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.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.