“It’s more than just hockey” ~Kelsey Neumann, Buffalo Beauts goalie

There are two photos that I saw of Kelsey Neumann from after the Beauts game that exemplify who she is. The first, a photo out in the parking garage of the HarborCenter by her car; her arms around four of the young players that she helps coach for the Buffalo Bisons girls U12 team. Despite the disparaging 3-0 loss (1/14/17) to the New York Riveters, and that it was fast approaching 11 o’clock at night, these little ladies waited for Neumann to complete her interview with me so that they could meet up with their coach. There is a clear confidence and belief in their faces as they stand alongside a coach who obviously matters deeply to them.

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Though it was nearly 11 o’clock at night, some of Kelsey Neumann’s young athletes from the Buffalo Bisons waited by her car in 20-degree weather just to show support for their beloved coach (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

The second photo is that of Neumann flanked by her loving parents. Both of whom smiled to me and said hello as I walked out with Kelsey from the locker area, and were wearing Neumann #31 Beauts jerseys too. You can tell that the support has been there since day one. Neumann’s dad she lists as one of her “hockey heroes” (her brother too) and an inspiration for getting her interested in the game to begin with. Neumann jokingly tells me that I should have let her mom conduct the interview, as she knows the details of her daughter’s entire hockey career like the back of her hand. Joking aside, there is plenty of truth to that statement as well and she means it because her mom could recite the history of her daughter’s on ice career arguably better than Neumann could herself. Both “Mom” and “Dad” were sounding boards and participants in helping Neumann prepare for the interview and recall the past.

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Kelsey Neumann’s parents have been her biggest support network and her biggest fans, and fostered her love of hockey in its earliest stages (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

I look at both of these photographs, and it is easy to see that Kelsey Neumann touches the lives of so many. Family. Friends. Teammates. Players. Parents and their kids. The next generation of hockey players. They hold Neumann in the highest regard, and she touches the heartstrings of all of them. I am fortunate that on a January night, when the rink is just about vacant by the time we are finished, Kelsey Neumann affords me the opportunity to learn more about her life firsthand.

“I was actually born in California, and then moved to San Antonio, Texas. It’s a real ‘hockey hotbed’ too” – and I believe her for a second – “yeah, we had one ice rink”, Neumann says. I laugh at her dry delivery. “I was on skates before I could walk, and then when I was about 4, I wanted to play. I have an older brother and he plays. In San Antonio, they didn’t have Mini Mites or Timbits, so I was a four year old girl, the only one out there, playing with nine year old boys”. Talk about being in some deep water, but the opportunities in that particular region were limited. “After the first year I played forward, and  I was like ‘I don’t want to play anymore because they never pass it’, but my mom told me to stick with it. And I did, and from there it was no turning back”.

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Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann making a beautiful glove save. (Photo credit: Michael Hetzel).

Following in the footsteps of both her father, who, fun fact, as a goalie himself was one of the few high school players and the only player from south of the Mason-Dixon line that was invited to the 1980 Olympic tryouts for Team USA, and her brother, Neumann would transition into the goaltender position. “My brother was going to goalie camp, and I didn’t want to sit around the rink and be bored for a week. So the week before I told my parents that I wanted to try it. They found the gear for me. My mom put my pads on the wrong legs the first day. Then, at the end of the week I won the shootout challenge at the camp. After that week, my parents knew that they weren’t going to retire with any money”, she recalls with a grin. Neumann’s parents sought opportunities for their children to play at the highest possible levels, even if that involved moving the family. After starting hockey in San Antonio, they would move upwards of 4-hours plus to Dallas, Texas. From there, the family moved even further north to a more traditional hockey market in Michigan where Neumann played Boys AAA hockey. Eventually the family would move to Madison, Wisconsin and Kelsey would play for the Madison Capitals; a year of which was spent playing with US Olympian and fellow NWHLer Amanda Kessel as a teammate, prior to both players leaving to play in other boys programs and attending prep schools. From start to present, Mr. and Mrs. Neumann did all that they could to promote their children’s love for hockey, and it is amazing to see the progression over time.

A major stride in her development as a goalie came from the unique opportunity to receive tutelage from one of hockey’s all time greats. “I trained with Vladislav Tretiak for a few summers and got to learn from him firsthand”. A 1989 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame and the current president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia, Tretiak won three Olympic gold medals and ten gold medals at the World Championships; not to mention a handful of silver and bronze as well. Tretiak is widely considered one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the sport. “Tretiak used to run a camp in Minnesota”, Neumann tells me, “and my parents found it. My brother and I used to go to the camp every summer. Originally we went to his camp in Toronto when I was 7 or 8, and initially he wasn’t going to let anyone do the camp who was under 10. But because I was a competitive gymnast previously, they realized that I could handle the rigorous hours and let me do it. So, I trained with Tretiak for every summer from when I was 7 or 8 until the age of 14 or 15”.

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8-year old Kelsey Neumann with one of hockey’s greatest goaltenders to ever play, Vladislav Tretiak. Neumann was a protégé of Tretiak’s from the ages of around 7 or 8 until 14 or 15 (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

Though Tretiak may be at the top of her list of hockey heroes, as well as some more recent netminders like Montreal’s Carey Price and another goaltending great in Curtis Joseph, Neumann is quick to point out that she considers her brother to share that same podium of motivators, and considers his presence in her life to have contributed greatly in where she is today. “Watching my brother growing up, he’s two years older, and he really pushed me to be better. I have him to thank for a lot of it”.

Throughout her high school years, Neumann would become the starting goaltender for three seasons with the North American Hockey Academy (NAHA) Winter Hawks. “I went to NAHA from my sophomore year until my senior year of high school. At the time, NAHA had a full-year program. Typically, you start off at home. Then after Labor Day you take your schoolwork and all of your curriculum with you to NAHA, and stay there until about February when you go back to your home schools and home teams. But when I was there my three years we had a full-year program. We would get there a few weeks before Labor Day, have a tournament Labor Day Weekend, and then we would get done at NAHA about the first week of May”, she recalls. Definitely a huge focus on playing hockey and learning the game. During her time with the program, Neumann compiled some staggering numbers. A career goals against average of 1.16, 0.930 save percentage, and a total of 54-shutouts. Absolutely stellar statistics. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I definitely have Bill and Jesse Driscoll (Director of Hockey and Head Coach of NAHA respectively) to thank for that experience. Without NAHA, I think it would have been a lot more difficult for me to get into college”.

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Kelsey Neumann is very much an adored big sister to many young athletes (Photos provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

Neumann shares with me that as someone who has learning disabilities, the one-on-one tutoring that was given to her at NAHA made a remarkable difference in her academics and her confidence level as she geared towards a collegiate career as a hockey player and pursuing a degree. “Knowing my own disabilities is part of what led me to pursuing the career that I went into after undergrad. NAHA really opened the door for me for a lot of opportunities to play around the world and around the country”.

Neumann initially began her collegiate career at Clarkson University in upstate New York. “I really liked the “small school” atmosphere. Like I said, having learning disabilities I knew that a big school wasn’t going to fit for me. I went and looked at Wisconsin before my junior year of high school and Hilary Knight gave me the tour. I was like, ‘Okay, this is a great looking school, but it’s huge!’. And then when I went on my tour of Clarkson, I really liked the atmosphere”. As someone who received his bachelor’s at Canisius College in Buffalo, where Neumann wrapped up her own Master’s Degree, I definitely appreciate and relate to the comfort of a “small school” atmosphere. She goes on to say, “The atmosphere at Clarkson for games is next to none. The community that it is, and even the fact that the University’s president goes to the women’s games as much as he does the men’s games, if not sometimes more, means so much. Even though I ended up transferring, I still follow Clarkson today and it is amazing to see how far that program has come since their first day”. Statistically, Neumann would play in one game her freshman year for Clarkson and have a 22-save performance.

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With limited opportunities to play hockey in Texas, 4-year old Kelsey Neumann ended up having to play on a team comprised of 9-year old boys, though that obviously did not stop her (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

After that first year of NCAA hockey, Kelsey Neumann would transfer to SUNY Plattsburgh and would play with their Cardinals women’s ice hockey program. The experience for her would be a difficult one, but in hindsight it fostered a lot of strength in her for the future. Kelsey most assuredly came out on top of any struggles she encountered at the time.

Speaking on the transfer to Plattsburgh she says, “Being a goalie it’s always tough going into college because usually you have three goalies on a roster. I went into freshman year at Clarkson and had one other goalie partner. Then Clarkson ended up bringing in a U18 Team Canada goalie going into my sophomore year. I was at Clarkson the first half of my sophomore year, and I knew that this girl was better than me. She still plays for Team Canada today, and she is an amazing goalie. So I knew that the opportunities to get a chance at Clarkson would not be what I had hoped for. That is partially what led to me deciding to transfer from Clarkson, and then also academically, Clarkson is a great school and a very hard school. As much as I would have loved to have stayed and graduated from there, I knew that there were certain class requirements, that if I had stayed, I would have been there three more years trying to complete a math class. It is an engineering school and engineering math is not easy. So overall, that is what led me to choosing Plattsburgh. Their support staff there was great. It was great at Clarkson too, but at Plattsburgh I was able to have a little bit more flexibility with the classes and course load”.

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Having a heart of gold and a strong sense of integrity, it is no wonder that Kelsey Neumann has endeared herself to so many young athletes (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

Neumann would complete her bachelor’s degree at Plattsburgh, but would resign from playing on the team after her junior year. “Leaving Clarkson, I was part of a big family. I thought that with moving over to Plattsburgh that it was going to be part of another big family. Because of putting in double of what most student athletes have to put in to make sure that my grades are where they needed to be, and with all the help I needed and everything like that, I wasn’t one who had a huge social life outside of practice, work and school. I didn’t really fit with the norm, so that whole idea of coming into a new family like I had at NAHA or Clarkson, it wasn’t that. There were a lot of incidents that happened. It is not fortunate that I was bullied so to speak, but I am fortunate enough to have gone through it because now as a coach I take that with me into when I am coaching. I coach at least three girls teams, between the age groups of the 10s, 12s and 14s with the Bisons. I tell them and I always let them know, you don’t have to be best friends when you are outside of the rink, but the minute you walk into that rink, you are a family and if I hear of anything where so-and-so is picking on so-and-so, whether it is social media, in person, through text messages, if I catch wind of it I put a stop to it right away even before the head coaches get involved. All those girls know, and I talk to them about it all the time, you are a family first and that is the most important thing when you step into the locker room”. Hearing her say this, I feel a sense of comfort in knowing that these young girls have a coach such as Kelsey who not only promotes kindness and a sense of family within the team, but whose words ring sincerely and seriously. It is not just lip service that she is promoting when she speaks about family; she truly means it, fosters it and expects it of her athletes.

Between Neumann’s time with Plattsburgh and prior to joining the Buffalo Beauts, she played for a wide variety of teams seemingly everywhere. But more importantly, she would recapture her love of the game and that integral family aspect once more. “After my junior year when I resigned at Plattsburgh, I ended up on a women’s team out of North Carolina. My first year with them I felt that family bond again right away and they were very accepting. I am actually still with them, even though I can only make the games usually. I’ll travel around and meet them at tournaments. Being from North Carolina, they do not have an opportunity to practice often, but when I am with them I feel like I have never left. Then, when I moved to Buffalo for grad school at Canisius I started doing pickup games at the Northtown Center. I also got asked to sub for a men’s team, which led to me playing on some other men’s teams. So here and there I play on men’s teams when I am able. I still fill-in if and when I can, and I have even played out (out from her normal goaltender position) on some of them too over the summer. But playing on my women’s team from North Carolina was something that really helped me after my junior year. They helped me to realize the love of the game again and what family meant, which is really what I needed going into this (the NWHL). They have been so supportive of me pursuing this dream that some of them feel that they are living it with me”.

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While Kelsey Neumann lists Vladislav Tretiak, Carey Price, and Curtis Joseph as her hockey heroes, she also includes her brother, Justus, in that same category. This photo of Kelsey and Justus together when they were little sums up that relationship quite nicely. (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

So how did the opportunity of being a goaltender for the Buffalo Beauts come about for Kelsey Neumann? She explains, “I moved to Buffalo about four years ago to attend grad school. I moved over to the Bisons organization last year (a minor team organization in Buffalo) and Shelley Looney (Olympic gold and silver medalist for Team USA) is the head of that. I let her know last year that I knew she had a Canadian goalie, and that the Canadian players couldn’t always come over for practice, so if they needed a goalie that I could be available. She ended up texting me and I started practicing with the team regularly at the beginning of last year. When I signed up for the Beauts tryouts this year, I was able to use Shelley as my reference because she has seen me play. So, ultimately I think that I have Shelley to thank for this opportunity to be a Beaut”, Neumann smiles. Nothing wrong with that, right? “No, and I actually idolized her as a kid. I still have a picture of she and I when I was nine, just after USA won the gold medal”.

And now that she has made it to the NWHL, I became curious to know what it is that Neumann hopes to accomplish in her career in this first ever professional women’s league. But in Neumann’s words (as if I could have expected anything else from her) it still comes down to her family-first and team-first nature. “Honestly, I want to do whatever is best for my team. I want to make sure that as I am getting better, that I am helping them to get better. Whether that is pushing myself harder in the weight room, pushing myself harder on the ice, taking extra games where I can with men’s teams, I am prepared if, God forbid, something should happen to a goalie partner. Ultimately, I would love to become a fulltime contracted player next year. If that’s in the cards, then it’s in the cards. If not, I’m still happy being a Beaut and I truly love being a part of the team. Being able to help anyway that I can, as much as I can, then I am going to do that”. You can see this even in Neumann’s body language. As I watch her on the bench during the action of the game, you can see her intense focus on the play; she is emotionally and seriously invested in the game and her team.

On the ice for the Beauts (and when she is coaching too for that matter), one attribute of Neumann’s that makes her so effective is her vision of the game. Almost like a chess match. The fact that she has a Russian hockey legend as a hero, I liken her vision to that of another Russian great, “The Professor”, Igor Larionov, even though he was not a goaltender. But like Larionov, Kelsey Neumann is able to read the play a few steps ahead; seemingly reading the future of how the play will transpire. “I see the whole ice”, she says. “I stand back, and I can see everything. I can see the play developing, and I know before the player even knows where that puck is going to go. It can be frustrating at times, because you know what is going to happen, and then you see it, and you’re like, ‘hey, I called that’. But ultimately it helps me be a better communicator for my team. I have been told that I am very vocal when I am on the ice”, she laughs.

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A sincere love and appreciation of her older brother Justus, a member of the U.S. military, Kelsey Neumann has been inspired by him since they were childhood goaltenders together (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

If you follow the Buffalo Beauts at all on social media, you have likely seen “The Adventures of McLevman”, an absolutely hilarious portrayal of antics using stereotypes of goaltenders in the form of videos. “McLevman” being a combination of the three Beauts goaltenders last names of Neumann, Amanda Leveille, and Brianne McLaughlin, and an homage of course to the character known as “McLovin” from the film “Superbad“. “The Adventures of McLevman” videos have taken Kelsey Neumann and her compatriots, mind you in full goalie gear, to supermarkets, shopping centers and classrooms. If you have not seen their videos yet, you need to check them out! Visit their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/mclevman

So Kelsey, how did this whole “McLevman” thing come about and what has the reaction been like from the public? She enlightens me. “So ‘Lev’ and I were just talking about this in the locker room. I told her that I had an interview, and she was like, ‘About what? Is it about us?’, and I confirmed that yes, there was a question about us. It actually started when she first got her Brian’s pads (a particular brand of goalie equipment). To break them in, and apparently there is a picture Lev has to prove this, she is walking her dog outside in full goalie gear”, we’re both laughing by this point. “Her and I never met before this season. First practice, she comes in and instantly it was like we had known each other forever. Which was an amazing feeling to have, especially with one of your goalie partners. Then, we are standing out there, waiting to get out on the ice for our first practice together. We were all talking about Lev’s picture, and so we decided to recreate the picture and I opted to be the dog. We are always at each other’s houses, so from there, we decided that we should sit down and write out goalie stereotypes and weird things that people think goalies actually do. It’s been hilarious! And it’s been fun for us. I’ve been able to involve some of the kids that I coach into it too. We both got a little excited too that Garret Sparks (Toronto Marlies goaltender and Maple Leafs prospect) friended both of us on Facebook after seeing our ‘McLevman’ videos. So for the most part it has been very positive and very fun to have other people think it’s hilarious too. We went to New York City about a month ago and there was guy there who printed out the photo of all three of us laying in and around the net, and he asked the three of us to sign it for him. He took a picture with Bri and I. It’s those kind of things that are really fun”. In this day and age, people need to laugh more. Spread some laughter and levity. The “McLevman” trio are definitely able to make that happen.

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Kelsey Neumann, Amanda Leveille, and Brianne McLaughlin, Buffalo Beauts goaltenders are “McLevman!” (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

Neumann has actually been able to incorporate the “McLevman” videos into her own classroom, using the classroom space and even some of her students to help with the video. “I teach at Journey’s End; it’s a refugee school. It’s all adults, and it’s interesting for me because I always knew that I wanted to do special ed or some type of teaching, because I was passionate towards learning about my own disabilities. I was told that I was never going to make it to college. I went from being told this in seventh grade, and then actually going to college and graduating with a really good GPA. From there, I went onto grad school and graduated with a dual Master’s, and I was inducted into honors societies. I knew then it was now my turn to give back. I was asked to work at this refugees school. It initially started out as a long term subbing position, but now it’s turned into a permanent part time position. I have level one students, and they are mostly just two months into living in the country, so it has been a lot of fun getting to watch them grow and to see them actually learning the language”.

Coinciding with what she is able to accomplish as both a coach and as a teacher, Neumann sees the fact that she is a Buffalo Beaut providing more opportunity for her to be a role model for others, especially the next generation of women’s hockey players; the little girls whom she presently coaches. “I have been with Ellie, my 14U goalie, for three years now, and she is a little sister to me. The relationships that I can make with the families and the kids that I work with. That’s just one of the biggest things; to become even more of a role model for someone, and not just for the teams that I coach but for other little girls too”. Neumann is even looking towards doing private lessons and group sessions over the summer for little girls who are netminders. Again, more opportunity to give back to the community and be a positive example in the lives of youngsters. One little lady in particular, Jayden, from the New Jersey area, whom Neumann has befriended and has had the opportunity to remain in touch with and see when the Beauts have been on the road, even had some of her own advice for Neumann going into a Beauts practice that she provided through Facebook: “Don’t ever give up. Make sure you have fun. And just work your hardest”. Words of wisdom from a nine year old, and in that moment it was exactly what Neumann needed to get herself up for practice that evening. Thank you, Jayden.

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Kelsey Neumann with Jayden. Neumann is holding a hockey card of Jayden which has been autographed! (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

We need to take into consideration the importance of growing the women’s game for hockey players like Jayden, and Ellie, and other youngsters like these. Neumann and I wholeheartedly agree that we want the NWHL and professional women’s hockey to be around for many years to come. That being a professional women’s hockey player is a dream that can someday very much become a reality for today’s nine year old girl. “As much support as we can get”, Neumann tells me. “That is part of why Lev, Bri and me keep doing the “McLevman” videos; to get our names out there. Not our personal names, but our team name. The league’s name. We are always tagging the Beauts. Tagging the NWHL. We are really just trying to spread the word. We post it on goalie pages, we post it publicly. Wherever we can. The more and more that people know about the league, the more it will grow. That is one of the harder things that we have found; we think that everyone knows who we are, and there are still so many people that don’t know about the NWHL”. And Neumann is right; it is necessary to garner as much attention as possible.

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A collage of many of her athletes, Kelsey Neumann is loved by all whom she has had the opportunity to coach and teach (Photos provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann)

If there is one thing I have learned from meeting Kelsey Neumann, it’s that with her it is about more than just hockey. She is able to put it into perspective for me with some parting words. “Responsibility. Responsibility plays a big key in being a hockey player. That dates back to my parents; they have always instilled that in me. Being responsible for yourself, and also your teammates. That goes back to my days in peewee when I played Boys AAA in Michigan under Coach Matt. Each kid was given a different job each weekend. Whether it was washing everyone’s jerseys or whatever. It taught us that there was more than just one person to a team. It taught us that if you are going to be responsible for someone other than yourself, it’s going to be the whole team. You have to own it and buy into that team mentality. Determination and hard work too. That comes not just from hockey, but through my learning disability. Perseverance through being told you are not good enough or not smart enough, and knowing that it was not true. To keep pushing forward and keep doing what I am doing. Coaches who may have told me that I was not good enough may look at me now and think, ‘okay, maybe I was wrong’. I try to teach all of the girls whom I coach that you need to be responsible for yourself and for your teammates. Not everyone can pick up the slack for you. Moving forward, I am here to teach you more than just hockey. I am here to teach you that in life, you are going to have to fight for it. You are going to have people who are against you, and this and that. If you can learn that now at 10, 12 and 14, then you are going to be better off down the road”.

Kelsey Neumann is one of a kind in my book. I am greatly impressed by how one young lady can embody such meaningful ideals, have a heart of gold, and can be such a skillful athlete. And I think that is why she is so deeply loved by all of whom that I mentioned earlier. She is one of a kind. She is a person that you meet only one of in a lifetime. There is no parity with her, and she is someone whom you are better just because you know her. Keep doing your thing, Kelsey. Keep being you. Give us some more “McLevman” escapades. And know that family, friends, teammates, coaches, parents and kiddos see your value as something priceless and a necessary ingredient in their lives.

Make sure to give Kelsey a follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lilneumy

and on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lilneumy31/

 

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“Net Presence”: Henriette Behn, Färjestad BK forward

While she tells me that her favorite hockey players are a fellow countryman and arguably the most recognized player presently in women’s hockey, I liken Henriette Behn’s style of play to more of a robust forward who is not afraid to take a puck to the inside of the thigh or the shaft of a stick plastered across the back. Say, a Tomas Holmstrom. Or a Johan Franzen. She has net presence. “My hockey heroes are Hilary Knight and Mats Zuccarello. I wouldn’t say that I am a sniper, no. I would say that I am more of a hardworking type of player. A player who you can put in front of the opponent’s net to screen the goalie and make space for my teammates”. And thus far in her young career, Henriette Behn has done a very admirable job of that.

Born New Year’s Eve of 1998, Behn’s passion for the game was initially instilled in her by her father. “I was four years old when I attended my first hockey school, and then I joined an actual team later that same year. It was my dad who introduced me to the sport. The fact that he was a hockey coach at that time made me become interested in trying it”. Behn hails from the city of Oslo; the capital and most populous city in the country of Norway.

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Knowing her way most effectively around the front of the net, Henriette Behn is a highly promising player for Färjestad BK (Photo provided courtesy of Värmlands Folkblad; Photo credit: Håkan Strandman).

