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.
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.
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”.
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.