Maria Serova ~ 16-year old Atlant Voskresensk forward.

Voskresensk Russia has been home to numerous heralded hockey stars, perhaps most notably Stanley Cup champions Vyacheslav Kozlov, Valeri Kamensky, and my personal favorite Igor Larionov. Numerous Soviet hockey greats hailed from  Voskresensk too. Brothers Vladimir and Aleksandr Golikov, along with IIHF Hall of Famer and hockey legend Alexander Ragulin, all forged renowned careers; each played for the Soviet powerhouse teams that once dominated the hockey world.

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16-year old Maria Serova plays for Russia’s U18 national women’s team. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

But playing in Voskresensk these days there is a 16-year old whose best hockey is yet to come. She plays for the women’s junior club, Voskresensk Atlant; which is actually one of a handful of teams that she presently plays for. Meet Maria Serova. Already training with the U18 national team, this young lady is a shoo in for Russia’s squad that looks to improve upon their 2017 bronze medal finish that took place less than two months ago in January. And as the national program gears up toward the next go-round, Maria works hard toward becoming the best hockey player that she can be. She is also busy being a normal 16-year old girl.

“I have a turtle, a dog and fish”, she says with a smile, telling me about her pets. But along with loving her animals, Maria Serova loves hockey. “I began playing hockey when I was seven years old. I am from Balashikha (another city like Voskresensk that is located in Moscow Oblast, which comprises the area surrounding the city of Moscow itself and houses a population of over seven-million). There are a lot of opportunities to play hockey in my city. We have ice rinks, gyms, and artificial ice all for training”.

I guess that I am really glad that Serova has these opportunities. In my estimations the Russians are doing women’s hockey right, so to speak. Seeing the growing success of their Women’s Hockey League (WHL) which has been anglicized from Женской хоккейной лиги, it is apparent that Russia already has the next generation of women’s players waiting at the threshold of the country’s professional league.  Serova is one of them. “I want to play with Dynamo St. Petersburg of the WHL”, one of the league’s top teams. Asked about what she would say to other young girls to encourage them to follow suit in women’s hockey, Serova says “I would say to them ‘Follow your dreams. Work hard. Listen to your coach. And don’t give up!'”. Having interviewed other Russian women’s players and with a few more interviews coming in the near future, these sentiments of Serova’s are widely distributed amongst all girls and women who play the game in Russia.

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Maria Serova is a forward for Atlant Voskresensk. The city of Voskresensk is one of Russia’s “hockey hotbeds”. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

Serova tells me about the other teams she plays for besides Atlant. “I play for ‘Olimpiets Balashika’ which is a men’s hockey team. I also play for the Moscow regional team (Moskovskaya Oblast) in the Russian Championship league, and I now play for the U18 national team for Russia too. And once I even played on the adult team and got to play alongside great players like Olga Sosina and Anna Prugova”. In her time with Olimpiets Balashika, Serova has racked up 13-goals and 12-assists in 72-games.

As a youngster Serova’s father used to take her to the KHL’s Balashika MVD’s hockey games. Prior to the team merging with Dynamo Moscow after the 2009-2010 season Balashika MVD played in the league from 2008 until 2010, and included a large number of North American-born players like Jame Pollock, Matt Ellison and stellar netminder Michael Garnett, in addition to numerous native Russian players. “My father and I would go to all of the games, and that is when I fell in love with the sport”.

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Practice makes perfect! Maria Serova works hard and respects her coaches immensely. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

Currently though, Serova’s inspiration comes from one of the NHL’s most talented forwards. “My favorite player is Nicklas Bäckström. I remember when he played for Dynamo Moscow along with Alexander Ovechkin. Now of course they both play for the Washington Capitals, who are also my favorite hockey team”. It is perhaps little wonder why Serova admires Bäckström in particular. By far one of the craftiest players, the Swedish center is superb at dishing out passes and oftentimes seems to be a “jack of all trades” when handling the puck. So much so that Bäckström has six-times reached 50-assists in a season, and is presently only a handful away from doing it for a seventh time. Serova tells me, “I play forward too because I love it, and I get to play in all different positions”.

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Maria Serova is an exciting member for the next generation of Russian women’s hockey. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

I am impressed that a 16-year old has played in as many games and for as many teams as Serova has in such a short period of time. And within those games there would have had to have been some memorable moments that Maria recalls fondly. The one moment she shares with me though must also be the coolest, if not the fiercest. “The most special moment in my hockey career so far was winning at the select competition in Sweden. I was playing for the Spartak Moscow hockey team at the time. We only had ten girls on our team, and we defeated the Swedish team in the finals to win the championship. When we won, we all screamed together ‘This is Sparta!'”. A team of just ten girls defeating all comers. Guts, determination and fortitude from Serova and her other nine teammates.

What is perhaps most exciting about Maria Serova is that she is right on the cusp of where female hockey players want to be in Russia. In a year from now, Serova will have completed her first U18 World Championship. In a year from now, she will be playing hockey professionally in the WHL. To make that leap to playing professionally and internationally, Serova knows that she must keep things in perspective but she most assuredly has the right mindset. “You have to be focused on the game and your hockey training. I am fortunate to have played on many different teams for both boys and girls, and I learned that you always have to be a part of the team and taking that seriously”.

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Maria Serova celebrating a goal with Moskovskaya Oblast. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

I would like to re-interview Maria Serova in a year from now. I hope that she will oblige me, as I think much will have changed in her life and her hockey career in a most exciting fashion. Because pretty soon Maria will be the next Sosina, or the next Prugova, or Belyakova. The hockey world is at her fingertips and is hers for the taking. I want to see her take that puck and go with it. Look to see her become a mainstay for both the national team and the WHL; it is just around the corner. Serova is the model example of grooming players properly for the future of women’s hockey. I will state it again – Russia is doing it right.

 

 

 

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“A butterfly made of steel” -Betty Jouanny, French forward for Brynäs IF

Betty Jouanny is recovering from ankle surgery. The 5-foot-2, 120-pound forward for Brynäs IF of the Svenska damhockeyligan (SDHL), the top women’s league in Sweden and one of the premier women’s leagues in the world, recently had five pins and one plate inserted into her right ankle. Jouanny, frustratingly, suffered a season ending broken ankle January 11th against league rival Leksand IF. Even tougher to swallow, the injury occurred just a week after her twenty-fifth birthday. And while such an injury could understandably be demoralizing to anyone, Betty Jouanny asserts in a social media post to her friends, family, teammates, coaches and fans that, “The difference between who you are and who you want to be is the work that you put in. I am just working hard to make my comeback. Everyday is not easy; it is mentally hard but you can’t change what happened. It is in this period that family and friends are very important – when you can’t use your legs, you can use your arms. If you want to train you always can; no excuses . It is just your motivation and the work that you put in”. Betty used a photo of herself doing pullups in a full leg cast to accompany this post. Like she said, no excuses.

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No excuses. Despite having a cast on her right led, Betty Jouanny continues to workout and comeback even better than before (Photo provided courtesy of Betty Jouanny).

And I am very fortunate that Betty Jouanny has afforded me an interview while she is just a matter of weeks into her recovery. We talk about her life, about her hockey roots, and about her future aspirations for her personal career and for women’s hockey.

Although Jouanny plays in Sweden, she is actually from France. Born in the city of Annecy, she spent most of her life growing up in Chamonix; just over an hour’s drive away. As Jouanny tells me, “my town Chamonix is the most beautiful place to go skiing in all of Europe”. Having looked at photos of her hometown, it is easy to see why. Originally a gymnast, Jouanny gave hockey a try and instantly fell in love with the sport at the young age of six. “In Annecy I first did gymnastics, but after I moved to Villard-de-Lans I received a flier to try hockey. I gave it a go, and loved it immediately. I played hockey at Les Ours de Villards de Lans (an elite hockey school in that city) from the ages of six to nine with the boys. It was very good for me because it is a very big hockey club, and I was fortunate because they formed me into a good player”.

I am able to make a connection with Jouanny in more ways than one. While I have visited France three times myself and have a sincere love for her country, we find common ground with our hockey interests too. “I have two favorite hockey players”, she tells me. “Patrick Kane because of his stickhandling (Kane being from my hometown of Buffalo) and also T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals (Oshie is currently one of my favorite players in today’s NHL)”.

In 2008 at the age of 15, Betty Jouanny began representing France in major international hockey tournaments; something that she has continued to do for nearly a decade. The first one being the 2009 IIHF World Women’s U18 Division I championships which were held in her homeland in the city of Chambéry which took place from December 28th, 2008 until January 2nd, 2009; just days before her sixteenth birthday. In four tournament games, Jouanny had 2-assists and France would take the silver medal at the tournament. “I am always incredibly happy to represent my country every time I have the opportunity to do so. It is an honor to represent my country, and I am very proud because I love to play with the French team. All athletes dream to play for their countries, so when you have the chance to do it you must to do it 200-percent!”.

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A superb stickhandler, Betty Jouanny is always very proud to represent France internationally (Photo credit: Stephane Heude).

Building off of that first U18 tournament, Jouanny was named team captain of the 2010 squad and she would absolutely sparkle. While France would take another silver medal, this time in Piestany, Slovakia, it was Jouanny’s performance in tournament play that fully speaks to her words on giving 200-percent. She would average a goal per game, as she scored 5-goals in 5-games to go along with 3-assists as well. This would make Betty France’s leading scorer for the games, and would place her in the top-ten for overall scoring by players participating in the tournament. To Jouanny though, being given the captaincy is an even greater individual honor. “I did score a lot of points in that tournament, which was good for me. But to be named captain it is amazing. Yes, it is just a letter on your jersey, but you must show the right way for you team. Be an example both on the ice and off. This was my last year with the U18 team, and I loved it because I like to have responsibilities. It is an honor to have the “C” when you represent your country; it means that the coach and the players believe in you”.

Since her last U18 tournament, Betty Jouanny has played for France in six Women’s World Championship tournaments, taking bronzes in 2012 and 2015, silver in 2011 and 2016, and the gold medal in 2013. Within those tournaments combined she has appeared in 29-games and registered 5-goals and 9-assists for 14-points. Asked to name her most memorable of the six tournaments, Jouanny opts for the most recent; the silver medal finish in 2016. “That tournament was definitely the best because a silver medal in the Group-A Division I tournament was the best result ever for the French women’s national team”. In this particular tournament Jouanny recorded a single assist in 5-games. To me, it speaks to her character that she would pick a tournament where the team and country faired their best, as opposed to any other tournament where she may have had better numbers statistically. Jouanny has firm beliefs when it comes to how an athlete should compete and doing what is best for the team. Character builds character in others and in sports programs. At only 25, it is obvious that Jouanny will be able to impart her experience and ideals into younger players on the French national team.

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Betty Jouanny helped to lead France to a silver medal finish at the Group-A Division I Women’s World Championships; France’s best performance to date for the women’s national team (Photo provided courtesy of Betty Jouanny).

And hopefully that will happen at the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Jouanny has already participated in one Olympic qualifier tournament for France in 2013 (a goal and 2-assists in 3-games), but unfortunately due to her injury, it does not appear that she will be readily available to help her team for this year’s qualifying tournament to decide who goes to the ’18 Winter Games. “To play in the Olympic Games is the dream when you are an athlete. Every time when I would watch the Olympics on TV I would say to my parents that it is my dream to play in the Olympics, and that I don’t want to stop my hockey career without having played in an Olympic Games. So we (Team France) have the qualification tournament in Japan in February, and if we win we get to go to the Olympics. Obviously I cannot go because of my broken ankle. I am devastated but this is sports, and I can’t do anything about it except carry on”.

This reminds me of another post on social media that I saw Jouanny make recently, and I know that she is keeping everything in perspective. Jouanny said, “sometimes you don’t decide what happens in your life; you just must to accept it. You just need to think about the future and your comeback. If you want something and you work hard for it, the hard work always pays off. It is your motivation, your mindset and what you want. Stay strong – never give up!”.

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One of the most decorated and experienced players for France’s women’s national team, Betty Jouanny dreams of someday playing in an Olympic Games (Photo credit: Stephane Heude).

Describing herself as a player, Jouanny tells me, “I am a stickhandling player that creates the game around me. I work hard going both ways; both offensive and defensive zones. I have a strong physical capacity”. That being the case, it is no wonder that Brynäs IF eagerly sought her services. Jouanny has played for Brynäs IF for four seasons now and has demonstrated some extremely solid play for the hockey club. I became curious to know how she ended up with the team, considering that she is from France and did her university studies at Université de Montréal in Quebec, Canada. “I had already wanted to play hockey in Sweden, so when I finished my university in Canada I wrote to Brynäs to ask  if they were interested in me. I sent them a video of me, and they responded that yes, they were definitely interested. So I am very happy to play my fourth season with the team. I get to play with some really strong players like Sara Grahn, Anna Borgqvist, Lina Bäcklin, and Josephine Holmgren; all of whom have already played in the Olympic Games”.

One of Jouanny’s most recognizable strengths when she plays is her ability to win face-offs. For example, if you look at Jouanny’s favorite tournament – 2016’s Group-A Division I silver medal winning tournament – she finished eighth overall in face-offs for the tournament winning 53.25-percent of the draws that she took. If you go even further back though, to when she captained the 2010 U18 squad, she finished one spot out of the top-ten (eleventh overall) and was the leader in face-offs for France with a percentage of 45.77-percent. Needless to say, winning face-offs is a major attribute of Betty’s and something that she has developed over time. She teases me though, and refuses to share her secret. “The face-off is my best strength as a center. I train a lot during the summer to perfect it,  but it’s my secret and I am not going to say what I do”, she smiles and laughs.

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In 111-games so far with Brynäs IF Betty Jouanny has 49-points (Photo provided courtesy of Betty Jouanny; Credit: Bauer Hockey).

While playing for Brynäs IF, Betty has tallied 23-goals and 26-assists for 49-points in 111-games. Her finest season with the team, before her injury, came during her second season when she rattled off 10-goals and 7-assists in 28-games. “That was my best season for sure. But I am disappointed because this season I already scored 12-points in 24-games, and I really would have liked to get to the 20-point mark, but my season is over. But – I am going to do it next season for sure!”. I love her determination and I wholeheartedly believe that she will pass that point plateau; no question at all.

I have never had to recover from a major injury like Betty Jouanny is currently doing now. I would have to imagine that I would not have the fortitude or the same positive outlook that she is imbuing in her recovery. But I guess that is part of what makes Betty so different from many athletes. A “never say die” kind of attitude; like trying to chisel through granite, there is just no breaking this girl. Like she said earlier, take her leg – she still has an arm.

Jouanny tells me the most important things that she has learned in life through hockey. “Respect – Work – Be Humble – Live and Share Together!”. With this outlook, she will be back on the ice in no time. “The two most important things that I want to achieve in my career are to win the World Championship and to go up to the Elite Group, and to go to the Olympic Games”, she says. When the Olympic qualifications are being played in Japan come February, you can count on me rooting for France so that Betty Jouanny gets to realize her dream of the Olympic Games come 2018. And when they take place, she will be back and readier than ever. In my mind, seeing the photos of her workouts and her recovery, I feel as if she will be a steel butterfly of sorts. She will shed her cocoon, and have taken her game to a whole new level.

Best of luck in your recovery, Betty, and see you on the ice soon!

 

“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).

 

 

 

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.

 

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

“Have Purpose”: Olivia Knowles, Team Canada defender

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Olivia Knowles #27, defender for Team Canada, is a remarkable person and hockey player. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Olivia Knowles is wise beyond her years. Hailing from Campbell River, British Columbia, the seventeen year old defender for Team Canada’s U18 Women’s Hockey team has a good head on her shoulders, and has a strong sense of self-awareness; particularly when it comes to what she wants to achieve in her hockey career, what steps she needs to take to accomplish those goals, and where she stands right now. It is inspiring and thought-provoking to listen to her speak, and equally as captivating when watching her compete on the ice.

I was fortunate enough to see Knowles play regularly in January at the IIHF U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines, having made the drive up from Buffalo. It was well worth it, as the tournament was a great deal of excitement, and presented my first opportunity to see Olivia Knowles play in person. She was a stalwart defender for Team Canada during that entire tournament, and her strength and tenacity on the back end were instrumental in Canada’s run to the gold medal game against Team USA; unfortunately, a 3-2 overtime heart-breaker for Knowles and her teammates. And while I know that she wishes that the outcome had been different, the tournament was a tremendous success for Olivia in more ways than one. Knowles finished the tournament with 2-assists for 2-points in 5-games, while putting up a plus-3 for her plus/minus to go along with 4-shots on goal, two of which came in the gold medal game against USA.

Thinking back on the tournament, Knowles tells me, “There is no bigger honor than to be a Canadian, playing the sport that every Canadian loves. It’s bigger than yourself. I think back on that whole week, and sometimes I think I talk about it too much *laughs*. It is hard to actually try and relive the experience, but the memories from the tournament always come back. The little things, the little memories are the best”.

Olivia Knowles began playing organized hockey when she was about 8-years old. At the time, her older brother was already playing hockey, as well as two of her cousins (who are now both playing in the British Columbia Hockey League, BCHL), and with being at the rink with so much regularity it was perhaps only natural that Olivia would end up playing the game too. “The first time I had played was actually with the “ESSO Fun Day” program, which is a great event. I had done gymnastics for a long time, so I have always been very competitive and very athletic. At the time, there were not a lot of opportunities to play with girls teams in Campbell River, so I played with boys instead, and even then would have to often travel to Victoria or Vancouver to play. But you are starting to see a lot more opportunities now in the area for young players than what there were before”. Olivia’s grandfather played for the old Trail Smoke Eaters of the former Western International Hockey League. “Playing hockey runs in the family, but it seems to skip a generation”, she laughs.

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Knowles in the thick of intense action versus Team USA at the 2016 U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Olivia has been enrolled at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, British Columbia, and she has certainly found her place there. “It felt like home as soon as I got there. And I love the city of Penticton. I love the program here, and it works really well with the hours spent at the gym and training”. Okanagan possesses an incredible coaching staff and management team that includes former NHL players like Dixon Ward, Robert Dirk, Blake Wesley, and Stu Barnes, but it is former Wayne State University head coach and assistant at St. Cloud State, Jim Fetter, who has been most paramount throughout Olivia’s time at OHA. Fetter serves as the head coach for the women’s prep program at Okanagan. “He is such a great coach, and he really helped with my university decision making. He was a coach at Wayne State and St. Cloud, so he is very knowledgeable. He teaches us what to expect in college, and that we have to work hard through everyday. He taught me a lot about how to handle days away from the rink too, how to prioritize and time management”.

Looking at Knowles’ numbers from the 2014-15 season with Okanagan they are indeed very solid from her work on the blueline. In 28-games she recorded 4-goals and 6-assists, including one power-play tally, and also scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 victory over the Colorado Selects. Olivia laughs recalling the 3-goal game, “It was really weird. That was the first hat-trick of my life. It was one of my very first games with OHA, and I am thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing out here, this is my first time playing with girls, I’ve never played with girls before’, and then I end up scoring a hat-trick. It was really fluky”.

Olivia considers her hockey hero to be her former defense partner and captain at Okanagan, Micah Hart. “She was my D-partner last year and she is a born leader. Someone that you respect instantly. I find myself in situations where I am asking myself, ‘what would Micah do here?’ or ‘how would Micah handle this?’. I think that leadership is so important, and I try to imbue those same skills that Micah does.”. Hart is currently playing for Cornell University and had a stellar freshman year, being named to the ECAC Hockey All-Rookie Team and named as an All-Ivy Honorable Mention. Hart also spent two years on the Team Canada U-18 squad, and captained the team that took silver in Buffalo in 2015. It is easy to see why Knowles looks upon her with such tremendous respect and admiration.

Having been born in January of 1999, Knowles is eligible to compete once more for Canada at the 2017 Women’s U-18 tournament. With what she has learned from working alongside Hart and the tutelage of Coach Fetter, combined with her own experiences from this past year’s tournament, I am certain that Canada will call upon her to be one of the key contributors and role models for the 2017 club. At least for this next go-round, Knowles will know what to expect too. Speaking of the selection process for the 2016 team, she recalls it quite vividly. “It is a pretty long process. I remember meeting with Coach Fetter, who had been the coach for the 2004 U-18 women’s team, and I was told that I was definitely ‘on the radar’ for Team Canada, but needed to look at my game a bit more because it was not quite there yet. I was brought in to do fitness testing at a 10-day conditioning camp in Calgary with 12 D-men who were being considered for making the team. I have always thought that I’ve had really good conditioning because of all of my years doing gymnastics, so I thought I would be okay. But there is no questioning, that was the most tired I have ever been. It was so hard both mentally and physically, but it is amazing how much you are able to learn in such a short period of time. We went onto play three exhibition games at Lake Placid. We ended up winning the first, losing the second, and winning the third”.

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Knowles #4 helping to defend her net during an exhibition game versus USA in Lake Placid in September 2015 (Photo Credit: Nancie Battaglia Photography)

After the games in Lake Placid though, Olivia had to wait full four months, nervous all the while, before she would learn whether or not she made the team. “The goalie for Team USA, Alex Gulstene, also attends Okanagan, and she had already been notified that she was selected. I remember getting the call from Team Canada, and in some ways, it is the most terrifying thing ever”, she laughs. “So I am on the phone with Team Canada, standing outside at the academy, and I was so nervous. Alex walks out and realizes what is happening. She starts jumping up and down, freaking out, wanting to congratulate me while they are telling me that I made the team, and here I am trying to keep my cool and be professional on the phone”.

In addition to her experience from this past tournament, a selection of Knowles to the 2017 squad seems a no-brainer, particularly when considering the intangibles and fundamentals that she possesses. “I am blessed to be big”, she says, standing at 5’9″ and at the 150-pound mark. “I have size and strength. You can’t really learn size, and I do feel that it gives you an upper hand. I also feel that I am very body aware from all the years that I did gymnastics”. Olivia and I speak at length about how important it is be a coachable athlete, something we both found makes a true difference in how you perform and how you learn. “By being coachable, you know how to react to criticism, and how to learn from it”, she says. “I have always had a strong work ethic, and I have never been afraid of hard work. Plus, it helps that I am extremely competitive”.

There is so much more in store for Olivia Knowles’ future, in addition to playing for her country, and it is exciting to hear her talk about her decision to commit to playing at the University of Minnesota, becoming a Golden Gopher. “It was the first university that I had ever been to when I was about 9-years old. I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘when I grow up, I am going to play hockey here’. I have been to other schools, and they all have their perks. But in the end, it would come back to my dream of playing there, and what would work best for me; how well I’d fit there. It’s a gut feeling, telling me this is right”. And while she does consider the possibility of playing professionally, Olivia knows that it is one step at a time, and that it really comes down to her own development. “I want to go as far as I can playing hockey. My goal is to play for the senior team (National Women’s Team)”.

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Olivia Knowles peppering a shot on net against USA during the 2016 IIHF U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Seeing what she is accomplishing and attaining in her life, I cannot help but be warmed by an interesting story she tells me. “I was just discussing this with my billet sister the other day. When I was in 8th-grade, our English teacher gave us an assignment to write down where we want to be in five years. