ve ever met. He makes me want to fight even harder, and that is what makes a ‘favorite’ player in my eyes”, she expounds. “He trains six times a week and shoots pucks daily, and I’ve started to do that also. I get inspiration from him that I have not really gotten from anyone else other than my coaches”.

Located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, Debbie lives in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, which is also where her hockey club is from. The second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus’ own hockey club is not far from where she lives at all. “There are not many hockey clubs in Denmark, and most are pretty far away from where I live, but in Aarhus it only takes me five minutes to get to training. But if I play or train in another place, it usually takes me one or two hours to get there by car”.

Debbie began playing hockey at eleven years old, and has played as a forward right from the get-go. “Forward is my favorite position, because I’m a fighter *she laughs*, and I want to be the one who makes the goals and assists; I’ve always wanted to play forward for that particular reason”. I suppose that in a family where she is the only girl with three brothers, two of whom are hockey players as well, Debbie would indeed be a bit of a scrapper both on the ice and at home. Though Debbie does credit one of her brothers for starting her interest in playing. “My brother saw a hockey movie at school, came home and said, ‘Mom, I want to play hockey too; it looks like fun!’. I went with my brother and my mom down to the hockey hall to register him and me too, and since then I’ve never left the ice!”.

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Debbie Andersen being mobbed by her teammates after a Denmark goal. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

Her fighting spirit is what Debbie believes is the most important part of her game, and something that she would extend to other players wishing to learn the game as well. “I think that the most important thing for a hockey player is fighting!”, though she does not mean fisticuffs or brawling; more so, approaching the game with tenacity and ferociousness. “Fight for every puck. Fight against every opposing player. And never give up on that. Be there for your teammates and support them, just like you would want to be supported”. I love this spirit that Andersen embodies. She is that type of player that fits the old adage; you love having her on your team, but would hate playing against her. Andersen is a disturber to the opposition, battling in corners and creating scoring chances both for herself and for her teammates.

This “junkyard dog” style of play and her “never give up”-attitude are what garnered Debbie’s nomination for the Danish U-18 national team that competed in January 2016 at the IIHF Women’s World U-18 Division-I Championships that were held in Miskolc, Hungary. Denmark had actually earned entrance into the tournament by finishing first in the 2015 Division-I Qualification which took place in Poland. For Debbie Andersen, being selected to play for her country was the most meaningful experience of her young life thus far, though it took her strong sense of diligence and commitment to attain it. “All girls who were playing hockey in Jutland were invited to a training camp run by the national team coaches. After several trials with the team, they decided to bring me along for a tryout with the entire national team. They have not kept me off the team since, and I have just continued to fight and work hard to keep my spot on the roster”. There is that fighting spirit again from her. I like the fact that Debbie humbly acknowledges that there are no guarantees, and that if she wants to continue to represent her country and play the game she loves, that she cannot slow her pace; she has to continue being committed.

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Debbie standing tall on the Team Denmark bench during the 2016 Division-I U-18 Women’s World Championships in Hungary (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

But for at least 2016’s version of Denmark’s U-18 team, the hard work was all worth it and something that she will be able to revel in forever. “My favorite memory was when the team and I put our equipment on for the first time and our jerseys. You are just so happy to know that you are one of just a handful of girls who is going to fight for your country. After that, the next biggest memory was the first goal we scored as a team in the tournament”. Denmark’s first goal would come in their third game of the tournament, scored by Andersen’s teammate Michelle Almquist, during a 3-1 loss to Germany. “They were both memories that I will never forget”, Andersen tells me. “It was just so big for me, that even now I will sometimes feel a tear running out of my eye. I was just so proud!”. And while Denmark would not muster a win during their five games in the tournament, being able to represent her country is something that will forever belong to Debbie as she continues throughout her hockey career.

And Debbie already has goals for the years ahead. “I really want to play college hockey. I really just want to get to the highest level that a girl can. And then after that, I really want to coach a team of my own someday”. I love knowing that she has these goals, and we then discuss what it will take to get more girls in Denmark interested in hockey; how do we grow the sport from here. To me it seems that Debbie has thought the process out, and has a strong sense of what it will take to promote hockey interest among young Danish girls. “There really aren’t that many girls in Denmark who are interested in hockey”, she says, a little disappointed. “But I think that if girls started to play some hockey in school, and then at home too with their friends, they’ll see that it’s a lot of fun and they’ll want to play too. Make them feel the fun of playing hockey – just like I did”. And she is right. Give them the opportunity to see how much fun this sport is. I recall being a seven year old in Buffalo, whacking a ball around with my hockey stick in our frozen backyard… there is just nothing else like it, and a youngster can easily fall in love with the game.

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The diminutive fireplug for Aarhus IK , Debbie Andersen, fighting for puck possession against a much larger opponent. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

There is no slowing Debbie Andersen down. This young lady is a Tasmanian devil of sorts, at least on the ice and with her dreams for growing women’s hockey in her home country. “I really hope that girls’ hockey can become much more popular”, she almost pleads to me. “Girls’ hockey is just as important as men’s hockey. Yes, we are girls, but we want to play just as much as the men do… at least me!”. I like this kid; she has got superb leadership qualities and some bite to her. I think that if you put Debbie Andersen at the helm of women’s hockey in Denmark, made her a spokesperson of sorts, that she could definitely rally young girls and get them interested in the game. She leads by example, and as this young lady gets a little older and begins playing for the national women’s team, she may very well have inspired a large grouping of young girls to fall in love with the game as well. Go Debbie!