Though opportunities to play hockey may have been limited to a certain extent, that does not mean that the quality or competition was poor for Behn to partake in. Quite the contrary, actually. “In Oslo there are about five ice rinks so the opportunities to play are definitely there. However being a girl and playing in Oslo of course lessens those opportunities. But in my mind it has only been a positive thing for me. With fewer opportunities to play on girls teams, I have played on boys teams since I was five. This has only been for the better when it comes to my development”.

One of the top hockey clubs in the city of Oslo is Vålerenga, and Behn was able to grow through the ranks of their program since her earliest ages in the game. “I played for Vålerenga’s boys team from when I was five until I was thirteen”, at which age Behn was old enough to play in Norway’s women’s elite league. Having already been a member of Vålerenga for such a considerable length of time, it was only natural that Behn joined their women’s team. “There are six teams in Norway’s women’s league, in the elite series”, she explains. “Vålerenga performed good during the 5-years I played with the team. We always managed to put together a good group of hardworking players who all had a winning mindset. Often our results led us to leading the entire league”. Across those 5-years, Behn appeared in 46-career games in the Norwegian women’s league for Vålerenga and tallied 12-goals and 6-assists.

It was during this time with Vålerenga that Henriette Behn had the opportunity to represent her country in three consecutive Women’s U18 Division-I Championships as a member of the Norwegian national team; each opportunity having been a true honor for her. “It meant a lot to me. You feel a special type of pride when wearing your nation’s jersey, and you naturally always feel very honored when representing your own country by doing something that you love”. I like how Behn recognizes the value of this, and maybe sees it a step further than many athletes. Not only did she have three opportunities (thus far) to represent Norway on the international hockey stage, but she did so – and she was the one to say it – by doing something that she truly loves. Rarer of an opportunity still. When you can combine skill with love and channel it into one focus, one mindset, it is an experience that so few get to feel. And Behn has achieved a trifecta of sorts in that respect.

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Battling for position against Denmark, Norway’s Henriette Behn (in white) fights to establish position in front of the opposing net (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

Behn’s first go-round in this particular IIHF tournament was in 2014 for the games in Füssen, Germany.  Barely 15-years old at the time, Behn would play in all 5-tournament games for the Norwegian team. But seeing limited ice time likely due to her age and experience level, Behn more so utilized this first tournament to gain invaluable experience for future tournaments ahead; the likes of which she could not have foreseen the dividends it would eventually pay. “That first tournament was a motivation to me because it was my first time on the national team. The speed in the games and the tempo in general was much faster than I was used to in Norway. So this was definitely something that helped prepare me for future international tournaments”. In the 5-games Behn was held pointless and the Norwegians would finish fourth overall with 2-wins and 3-losses.

Then came 2015. And for Behn and Team Norway, it would be a tournament for the ages. A full tournament already under her belt, Behn tied for the team lead in goal scoring with 3-goals and a whopping 25-percent shooting percentage throughout the tournament. For a second year player on the national team who does not consider herself a sniper, she was on fire. Describing her mindset when she is in the game, Behn tells me “I’m a player who hates to loose; the coach can expect that I always give 100-percent in the games that I play”. The fire in her belly sparked Norway to a 3-1-1 tournament finish and the silver medal at the games in Vaujany, France.

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Seen here fighting for a lose puck against Slovakia, Henriette Behn (center in red) is routinely found at the opposing goaltender’s doorstop (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

Arguably though for Behn, the most exciting moment of the series came when she scored the game tying goal against Slovakia with only 32-seconds left in the game to send it to overtime; firing a loose puck past goaltender Olga Jablonovska. After an extra session was played and no decisive winner, the two teams went to a shootout which saw the Norwegians come away with 5-4 victory, well on their way to the silver. Describing that pinnacle moment in which she scored, Behn recalls, “That game was thrilling because the intensity was just so high! I remember I was put on the ice towards the end of regulation so that I could screen the goalie. I remember thinking that I just had to score. When I got that shot from my teammate and managed to score on that rebound, that is a feeling that I cannot even describe”.

And how could she? Once again, it comes down to rarity that few ever get to experience. A tying goal against another nation that keeps your own country’s medal hopes alive. But this is a prime example of Behn’s net presence and when it mattered the most. She also is able to put that medal run into perspective for me. “To win that silver medal was an amazing experience. That meant a lot to me and it’s something I will never forget. Our team was strong that season, and everyone was motivated to show what we really could do. I think this team spirit and the fact that I was in really good shape that season led me to having such strong tournament”.

 

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Henriette Behn in hot pursuit of the puck while playing for Vålerenga in the Norwegian women’s ice hockey league (Photo credit: Kenneth Myrhe).

2016 was Behn’s final U18 tournament appearance and Norway could not recreate their success from the year prior. For Behn, recognizing that it was her last tournament at this particular level was a slightly surreal experience even though she enjoyed it as a whole. “I thought it was a good tournament because that year there were many new players in the group. But of course, it was kind of weird knowing it was my final tournament with the U18 team”. Maybe even somewhat ironic too, that her final statistics from the tournament are incorrect, which she jokingly points out. “I had two goals in that tournament”, she laughs; “the stats are wrong”. Officially, the IIHF has her down as having 1-goal and 1-assist in the 5-game tournament. Norway finished fourth overall with another record of 2-wins and 3-losses.

Though these were Behn’s last U18 appearances on the Norwegian national team, they are likely not her last for Norway, nor does she expect them to be. “I was actually in Hungary with the Norwegian national team back in November (2016), so I hope that I will have the opportunity to play for them going forward. This is something I work hard towards and have in mind every time I workout, so it is definitely something that I am striving for”.

So while she is actively preparing herself for the next opportunity to play for her homeland, what is Henriette Behn’s current status in hockey? Färjestad BK; a hockey club in Sweden that is one tier lower than their Swedish elite women’s hockey league. Asked about the decision to leave the familiar confines of Vålerenga, Behn tells me that she opted for Färjestad BK to further develop her skill level. “I was looking for a more challenging season, and wanted to develop myself even more. As a hockey player this is naturally something you always strive for. Therefore, I was contacted by the Färjestad BK’s coach and received an offer to play there this season. I felt like this was an appropriate league for me where I could develop”.

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Here once again Henriette is jousting in front of the Slovakian net, anticipating a deflection or a rebound (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

And does Behn hold out hope that Färjestad BK may even be promoted to Sweden’s top women’s league? “Yes, there is a possibility that my team will be promoted to the top league. This is what we are working for during the season, so it will definitely be cool to see how we will do in these qualifications. For my part, I definitely want to work hard to reach this goal. And that is to play in the top Swedish women’s league!”. In 6-games this season with Färjestad BK, Behn has 2-goals and 2-assists.

It is interesting to see how this young lady, who knows her way around the front of the net, has no issues with trudging through the trenches in order to better herself. She gets it. She has it figured out. I do not really like the adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It is far too overused and has lost its meaning. But there is something to be said about paying ones dues (to snatch a different phrase). It seems that Henriette Behn has found the proper niche where she can not only challenge herself physically on the ice, but where she also can have an attainable goal in her sights. And while that goal is an attainable one, it is not something that she can just skate right up to and take whenever she pleases. “Nothing comes easy”, she tells me. “You have to put in effort and hard work to get where you want to. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things to reach your goals. But hard work always pays off in the end”.

Thank you, Henriette! Very well stated.

 

 

 

Emilie Kruse; Norwegian U18, Linköping HC forward

The 2017 Women’s World U18 Divison-I Championships for hockey will be taking place from January 8th, 2017 through January 14th in Budapest, Hungary. Gearing up for the tournament is a 17-year old young lady who is already a three-time veteran of this particular soiree. Meet Emilie Kruse, a forward for Team Norway. “It is always an honor to represent my country, and I appreciate every opportunity that I get to wear the polar bear on my chest”, she says. Kruse is most eager and passionate about the upcoming showdown in Budapest and for the game of hockey in general. “Yes, I’ll be playing in my last U18 tournament. Being a veteran of two other previous tournaments, I will do my best to be a good example and a leader to the younger players. It is important to be dedicated to the game, and willing to sacrifice everything to achieve your goals, and I believe that we as a team are all going into the tournament with this same goal”. Poised and professional for sure, even at 17.

Knowing that it is not necessarily common for a female player to participate in more than two U18 tournaments, I became curious to know more about this young Norwegian. “When I was 3-years old I started to skate with my dad at the rink in my hometown in Norway, and I started to play shortly after that”. Kruse is from the town of Halden, Norway; one of the southernmost points of the country and very close to its border with Sweden. “My hockey life in Halden was always great”, Kruse says. “I got the opportunity to play hockey with boys ever since I started playing. I played with the same team until I decided to move to Sweden”. Kruse presently lives and plays hockey in the city of Linköping, Sweden.

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Hailing from Halden, Norway, 17-year old Emilie Kruse plays for Linköping HC in Sweden (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

Kruse’s love for the game seems greatly fostered by her parents; both of whom were players themselves. And while she cannot quite put her finger on what most drew her to the sport, the fact that it was a “family affair” began to groom her interest from the time she was a toddler. “Since I was only 3-years old, I cannot really tell what made me interested in hockey, but my dad and my mom used to play hockey when they were younger, and even my brother played at the same time as me for a while. So I guess that it just came naturally for me. No one ever forced me to play but of course it had an effect on me when I was younger that my mom and dad used to play. I used to play soccer as well, but that came to an end when I had to pick one of them; it wasn’t even a question which sport I was going to choose over the two”, Kruse tells me.

“I wouldn’t say that there were a lot of opportunities for me to play hockey in Halden”, she recalls from her childhood. “There was really one team, and that was it. Of course, there were other hockey teams nearby, but they belonged to other cities, and for me that was not an option”. From conversing with Emilie Kruse, I garner that she continuously endeavors to develop her hockey skills and that she had recognized at an early age she may need to seek opportunities elsewhere if she wanted to heighten her abilities. “It was when I decided to play with a women’s team that I began to look to other cities and countries to play. I had to play with a team from another city because my team in Halden didn’t have a women’s team; that was when I decided to play with Sparta Sarpsborg”.

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Prior to joining Linköping HC, Emilie Kruse played for Sparta Sarpsborg in her homeland of Norway. (Photo credit: Kenneth Myhre).

Sarpsborg is located in the same region as Halden, Østfold County, and dates back to the time of the Vikings as one of the oldest inhabited regions of the area. Only 30-minutes away by car, the close proximity between the two towns and the increased level of hockey brought about a virtual “no brainer” for Kruse to choose which path to take. “I decided to go to Sparta Sarpsborg because it was not far from home, and the team took me in before I was old enough to play with them”. Emilie Kruse actually started to practice with Sarpsborg a full year and a half before she was old enough to play with the team and with this particular league. “You have to be 13-years old to play in the league. It was an easy choice because I was always welcome with the team, and they were known for having a good team spirit”.

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Anytime that Emilie Kruse is able to don the Norwegian polar bear on her jersey, she considers it an honor (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

At only 5-foot 3-inches and 120-pounds, Kruse’s small stature never gave her reason to shy away from physical play. And although she was even smaller as a 13-year old, she earned herself a bit of a reputation on the ice with Sarpsborg. During her 47-career games with the team, Kruse registered 56-penalty minutes in addition to her 9-goals and 11-assists. She explains her style during those early years and how it has since transitioned: “Especially in my first two seasons in Sarpsborg, I was very small and didn’t follow with the tempo of the game. I was so little, and I got a good amount of hooking, tripping and slashing calls. I would not say that I played a particularly intense style of hockey at the time, but as I got taller and quicker I started to bodycheck. It’s hard to tell exactly why I did that, but it may have had something to do with me playing with boys and girls at the same time; I didn’t separate between two types of intensity in my game”.

I am especially impressed by Emilie Kruse’s own self-awareness as a hockey player, and how she is truly  able to take an inward look at her own game. Kruse goes on to say, “Now I feel that I play a more intense style of hockey. I am that type of player that can be very rough in a duel to win the puck, and especially when we have those really important games. It’s a physical game”, she says, “and I believe that I have to play with an edge to be the best for my team. We have so many good players in the league that I presently play in that being physical is becoming a part of my game. And for me, that’s how I can contribute for my own team”.

Kruse does not have to look far for role models, nor in less obvious corners of the “hockey globe” to find inspiration and further blossom her game. “I know that it’s a very original answer”, she says with a grin, “but if I am picking a hero from the NHL it would have to be Sidney Crosby. I think the overall package that he presents is highly impressive. The way he uses his body to protect the puck, and how he makes it possible to take advantage of his edge control to gain speed. He is naturally a good role model for me because of the way he works on the ice, and the happiness he gets when he is repaid for his hard work”.

In addition to Crosby, Kruse can find plenty of inspiration among her teammates with her current hockey club Linköping HC. Olympians Jennifer Wakefield, Denise Altmann, Florence Schelling, and Swedish legend Pernilla Winberg all comprise the roster. “I have the opportunity to play on the same team as many great hockey players, and I have even gotten to play against some others as well. I had the opportunity too to participate at the IIHF’s High Performance camp this summer, and got to listen to players tell their story and tell us about their careers”.

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With Linköping HC, Emilie Kruse plays for one of the most elite hockey clubs in the world. (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

And so how did Kruse end up in Sweden to play with one of the most historic hockey clubs in the history of the game (and that’s not just meaning in Sweden!)? “When I was younger my dad always took the family to watch Swedish Elite League games in Gothenburg, and I guess that got me to dreaming about wanting to play in Sweden someday. When I was playing for Sparta Sarpsborg I knew a man named Jens Brändström that had moved to Sarpsborg from Linköping, and he happened to coach me sometimes. He told me about Linköping, and that they were starting a gymnasium for girls, and he wondered if that would be of interest to me. Jens set me up on a tryout that Linköping was having in connection with the upcoming gymnasium, and I was lucky enough to be accepted”. 

For Kruse and her fellow countrywomen, the opportunity to play hockey in Sweden is a bit of a dream come true and is something to be held in high regard. “I think that many girls in Norway really want to play in Sweden. It’s a totally different league with players from all over the world; that right there naturally makes a higher tempo game. Swedish hockey for women is well spoken of in Norway, in general”. Having started with Linköping during the 2015-16 season, Kruse has already appeared in 43-games with the club between two seasons, potting 2-goals and an assist in that time. “Linköping is known for having a great association and for developing young players to become even better, and to be able to play in the US or wherever they would like to play. And for me, it is an honor to be a member of this association”.

In all, that is a vast amount of training, competition and experience for a young player like Kruse to have gained in a relatively short period of time. After all, she is only 17-years old and is playing on a roster with women who have won multiple Olympic medals in some instances. Needless to say, Kruse is enriched with the intangibles needed to be an elite international player herself, and has already made good use of them in two previous U18 competitions representing Norway.

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#18 Emily Kruse (Johansen) celebrates with her teammates for the Norwegian women’s national U18 team. (Photo provided courtesy of Emily Kruse).

2015 brought elation to the Norwegian women’s U18 team. A 3-1-1 finish in that year’s tournament in Vaujany, France gave Kruse and Team Norway an unprecedented silver medal at the tournament. “The silver medal is definitely one of my greatest achievements so far. I did not get much ice time except for some shifts in the first game of the tournament, but it was a unique experience and a motivation boost for the following year’s world championship”. The Norwegian’s tied for the tournament lead for fewest goals against; a mere 9-goals in 5-games. A particularly exciting matchup was Norway’s fourth game of the competition; a heart racing 5-4 shootout victory over Slovakia. The game featured a large amount of heated penalties between the two teams (slashing, elbowing, and illegal hit calls) with the Norwegians coming out victorious on Anniken Olafsen’s game-winning shootout goal. Still feeling a sense of exhilaration as she thinks back, Kruse says “I just remember that I was very nervous because of the shootout, but we won the game in the end and that’s all that matters”.

Another year older brought about a larger role for Emilie Kruse in 2016 for that year’s U18 tournament held in Miskolc, Hungary. Even though they would falter during her second major IIHF competition and end up in a fourth place by tournament end (2-wins, 3-losses), Kruse was a key contributor for the Norwegians. “For me it was a good tournament. I got a lot of ice time. Our coach trusted me and played me all the time. It was a totally different experience from the championship that I had the year before”. This 2016 go-round would see her finish with 2-assists in 5-games and have a plus-1 overall.

Entering into her third and final U18 tournament in only a matter of days, if there is anything that Norway can depend upon it is Emilie Kruse’s preparedness. Between the two prior tournaments and playing on a team as elite as Linköping HC, it is almost unbelievable the amount of experience that this little lady already has pinned to her résumé. But in talking with her too, another couple of things you can depend upon Emilie Kruse is her sense of humility and that self-awareness again as a hockey player.

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Wheeling away from a Hungarian player, Emilie Kruse (Johansen) #18 will represent Norway for third time on the national U18 squad in Hungary January 8th, 2017-January 14th in Budapest, Hungary (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

“I’m a technical player with a lot of energy. Sometimes I still need to remember and remind myself that it is necessary to play a full 60-minute game, and that is something that I have been working on”. This is what I mean by Kruse’s humility; she can critique herself with no issue and is always looking for ways to better her game. “Even though I consider myself pretty young, I have had a lot of opportunities to visit places I would never have seen if it wasn’t for hockey. I have also made a lot of friends from different countries that I will never forget”. Kruse appreciates what she has. No question whatsoever.

Some final words from Emilie to me: “As I said, I am very young, but a thing that I have learned during these years of playing hockey is that nothing comes for free. If you want something, you have to work hard to achieve your goal, and even if you meet challenges on the way you just have to keep going because eventually you will get repaid for your hard work”. Words to live by from a remarkable young woman. Thank you Emilie, and best wishes to you and the Norwegian team in Hungary!

 

Andrea Rišianová: Team Slovakia U18 Women’s Goaltender

“Our team’s goaltending coach came to my mom one day with some goalie pads and equipment and said, “Okay, Andrea is going to be a goalie now. I don’t really know how, but I can tell that she knows it; she can play the position”. That is how her role as a goaltender started. Simple, but intuitive on the part of her goaltending coach. It’s Christmas Eve, and I am chatting with a 16-year old netminder for Slovakia’s U18 national team, Andrea Rišianová.

She hails from the city of Martin, Slovakia. Located towards the middle of her homeland, Martin is the eighth largest city in the country and home to a population of 61,000. Despite the small population, former NHL players Zdeno Ciger, Richard Panik, Robert Svehla, Radovan Somik, and Peter Smrek all call the same town as Rišianová their home. The region is incredibly picturesque, accompanied by strolling mountains, dark green woods, and even waterfalls. “In the city where I was born, the ice rink is located next to our grandparents’ house. I started to skate there, and then got involved with the MHK (Martin Hockey Club) training for children. From there, I just fell in love with the game of hockey”, she says.

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Soon to be 17-years old, Andrea Rišianová is a superb young goaltender for Slovakia’s national U18 women’s team (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

Though Rišianová is only 16 (she will be 17 in less than a month), she has actually been skating for a long period of time. “I was 3-years old the first time that I walked out on the ice, and then I started playing organized hockey on a team when I was 8”. According to Rišianová though, there was not a particular reason that she wanted to take on the goaltending position other than that their appearance was a lot more to her liking than a skating position. “I was just always interested in how nice goalies look out on the ice, and I kind of wanted to try it”, she says.

For Rišianová, she emulates and admires her fellow countryman, Peter Budaj of the Los Angeles Kings. Budaj is presently the longest tenured Slovakian-born goaltender in the NHL, and as of late has found a resurgence of sorts with the Los Angeles Kings; also Rišianová’s favorite hockey club. With top Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick on the shelf due to injury for almost the entire 2016-17 NHL season thus far, Budaj has taken over the reigns as the team’s number one backstopper, and is just about to pass the 30-games plateau for the season. “I love the L.A. Kings and Peter Budaj is my hero. I have watched his career for a long time, and it is unbelievable how much of a star he has become”, Rišianová tells me. By happenstance, I share with her that Budaj’s Kings were just in my hometown to take on the Buffalo Sabres, and I had the opportunity of seeing him play. Rišianová is jokingly jealous, and tells me “if coming to an NHL game from Slovakia were that simple, I would already be there!”, she laughs.

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Making a save while in net for her club team MHK Martin, Andrea Rišianová is constantly practicing and honing her skills (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

I ask Rišianová what she feels are her skills that have made her such an elite goaltender for her country. “I am not the kind of person who admires herself, but I believe that I have good stickhandling skills for a goaltender, and I believe that my movements in net are quite fast”. Even though she is humble, Rišianová has been able to demonstrate her talents on the international scene on multiple occasions during the past year, and the experience for her has been most memorable. “Tournaments with the national team are always so exciting, and I love that!”, she says.

Firstly, Rišianová and Team Slovakia captured a bronze medal at the 2016 Women’s U18 Division I Championships held this past January in Miskolc, Hungary. Rišianová went perfect with 10-stops on 10-shots against Denmark in Slovakia’s second game of the tournament. Sharing the goaltending duties with Adriana Stofankova, Slovakia took third place with a 3-1-1 record at the tournament.

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Andrea Rišianová in heavy action against the Czech Republic (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

After the Division I tournament, Rišianová was featured between the pipes at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. It was at this tournament where Rišianová particularly shined in net. In 3-games for Slovakia she put up very solid numbers of a 2.49 goals against average to go along with .889 save percentage. Included in that was a very tight 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic in which Rišianová stopped 32-shots, a 15-save performance against Switzerland, and a 9-save game against Sweden after she came in for relief of fellow Slovakian netminder Simona Lezovicova who was pulled after allowing four goals. And while Slovakia lost in the February 20th bronze medal game against Switzerland, the tournament was still a great success for Rišianová.

Putting her international experience into perspective for me, Rišianová says, “Every game that I played in Lillehammer was very special for me. To answer what my greatest achievements in hockey are thus far, I would have to say winning the bronze medal in Hungary for the U18 World Championships, and then definitely the Youth Olympic games in Lillehammer”. It would probably be needless to say that these first two international tournaments are the first of many that will come for Rišianová. She most assuredly has the passion and the desire to be a student of the game and the goaltender position, and to continue to hone her skills through constant hard work.

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Winning the bronze medal at the 2016 Women’s U18 Division-I tournament in Hungary is one of the major highlights to Andrea Rišianová’s young career (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

That being said, Rišianová has faced some struggles that she is intent on overcoming in this current season, 2016-17, playing in Slovakia 1st-Division women’s league. Rišianová is the starting goaltender for MHK Martin. Dealing with illness and injuries, her play has faltered at times but she has met these challenges head-on. In 7-games this season for MHK Martin, Rišianová’s numbers have been a 6.21 goals against average and a .773 save percentage in this early part of the season. And while such numbers and struggles could be discouraging to her, Andrea has forged onward and maintains a positive outlook on her game. “The most important thing that I have learned in hockey is that you have to have strong nerves”, she says. “And if something doesn’t go well for you, keep trying and working at it until its perfect”.

On top of that, Rišianová sees the importance of being an advocate and an example for other Slovakian girls younger than her even who want to play the game of hockey. She encourages them that if they have an interest in the game, by all means, pursue it. “Don’t worry about those who may tell you that hockey is a ‘boys’ sport’. There are a lot of girls and a lot of women playing hockey more and more each day, and it’s a really nice thing to see developing”.

It is refreshing to see a young lady like Andrea Rišianová who is not only passionate about hockey, but who also is capable of maintaining her composure and her cool through good times and in bad. The highs of winning a bronze medal and a successful solo performance on the international scene, while trudging through the lows of a challenging season for her club team. Rišianová does not “toot her own horn” over her capabilities, but she also doesn’t lose sleep because she is going through a rough patch. She is a focused and a determined young lady who is bound to be a cornerstone for Slovakia’s national team for many years ahead. Keep up the great work, Andrea!

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Andrea Rišianová will be a strong goaltender for Slovakia for many years to come, much like her hero Peter Budaj. (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová; photo credit Piotr Synowiec).

 

 

 

“Levity with a killer instinct” ~Anya Battaglino, Connecticut Whale defender

It’s the morning of the Connecticut Whale’s NWHL home opener and I am speaking with defender Anya Battaglino. The irony being that this evening Battaglino’s Whale will be squaring off against the Buffalo Beauts, and while she is on one end of the phone line in Connecticut, I am on the other end here in Buffalo. Though hearing her talk, indulging in every word of her answers to my questions, I sincerely wish that I were in Connecticut too with the opportunity to see her play tonight.

I have never attributed the phrase “heart of a lion” to anyone before, but I will do so in the case of Anya Battaglino. She embodies it completely, and when you listen to her speak about hockey, about her teammates, about the young kids who marvel at she and her fellow NWHL players out on the ice, you would be willing to enlist and go to battle alongside of her wherever she may lead the charge. And in this day, she is presently helping to lead the charge for the NWHL and growing the women’s professional game. Battaglino certainly has the experience and the wherewithal to do so too.

“I probably started playing hockey around the age of three”, Battaglino recalls. “My brother is four years older, and he started playing around the age of seven”. In some pesky but lovable sibling rivalry, Battaglino had to follow in her brother’s footsteps. “He started playing, and I could not handle not doing something that my brother was doing. I was like, ‘Mom, that’s what I want to do!’ I was tugging at her shirt every time we were at the rink. ‘That’s what I want to do! That’s what I want to do!’. My brother wore number-8, and I was such a little jerk”, and she laughs, “that I had to wear number-16 because I had to be two-times better. I had been a ballerina, I was doing all of the things that little girls do. So what really motivated me to start playing hockey was my older brother. Once my brother started to play, I wanted to play too. I wanted to put myself in his world. I really looked up to my brother, so I started to play because of him”.

A young lady hailing from Massachusetts, becoming utterly enthralled with the game at that early of an age, one would be inclined to think that Anya Battaglino is naturally a Boston Bruins fan. And while she is in fact, Battaglino is quick to clarify that it isn’t entirely across the board. “I am a diehard Bruins fan. But, I am also a diehard Kings fan”, she says. “You’ll find me on either side of a black jersey; whether it is black, silver and white, or black and gold”. Though she loves both the Boston and Los Angeles based NHL franchises, Battaglino also finds herself cheering for the teams of NHL players who played for her alma mater, Boston University. “Especially now that I have played at BU and I have met so many guys who have gone on to play in ‘the Show’. My buddy Brian Strait played for the New York Islanders, so then I was like, ‘okay, I like the Islanders’. But now he plays for the Winnipeg Jets, so I ended up saying, ‘okay, I like the Jets’. But any given day that the Bruins or Kings are on the ice, I am losing my mind over them!”.

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One of the most endearing players in the NWHL, the Connecticut Whale’s Anya Battaglino (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Having to narrow it down to a single NHL player though, Battaglino informs me that her favorite player in the game today is Los Angeles’ most elite player. “Anze Kopitar is my favorite hockey player”. The two-time Stanley Cup champion for the Kings and the current reigning winner of both the Lady Byng and Selke trophies has even brought about a nickname for Battaglino. “Everyone calls me ‘Anze’, which is actually a nickname coined for me by Kaleigh Fratkin (current New York Riveter, former teammate at Boston University, with the CWHL’s Boston Blades, and the Connecticut Whale). Since I was in college, everyone has taken to calling me ‘Kopitar’ or ‘Anze’ or even ‘Anz’, all because I am a big Kopitar fan”.

Anze Kopitar may be her current favorite hockey player but growing up as a kid in Waltham, Massachusetts, an encounter with a U.S. Olympian brought about major inspiration for the young Anya. “My hockey idol as a young kid was Courtney Kennedy”, she says. “Courtney was on the national team at the time, and they happened to play a game at BU. To this day, I remember it like it was yesterday. We were going through an autograph line, and all of the players were standing up or sitting in chairs signing autographs. Courtney Kennedy took a knee, she put her face right at my level and she said, ‘You can do this if you want to. You know that, right?’. I had to have been about 9-years old, and everyday since that time when I have gotten onto the ice to play hockey, I’ve just thought of Courtney Kennedy saying to me, ‘You can do this someday too'”. Kennedy earned both silver and bronze Olympic medals at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics respectively, as well as a gold medal at the 2005 World Championships.

Beginning in eighth grade Battaglino played five years for Waltham High School and helped her school qualify for the state tournament for four straight years from 2007 until 2010. Strong success at the high school level developed into Battaglino accepting an opportunity to play in one of the most elite collegiate hockey programs, both for women and for men, in all of North America, the Boston University Terriers. “This is going to sound lame, but I loved the idea of playing for a team whose colors were red and white. My high school team was red and white. I was partially obsessed with that, so I will admit that at first it was a colors thing. My biological father started working at BU when I was a kid, and at the time there was a team called the Junior Terriors, and I ended up playing for them. So in my life, I was surrounded by BU. Their program at the time was still fairly new. They actually only started their women’s program five years before I started going to school there. I had actually always dreamed of playing BU Men’s ice hockey. I did not even think of there being a women’s hockey program there when I was a kid. I remember thinking, ‘I want to play in Walter Brown (arena; current home of the BU Women’s Terriers, and former home of the Men’s team as well), and I want to play on the Men’s team because there was no women’s team at the time”.

As fate would have it though, BU assembled a women’s hockey team coinciding with the time that Battaglino was finishing high school and looking to attend college with the hopes of continuing her hockey career. “It all worked out perfectly. They started up a team. They were a good team off the bat, and they were playing right out of Walter Brown. It was my dream come true. I probably could have played somewhere else, or played more ice time at a different school, but I could never even imagine not wearing the red and white and not representing Boston University; I couldn’t even fathom that. For me, BU was a natural choice. And everything in my life was Terriers”. During her two years as a Terrier, Anya Battaglino suited up for 18-regular season games for BU, plus 14 more in the Hockey East playoffs.

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A stalwart defender for the Whale, Battaglino (#4) never second guesses putting it all on the line to protect her zone (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

When asked about special moments or memories during her time as a Terrier, Battaglino is able to pinpoint one moment in particular, though it might not be what one would guess. “It’s so funny because I didn’t even play in the game, but during my freshman year we made it to the National Championship. The whole team before every single game had this routine where we would put music on. Jenelle Kohanchuk would get up and she would dance. And then the whole team would go quiet. I love to dance, and everyone would be quiet, and they’d turn on ‘The Dougie’. I would get up and dance for the whole team”, Battaglino remembers with great lightheartedness. “It was that moment where you knew that the game was so important, and we were all laughing, and I was dancing around like a silly person. It was that camaraderie and that team that just felt right to me”.

Having fun and joining in an amusing pregame tradition as a team extended beyond any specific moments on the ice. When Battaglino thinks back on her time at BU, it was the togetherness that it was really all about. “I think it’s not about being on the ice. It’s not about the shifts, or about the goals, or anything like that. It just came down to the concept of, ‘At what moment did I feel that I was so connected to the team that I would die if I didn’t have that?'”. And in the locker before the biggest possible game, she found that moment as a BU Terrier. Her “favorite” moment while being at BU, as she tells me.

I mentioned Battaglino having the heart of a lion. One could also apply phrases or terms such as “reckless abandonment”, “Tasmanian devil”, or “devil-may-care” when she competes on the ice as a defender. In fact, Battaglino is probably all of that rolled into one. Describing her own best attributes when she defends, Battaglino says, “I have a killer protective instinct. In anything. When it comes to my friends, my family and my hockey. I am not going to be the defenseman that gets a lot of points or does crazy, offensive things. I am such a quiet, stay-at-home defender that I will protect my D-zone with my life”. And she is not kidding. Elaborating more, “Whether that is taking a slap-shot off the throat, or some other crazy situation I have gotten myself in. I will not rest until I have done everything that I could to protect my goalie. I think that’s what makes me a strong defender. When I am on the ice my team knows that I am not going to go end-to-end and score a goal. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s going to be safe”.

This style of play is what has given Battaglino her longevity and has brought about a professional career for her. “I will constantly work to get better. I won’t stop going  all the way out, and I won’t let anything by me without given the hardest fight that I have fought in my life”. In my estimations, Battaglino fits that persona of the player whom you would love to have on your team, but that you absolutely hate playing against. “I make it hard for other players. I definitely make it hard. I am proud that I know what my team needs of me, and I can capitalize on that when I am on the ice”.

This tenacity of Battaglino’s brought about the opportunity to play the highest level of women’s hockey in Canada when she joined the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). “I played two years at BU, but then I stepped away to see where I fit in with hockey. That was a very hard thing for me. I went through this moment of trying to determine what I should do now, and what it is that I want for me. Thankfully for me I was blessed to play with the highest caliber of players. With the Blades, I was on a team that was essentially the U.S. National team”. Throughout their time, the Boston Blades have held such elite U.S. players like Meghan Duggan, Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight, Kelli Stack, Jenny Potter, and Gigi Marvin; some of whom have gone onto play in the NWHL with Battaglino. “After one year of playing with the Blades it made me fall back in love with hockey. It made me work every single day to get better. But not because someone else told me to. I made the decision everyday to wake up and go play hockey, and it made me love the sport again”.

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Anya Battaglino is a player who ceaselessly works to improve her craft (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

The success that Battaglino found with the Blades culminated in the Clarkson Cup championship of the CWHL with the team during the 2012-13 season. “I was playing the best quality hockey that I had ever played in my life. I found myself getting better every single day, and I was making the conscious choice to go out on the ice and enjoy myself”. Having left BU and jumped to the CWHL was in Battaglino’s own estimations a “tough transition” and an “odd story” as she puts it. “When I tell people about my hockey career, they are surprised that I didn’t play all four years at BU. But this was the path that ended up leading me to success. Winning the Clarkson Cup, my name is on the Cup and forever in the Hockey Hall of Fame”. Things work out the way that they are supposed to, and for Battaglino that is no different. She says, “I came to the realization that, am I going to be on the national team? No. But, am I going to play this sport because I love it and I think it does a lot of good for the world; for people, and for kids, and for confidence levels? Yes, I will. I really believe in hockey as vehicle to being a better person and I could not give that up”.

Despite the success that Battaglino found with the Blades, there were moments of doubt that she felt about her own game. It would take some clarity brought to her by her Blades’ teammates that made Anya realize that she had grown immensely as a player and as a person. “I could say that winning the Clarkson Cup was the pinnacle of my time in the CWHL, and although that was special, I will still say that my strongest memory there was more along the lines with what I shared when I felt a part of the team at BU. We were at practice, and I was all frustrated. I felt that I had been playing terrible and I just could not get my legs under me that day. But then Caitlin Cahow and Kacey Bellamy came up to me and said, ‘An, you have gotten so much better. We can’t even fathom how hard you work and why you do it’. I had two of arguably the best defenders in the U.S. at the time coming up to me and giving me the affirmation that I was ‘killing it’, so to speak. Moments like that, and being able to friend people like Kelli Stack, Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight. It was people like that who I really looked up to, and it felt like that team was there to play hockey together. Camaraderie was high, and they were recognizing me for my hard work as a practice player on the team and helping to make them better too”. Battaglino appeared in 21-games with the Blades during her time in the CWHL.

Playing women’s hockey at the most elite level, an even greater opportunity was just around the corner for Battaglino and many of the best players in the game. A new professional league that offered paid contracts to play the game that they love. After the 2013-14 season in the CWHL, Battaglino would become one of the pioneer players of the NWHL during the inaugural 2015-2016 campaign. “I started to get that realization that, ‘Okay, you have to start a career at some point. You’ve got to do something’. Many times when I have had to make a major decision in my life, it is me trying to figure where does hockey fit. Kaleigh Fratkin said to me, ‘An, there is going to be a league. It’s going to start up, and we’re going to get paid for it. What are you thinking?’. And I told her, “You know what, Kal? I’ll throw my hat in the ring. Why not, right?'”, Battaglino remembers. I have often heard that the best thing you can do is the right thing, the second best thing you can do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is do nothing at all. Battaglino, like many of these talented women, followed through on that thought and gave this new league a go.

“I ended up getting my car. I kissed my mom. Packed my car up. Took a job in Connecticut. Why? I don’t know. But I felt like it. And I got the offer from the Whale to be a practice player, and start building on the success that I had started having in hockey. I turned my back on some opportunities that I had in Boston in terms of jobs and careers. But I think at the end of the day I just wanted to give it one last hurrah, and the NWHL gave me the capability to be an adult with a job and a career, but also start to try and look at what the picture was, as to whether I could try to fit hockey in”. During her first season in the NWHL with the Whale, Battaglino appeared in 8-regular season games plus one more in the playoffs. She has also become one of the league’s most beloved players and it is easy to see why when considering her warm personality and her never-say-die attitude on the ice. “A lot of it was just taking a risk on myself, and taking a risk on a new idea”.

That being said, new ideas typically do not come without trials and tribulations. It takes time for fledgling concepts to develop, and they are often built upon the backs and the hardships of those brave enough to venture forth and believe in these ideals. For Battaglino and the players of the NWHL this is not really different, especially considering the current status of the league in which players unexpectedly were told to take very sizable cuts in their pay. “It has been a whirlwind, especially lately. But, it has been one of the best decisions that I have made in my entire life. It takes a lot of commitment. Ashley Johnston and I, both with full-time jobs and hardly any time to connect with one another, end up talking all night long on conference calls. Discussing what are we doing, how do we fix it, and how do we provide the support to the league that they need. My passion takes me so far in this world that I cannot imagine letting hockey fail. Especially when we as people are so wildly passionate about it, and not because it is our fulltime career, but because we just love it”.

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A sincere appreciation of her loved ones is one characteristic of Battaglino that makes her so admirable (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Battaglino thinks of the younger generation of hockey players especially. And she is careful to point out not just the little girls but also little boys too that love the game. These youngsters are who she wants the NWHL to be a success for. “I see the look on the little kids’ faces when they meet me, and I remember the look on my face meeting Courtney Kennedy. If I can inspire one person to chase their dreams as hard as I have, then I have done my job. I think the NWHL has given me a great portal to say, ‘Hey, these are things that I believe in. This is whom I want to instill my thoughts and messages down to; the people who can take my job and do it better. And really how can I continue to advocate from the inside out. The league is definitely a great platform for that”. I give Battaglino all the credit in the world for this undertaking, and I tell her so. It is obvious when you look around the arena at the young fans attending the games. It makes a difference. Hats off to Anya, and those doing this with her.

So where does the NWHL go from here, and what does Battaglino want for the future of this league? She tells me. “For the next generation, I honestly hope that they will have that buy-in from the NHL. I love the feeling of pioneering. But I will be honest with you – it is hard, and it is trying. There are times that it beats you up and breaks you down, and you just want to cry and you just want to quit. But then there are times when it is really a rewarding feeling. I would want the next generation to just feel the levity of being able to sustain themselves, and have the sense of pride and passion that they’re playing for something that doesn’t have to feel so hard. I want the next generation to be recognized as pro hockey players and looked up to. ‘Hey, you’re on the Connecticut Whale – I know who you are!’. Or to be driving down the highway and seeing a billboard, or watching TV and catching replays of their NWHL game on ESPN or the NHL Network. Those are the little things that I want the next generation to have as validation and acceptance. I think mass media often forgets that there is a pro women’s hockey league, and that any given Sunday you can see the best players in the world. Players like Sam Faber. She is a hockey legend! How does a player like her not have a personal sponsor? I don’t want players of the next generation to worry about things like that”.

“As a pioneer you can get a lot of flack, and a lot of hate. You get a lot of ‘what are you wasting your time for?’. Until someone sees the dream, and suddenly says – ‘let me stand behind you instead of against you’. I want as many people as possible who are willing to stand behind me. To stand behind pioneers like Ashley Johnston. And then to say, ‘Wow! Those women really had it right! We were a bit remiss to ever discredit them'”. Battaglino is dead on with this statement. Dead on. The NWHL features the best women’s hockey players in the world. As a hockey community, to not give these players their due props is a travesty in many ways.

“Little girls and little boys in the stands. It’s both. When we go through the autograph line, I am pretty sure it is 50-50. When I look through the stands and I see a little kid that just has that plastered smile on their face, and who at the end of the game comes up to you and says, ‘I wear number-4 too!’. Last year, I had the kids who came through the autograph line sign me an autograph. So I have a little book, and I am going to do the same thing this year at all of our home games too, because I want them to know what it feels like for someone to want their autograph. That is the best feeling in the world. If I could sum up what it means to me to see them in the stands in one word it would just be, ‘overwhelmed'”. It overwhelms my heart to know their little, tiny faces are getting wider and that their horizons are being expanded by knowing that anything is possible. If you dream it, you can achieve it. If you can see it, you can do it. I want to give them a bigger picture so that they can see more things”. Could anybody have said it any better, folks? I mean, this is what hockey is about!

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Anya Battaglino is one of the biggest advocates for growing the game of hockey for the next generation (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Battaglino considers what she has gained from hockey. Since the tender age of three until today, it has brought an abundance of key values and lessons into her life. What can she pinpoint it down to though? “I think you could give it a couple answers. Does it make me a better employee, or a harder worker, or does it give me time management skills? Yes. Can it make me a better person in the workplace? Absolutely. Did it make me more understanding? Yes. Did it make me better equipped to handle situations that I wasn’t previously prepared for? Absolutely. But I think the biggest thing in playing hockey that it did for me was give me the self-confidence to be unapologetically myself. Standing up to bullies who made fun of me for playing hockey, or made fun of me for because I was a girl who was playing a boys’ sport. It gave me the confidence to come out and tell my teammates, that I lived this lifestyle that was so regularly frowned upon, and that even if it wasn’t understood that they loved me anyway. At the end of the day it is the capability that I can show up somewhere, be myself, and not feel that I have to apologize for it. Hockey gave me the capability of feeling that I could be my own type of person”.

What can one say to all of that? Anya Battaglino is most assuredly herself, and there could never be any need to apologize for that. Hell, I am better because I now know her. I have already assured her that I for one will stand behind her. I want the NWHL to be a success for many years to come. I want people to recognize how special these “pioneer” hockey players truly are. I know a fair amount of people in the hockey community too. I would ask that they also align themselves and stand behind this league and these players. We all can take an extra sip of courage, believe in a new idea, rally around it and foster it to carry on. Be supporters of the NWHL, and what I see as the game of hockey in arguably its purest sense. And maybe learn to be better people from someone like Anya Battaglino. Unapologetically. I for one cannot thank you enough, Anya.

“Family, kindness and community ~Emily Janiga, Buffalo Beauts center”

The first true snowfall in Buffalo today – with icy pavement, blustery snowflakes, and all. The Buffalo Beauts just wrapped up a gut-wrenching 5-0 loss to the Boston Pride. A sense of pulling our collars more snug and huddling up for comfort; both literally and figuratively for us Buffalonians and the Beauts’ faithful. Yet here I am, standing beneath the HarborCenter bleachers, outside of the Beauts locker room with Emily Janiga. And she is welcoming and kind, and has a smile that could definitely warm any misgivings felt from the Beauts loss. Emily embodies what the NWHL is about. What hockey should be about, at its very core. She is why people need to go to hockey games, especially Beauts games.

“I grew up in a hockey family. Older brothers that played, sisters ahead of me that played, and uncles. So I kind of just followed in their footsteps”, Janiga reflects for me. Hockey in its purest sense. A family affair. Learning the game from one another and finding common ground as a family that loves the game together. “We actually have every Sunday for as long as I can remember a family skate in the summertime at 7:00 o’clock in the morning. We do a scrimmage against each other. All the aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins’ friends. We have enough to play five-on-five out there. It’s awesome!”.

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Focused and determined on the ice, Emily Janiga served as team captain/co-captain for the Mercyhurst Lakers during her junior and senior years (Photo credit: Tim Brule, Merychurst Athletics).

Janiga, who started playing organized hockey at the age of five or six, and even wore a pair of skates as early as two years old, is from the Buffalo area; originally having been born and raised in East Aurora. “There are actually a lot more opportunities to play now than when I was growing up. I first started playing for the Saints (Western New York’s own Saints Hockey Club) when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Playing on a team with and against girls who were 13 or 14, if not 16 or 17 even. It was a very diverse collection of players. There was just not much around. I played some local guys hockey in the mites league. Definitely as I got older the Buffalo Bisons started developing and I played there. I played on Rochester Edge for a couple years. My last couple of years I ended up going to Burlington Ontario. Definitely as I got older more opportunities developed”.

In Burlington, Janiga would play for the girls hockey club, the Burlington Barracuda as part of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) during her junior and senior years of high school. This playing history of Janiga’s is most interesting, and seems to document the course of women’s hockey over the past decade or two within Western New York. But Janiga is far from your typical player. The elite skill level that she was able to build and maintain was obvious even at an early age; whether it be while playing against players nearly twice her age as a youngster with the Saints, or needing to reach more challenging competition by venturing up north into the PWHL. Like Janiga, a number of players who came out of the PWHL are now in the NWHL; Kelly Babstock and fellow Beaut Kristina Lavoie to name a couple.

Emily and I find almost immediate common ground when I ask her to tell me about any hockey heroes she may have had while growing up. “Family was a huge part, and still is a huge part of me and finding my motivation. I have always looked up to them. But specifically, I grew up watching the Sabres. We had season tickets and we only had two seats, so we each had a turn at going to the games. My dad would take me to one or two games a year. But my favorite Sabres player – Afinogenov”. Go figure – my favorite Sabre too; the only Buffalo Sabres jersey I have ever purchased was Maxim Afinogenov’s. Hearing this affirmation of Janiga’s instantly brings a smile to my face and a laugh, and I feel almost as if I am talking to an old friend. It is funny how things we have in common create bonds that we form with another person.

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#4 Emily Janiga with a scoring opportunity against the Boston Pride’s goaltender Brittany Ott. (Photo credit: Kurt Zwald, via flickr).

“I would always wear the number-61 on my jersey because of Afinogenov when I played as a kid. He was awesome!”, she says. “But as soon as I got his jersey though, he ended up leaving Buffalo (Afinogenov would play one season with the Atlanta Thrashers after not being re-signed by Buffalo in 2009). “Then it turned into every time I bought a jersey the player got traded”, she laughs. “So I had to stop buying jerseys. I bought Pat Kaleta’s, and then he was let go. So there was a family rule made – if anytime there was a favorite player of mine on the team, I wasn’t allowed to buy the jersey”.

Janiga would elect to attend college at Mercyhurst University, and she would become one of the program’s most decorated and accomplished players. Janiga is very humble, though not in a way that is not heartfelt or insincere – when she attributes her many successes to being surrounded by superb teammates, she means it truly and this rings loud and clear to me. “There were a lot of options. It’s hard when you’re thinking about where you want to go to school. When you think about where you want to spend the next four years, there are a lot of factors that play in. Definitely made a few visits all around; some close, some far. And Mercyhurst was the last school that I visited. As soon as I stepped foot onto campus, I was like ‘Mom. Dad. I want to go here’. Everything about it was perfect”.

While there are numerous items that she loves about Mercyhurst, Janiga seems most endeared by the community that comprises the school. “It’s a small community, and reminded me a lot of my high school. I went to Nichols, and that small community feel seemed to transfer over to Mercyhurst. The coaching too, and all of the success that they have had. But more so the community. It was just awesome. Everyone was there to help you move forward. Not just the hockey aspect, but with becoming a better person, to do better in school, and to become an all-around better hockey player”.

The comfort, the sense of home that Janiga found in the school’s community certainly paid immense dividends in how she was able to develop on the ice. When looking at Emily Janiga’s career as a Mercyhurst Laker, she averaged better than a point per game throughout her entire collegiate career; 72-goals and 79-assists for 151-points in only 141-games. That includes a junior year campaign in which she fired away 27-goals in 35-games, her highest goal scoring year out of her four as a Laker, 11-goals of which came on the powerplay while 5-goals were game winners.

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A Boston Pride player looks to keep Buffalo’s #4 Emily Janiga at bay (Photo credit: Kurt Zwald, via flickr).

The list of accolades that Janiga achieved while at Mercyhurst is tremendous, and some of the more noteworthy ones came during that phenomenal junior year when she was named the 2015 College Hockey America Player of the Year, was named a 2015 All-College Hockey America First Team selection, and won the 2015 College Hockey America scoring title. Other honors include a 2014 All-CHA First Team selection and being named to the 2013 All-CHA Rookie Team. During her first two seasons at Merychurst, 2013 and 2014, Janiga and the Lakers made it all the way to the NCAA’s Frozen Four tournament.

Janiga recalls, “The first couple of years making it to the Frozen Four was like, ‘Whoa! Look at this!’. We got to play in front of some really large crowds, and got to play in some huge games. Definitely got a lot of experience through that. One game that I remember specifically was against Cornell my freshman year”. The second overall ranked Cornell faced off against the Mercyhurst Lakers in the NCAA National Quarterfinals that year. “We were the underdogs going into it. We ended up beating them out even though they were higher seeded. We beat them in overtime (3-2) and I was out on the ice for it. A packed stadium. It was just a lot of fun. Definitely one of my most memorable games, especially in college”.

Looking at her numbers alone, I ask Janiga what qualities she possesses that made her such an effective player and an effective scorer for Mercyhurst. She points out that it was that team aspect, that togetherness as a hockey club that drew out her own individual success. “I wouldn’t exactly pin it to anything that I did in particular. I was very fortunate to play alongside some very talented players during my four years there. I definitely have to thank them for all of my success. My first year at Mercyhurst getting to play alongside Christine Bestland.

During Janiga’s freshman campaign, Bestland would tally an astounding 28-goals and 44-assists for 72-points in only 37-games. Flanked by Bestland, Janiga finished third overall in team scoring that year with 19-goals and 22-assists of her own. “That was a great opportunity for me. Any opportunity that I am given like that, I just take it and run with it”. I offer my sentiment that this “taking an opportunity and running with it” is very much apparent when she is out on the ice. Watching her play today, Janiga forechecks tenaciously and is quick to the attack after loose pucks. Any missed play by an opponent, Janiga capitalizes upon almost instantly. Opposing players need to not give her any opportunities out on the ice.

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Ever dangerous, Emily Janiga (shown here playing for Mercyhurst) cuts through the Syracuse defense. (Photo credit: Sarah Crosby)

For a young girl from the Buffalo-area, who loves the game of hockey, who cheered on the Sabres and looked up to Maxim Afinogenov, could she have possibly thought that someday she too would play professional hockey in Buffalo? “No, not at all”, she laughs. The Buffalo Beauts selected Janiga 16th-overall in the 2015 NWHL draft in June of that year; their fourth selection. “Especially with how new it was. It started to come about my second year of college. It started closing in that I was graduating, and I started to think, ‘okay, what’s next for me? Is it time for me to move on, or do I have something more?’. Going into my junior and senior year, I started hearing talk about it (the NWHL). I thought, ‘Do I have this opportunity to play too?’. Then during my senior year the league started going on, and I am thinking, ‘This is awesome!’. Then when I got drafted, it was a really special moment for me”.

To look back on all of her efforts as a hockey player from childhood on up, and then to have it culminate into being drafted into the very first paid professional women’s league is perhaps a bit awe-inspiring for Janiga and the other players in the NWHL. A dream coming true, that not until recently could have been a reality for any of them. “I started getting messages from a lot of local players who I played with or grew up playing with years ago that I did not even think remembered me. Messages congratulating me and my family. It was really huge. They had a lot of support behind me, and so everything about this experience so far has been really memorable”. Once again, there are those warm underlying aspects of family and community wrapping around Emily Janiga, and helping to vault her to that next level in her career. I feel gladdened to know that not only does she have this immense support network, but that perhaps more so that she genuinely recognizes it, understands it, and appreciates it.

That being said, there is certainly an adjustment between making the jump from playing college hockey to the professional level in the NWHL; much the same way that college or major junior male hockey players describe their jump to the NHL. “The speed of it. Definitely. In college there were games that were faster paced games. Out there now (in the NWHL) it’s quick-quick-quick-quick passes; tic-tac-toe. You need to think quicker, move faster. I need to be quicker out there. I need to work on being more explosive of an athlete. Little things like that where I do not have as much time to react. Little things like that I have been focusing on both on and off the ice, in the weight room. Just trying to get that quicker mind out there”. Her efforts are certainly visible and her production mirrors that. 7-games into the 2016 NWHL season, Janiga has tallied 3-goals and an assist in 7-games for the Beauts; her 3-goals place her in the top-ten goal scorers in the league.

So much about the NWHL is building the game and the league for the next generation of players. The players strive for it, and do so well with interacting with an upcoming generation of players. It is visible at every game. Little girls need this. Positive role models who show them that they can be professional athletes too someday, regardless of gender. Despite the loss, this November 20th game is the Beauts annual “Teddy-Bear-Toss” game and many little girls are in attendance. I ask Janiga what it means seeing these youngsters in the crowd, cheering on she and the Beauts. “It’s awesome seeing them in the stands, and seeing them up against the glass, and reaching down for high-fives from us. You know, I think we get so caught up in the moment sometimes and in playing that we forget how much we are impacting their lives and how much fun they are having in the stands. We definitely do it for them. We do it for the younger athletes. We want to grow the game for them, and give them something to look up to. Just be good role models for them”. I do not think that anyone else could have explained it better.

In addition to having these youngsters cheering her on, there are other great things about playing professional hockey here in Buffalo. “Again, getting back to family. Playing in front of my family, being in my hometown. Having a lot of local support. It’s unbelievable, and I never thought I would be back here playing. Being gone for four years, I finally got to come back home with my parents. It’s very fortunate for me, and I am very blessed to have them in the stands”.

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Emily Janiga in pursuit of the puck and beating out a Boston Pride player (Photo credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini)

I leave Emily with one final question, and its a bit of a tough one – what would she say is the most important thing that hockey has taught her? “That’s a tough question, because it teaches you a lot. The biggest thing I think it teaches you is teamwork. We are not out here by ourselves. We’ve got each other’s backs out there and you’ve got to learn to work with 20-25 girls; if you don’t, you’re not going to be successful. But also hard work, determination. Learning to play with the team, and take on a role. Having this responsibility and learning to balance between family, when you’re in school learning to balance with school, and with friends, and still be committed. You don’t just show up at the rink. It’s a huge commitment. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t realize to get to this level, to get to college. We have to put in a lot of hard work and sacrifice a lot of things to get here”.

I do not think I could come across a better ambassador for hockey, particularly women’s hockey, than Emily Janiga. I believe that Emily has found that proper balance, and she puts the work in to maintain it. I mentioned a kindness in her that I noted. A sincere love and appreciation of family and all of the support they have shown her. Belief in community and how the right one fosters growth in a player, both personally and on the ice. It is a natural hat-trick of sorts. One that she has scored profoundly. Emily imbues what a hockey player should be about, and what the game can teach us. She exemplifies what it means to be a professional hockey player, a Buffalo Beaut, and a Buffalonian. And as a  remarkable person as you will ever meet, and for that, I am grateful. The hockey community is too.

 

Dasha Martynyukova, the next generation of Russian women’s hockey

Saturday afternoon in November. I have brought my mom to a National Women’s Hockey League game between our hometown Buffalo Beauts and the New York Riveters. My mom, a beautiful and kind woman in her early-60s but not a big sports fan by any means, has taken a liking to the game of the NWHL. The speed on the ice that these women generate blows her mind. Around this same time last year we had attended another game together between the Beauts and the Riveters, and my mom had an opportunity to meet one of the fledgling members of the NWHL and one of its most exciting players at the time, the Riveters Lyudmila Belyakova.

Since that time, Belyakova has left the NWHL and returned to her native Russia to play for her homeland’s own professional hockey league the “Zhenskaya Khokkeinaya Liga”  (Женская хоккейная лига),or Women’s Hockey League (WHL) as it is anglicized. Thinking of Belyakova’s return to Russia, I began to ponder whether Russia’s newly christened WHL is having the same impact on many young girls – their next generation of women’s hockey – much in the same way that the NWHL is doing for girls throughout North America. I end up finding my answers within a 17-year old Russian netminder, Dasha Martynyukova.

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Goaltender Dasha Martynyukova leads Atlant out onto the ice. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

I show Martynyukova a photo of Lyudmila Belyakova and myself, and ask her if she knows who it is. “Of course I do! She is very famous in women’s hockey”, she responds with a smile. Perhaps I have my answer right there. Belyakova plays for the WHL’s Tornado, presently the top team in the WHL – the same place that Martynyukova aspires to play next year. “I really want to play professional next year because my league only goes up to age 18”. So the wheels are already in motion for the WHL to foster many years of young players to come, including Dasha.

“I am 17-years old now, but I started playing hockey seven years ago in October 2009”, she tells me. “When I was 10-years old, the coach for my current team came to our school to talk about hockey and the possibility of playing – I knew immediately that I wanted to give this a try”. Martynyukova was one of five goaltenders for Russia’s junior team to be invited to training camp with the national team this past September. The hope is that she will be a member of Russia’s squad for the 2017 Women’s U-18 World Championships which will be held in Zlin and Prerov in the Czech Republic in January of the coming new year.

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Making solid saves between the pipes, Dasha Martynyukova plays for multiple Moscow regional women’s and boys’ hockey teams. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

Dasha is from one of Russia’s “hockey hotbeds”; the Moscow regional town of Odintsovo. There are six teams in the junior women’s league, and Odintsovo typically finishes among the top teams. “Women’s hockey is really developed in my city, and it provides a really great workout”, she tells me. In fact, Martynyukova has opportunities to play with three different hockey teams, if not more. “I play on a team in Atlant (another regional town of Moscow), in the town of Odintsovo, and sometimes I am invited to play for boys’ teams too”. But Odintsovo is where her heart is and where she has found the camaraderie among her teammates. “We have a very friendly team, and we always do everything together. We help each other in difficult situations, and provide support for one another”. It is nice seeing this sportsmanship and teamwork instilled in young people of today’s world. “My team consists of 15-skaters and 3-goaltenders. Before each game we discuss the team and the upcoming game. It’s great when your team is ready to do anything for you”.

I am greatly impressed when I learn from Martynyukova that she has received firsthand tutelage from one of the greatest goaltenders of all time; Hockey Hall of Famer, Olympic gold medalist, and World Champion, Vladlislav Tretiak. To me, Tretiak has always been the quintessential hockey great that showed the world what his capabilities were without playing a game in the NHL. It bothers me when former NHL players from Tretiak’s era downplay his skills; that although he performed incredibly well on the international scene he could never have made it as a professional in North America. To me, this has always seemed “sour grapes” of sorts or a sense of pride that runs a little too strongly. Tretiak won three Olympic gold medals and an astounding ten gold medals at the World Championships. And now he is imparting his winning ways to a seventeen year old young lady.

Speaking on Tretiak, Martynyukova shares her own assessment of this legendary netminder. “He is a great coach and a great man; not only as a coach, but as a person. He explains everything so clearly. He shows you how to do all of the exercises, and then tells you your mistakes afterward. After training, he is able to disassemble your performance with you. He breaks it down into smaller parts for you so that you get all of the details. With any mistakes, he explains what is wrong and what is the correct way to do it”.

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Dasha Martynyukova receiving firsthand instruction from one of hockey’s greatest goaltenders, Vladislav Tretiak (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

While I marvel at Dasha’s time spent with Tretiak, she has a hero of her own. “My favorite player is Sergei Bobrovsky”. Her fellow countryman Bobrovsky is a Vezina Trophy winner and NHL All-Star, and has found his greatest success in the NHL as the netminder for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Martynyukova’s and Bobrovsky’s styles and builds are similar. While Bobrovsky is 6-feet, 2-inches and 190 lbs., making him slightly lanky but incredibly quick and strong positionally, Martynyukova is taller for a girl and is similarly structured. Dasha is just over 5-feet, 8-inches and close to 155-lbs., and her size definitely helps her protect her crease. “For girls, it is a bit big”, she says. “But this size really helps me when protecting the net”.

With the combination of her admiration for Bobrovsky, learning from a Soviet/Russian hockey patriarch in Tretiak, being blessed with good size, and her overall skill that has made her one of the top goaltenders in Russia, Martynyukova has developed an affinity for her position as a goaltender. “When I first started to play hockey, I spent a lot of time learning to skate. But when we went into training camp with our team I began looking at the goalies. It seemed to me that to hold this position would be very interesting, and I have been in love with it ever since”.

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At 17-years old, Dasha Martynyukova is part of the next generation for Russian women’s hockey. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

As for me, I am encouraged to see that there is a rival women’s professional league now in Russia, and something for young women like Martynyukova to aspire towards. For like the NWHL, the ultimate goal should be to continue to build and grow the women’s game for the future. While I am disappointed to have lost a player of Belyakova’s caliber to Russia’s WHL, I see that the greater good is to develop the game worldwide. With shades of Tretiak, perhaps someday there will be a “Women’s Summit Series” of sorts between the best of the NWHL versus the best of the WHL. Were it to happen that way, it would be no surprise if Dasha Martynyukova is found between the pipes, backstopping Russia’s best.

 

 

HK Ukrainochka’s defender Marina Kobchuk – growing Women’s Hockey in Ukraine

“Ukrainian women’s hockey does exist, and its rise is unstoppable”, the young defender for HK Ukrainochka tells me with great conviction. There is an obvious fire in her eyes, and a fire in her belly too, as Marina Kobchuk makes this declaration. And when she begins to explain to me the great strides that the founders of the women’s hockey movement in Ukraine are making, her excitement is both contagious and I am all ears, eagerly wanting to learn more.

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HK Ukrainochka’s” defender Marina Kobchuk is a pioneer for women’s hockey in Ukraine (Photo provided courtesy of Marina Kobchuk)

HK Ukrainochka came into existence in late 2015, and the organizers of the hockey club made sure that they started the program properly. Kobchuk explains to me that “the initiators managed to formalize the team as Ukrainochka Hockey Club. They passed the club law, confirming the founding members, they developed the logo and jersey design, and made a business plan for the future”. The beginnings of Ukrainochka are very interesting, especially learning from Kobchuk some of the trials in the early goings of the club, but inspiring too when learning the commitment level and personal interest from her coach, Evgeny Alipov. “During our first year, the team played a lot of games with amateur men’s teams, occasionally requesting the help from juniors and sports schools. It didn’t always prove worth doing though, given different skill levels and speed. But our new coach (Alipov), who started training the team in August 2015, inspired optimism in us by also bringing along his twin daughters to join our team. Even when his girls were doing synchronized swimming, he was dreaming of training them to play hockey”.

With Alipov at the helm on the bench, as well as even having the President of the Women’s Ice Hockey of Ukraine, Yulia Artemieva as a teammate at forward position, Marina Kobchuk was greatly appreciative of the strides that Ukrainochka invoked to continue building the team and doing it rightly. “First, the women’s hockey team received several sets of hockey gear from the NHL thanks to the charity fund, ‘Melt Ice In Hearts’. Second, the junior members of the teams (including Kobchuk herself) were invited to Washington D.C. to join a training camp within the scope of the SportUnited program. Third, the founding members of our team have set up the Women’s Committee of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine“, Kobchuk tells me. And the fourth , and perhaps the most important factor at its very roots, if not the most fun, is that Kobchuk’s Ukrainochka played against one of the other fledgling women’s clubs in Ukraine, the Dnipropetrovsk Belki (Squirrels). The inaugural first game between the two newly christened rivals created the necessary spark for giving Ukrainian women’s hockey its momentum to build and grow. Kobchuk further explains, “the game results were mixed with Ukrainochka and the Squirrels coming on top in turns, but more importantly, our team played and showed it could win games. That gave the girls unforgettable fireworks of emotions that we had never felt before. These were the first women’s hockey games in Ukraine in many years”. The game itself featured a strongly contested race between the two clubs, which seemed in doubt as Ukrainochka allowed an early lead to turn into a 7-7 deadlock as Dnipropetrovsk rallied to knot it up in the third period. Fortunately though for Kobchuk, one of her teammates put home another marker to make the score 8-7 late in the third, thus sealing the victory for Ukrainochka. “We all fell over in happiness; it’s a moment that I’ll never forget”, she recalls.

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Marina Kobchuk and her teammates of the inaugural HK Ukrainochka (ХК Україночка) hockey team (Photo provided courtesy of Marina Kobchuk)

These early matchups between Ukrainochka and Dnipropetrovsk have already helped to double the amount of teams in the Ukrainian Women’s Hockey League for the 2016 season, and Marina can already see that the competition will increase twofold from here. “This season will be a very serious championship, with four teams in contention; HC Ukrainochka, HC Dnipro Squirrels, HC Avalanche from Kremenchug, and the HC Panthers from the city of Kharkiv”. To see the league double in size in a year’s time is a good indicator that the women’s game in Ukraine has the momentum to continue building itself. The opportunities to grow the game are being sought out by the organizers. “At this point there are few opportunities in Kiev”, Kobchuk tells me. “We are the only women’s team, and there are only three ice arenas. But they are open and available to train at even at 11:00 at night”. As we have talked the past few days, I know that Kobchuk has made great use of the late-evening practice and training times available to her, working on her game until midnight more than once.

Marina Kobchuk is only 17-years old, and it is even more remarkable to learn that she only began playing organized hockey just two years ago. A national women’s ice hockey team for Ukraine has not seen any formalized playing action since the early-mid 1990s, so there was very little for Kobchuk and her teammates to familiarize themselves with and look up to. “We haven’t played any international games yet, but in five years time I would really love to play for Ukraine as a member of Group-B”, referring to the lower-tiered rankings of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s grouping of the women’s national teams.

That being said, Marina Kobchuk has still very much fallen in love with the game of hockey, and has developed a strong understanding of it at an early age. “I play defense on the left-hand side. At the very start, I was actually drawn to playing the goalie position, but later I moved out a bit further from goal and settled into playing defense. I was advised to this position by Coach Alipov, and I was happy about that”. In a short time Kobchuk developed strong positional play, utilizing her body and her size to diminish scoring opportunities by the opposition. “I like pushing and knocking down my opponent, and mind you, I manage to do all that without breaking any rules. A defender is good at organizing attacks and especially counterattacks. In order to do that though, one needs to be able to see the ice, the players’ positions, and then be able to evaluate the situation in terms of attacking well before engaging in a fight for the puck, and even after having won the puck. Skating and interaction between your partners is essential”.

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Even defending in the fog, Marina Kobchuk is a solid defender for HK Ukrainochka. (Photo provided courtesy of Marina Kobchuk).

It is somewhat easy to see how Kobchuk has become so enamored with the game, and why her hockey sense is flourishing – she has support coming from all avenues. “My mother did figure-skating and competed at the amateur level, and my dad has played hockey with his friends for years. I also have a younger brother, and he will be playing hockey soon too”. When speaking of Ukrainochka,  the constant support of her teammates has kept Kobchuk on track, especially that of her coach’s twin daughters Helen and Elizabeth, two 18-year olds that have been by her side all along. “Never for a second have they ever gave up on me. They always keep me mind, and it has allowed us to play in the top-five together for our club”.

Like any lover of hockey, Marina Kobchuk has her professional heroes too. “There is one hockey player that I like a lot, and that’s (Alex) Ovechkin. Not only does he score a lot, but he is an inspired scorer. Every time he gets the puck, spectators pay more attention to the game. He can score even when falling to his back, he can do a figure-skating trick to get around a defenseman, he can do a wrap-around, which is one of the most beautiful things in hockey”. Like Kobchuk, I have long admired Ovechkin myself. Despite any critics he may have, I do not think that there has been a more exciting player in hockey for the last decade.

To me, it is inspiring to have met Marina Kobchuk and to see the amount of excitement she has for hockey. This is how the women’s game in Ukraine will grow – by having motivated, hard-working young ladies like Kobchuk be part of the early beginnings. Marina is the kind of player that any coach would love to have on their club, and it is something that she can pass along to others, particularly girls her own age and younger. “Ice hockey is character-building”, she says. “It hardens you and builds up your stamina. Ice hockey instills positive emotions that are not dependent upon the result of the game, and it gives you the opportunity to vent any negativity. Every game is something new that you have not experienced before. Hockey players are role models, in terms of their will to win, their strength, and their daringness”.

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The formidable #13 for HK Ukrainochka, Marina Kobchuk (Photo provided courtesy of Marina Kobchuk).

Marina Kobchuk will be a key contributor to Ukrainian women’s hockey for many years to come. She is an intelligent and inspiring young lady, and she is made up of the type of character that any fledgling project needs to get itself going, and to get others onboard. But most importantly, what is most remarkable about Marina is her true love of the game. This girl plain and simple loves hockey; it is her life, and her passion. I feel inspired to have made her acquaintance, and I know that the Ukrainian Women’s Hockey League has a gem of a person and player in Marina Kobchuk.

If you would like to help promote women’s ice hockey in Ukraine, please offer support to them through this GoFundMe page for providing donations to support their game:

https://www.gofundme.com/forwomenshockeyua

 

 

“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.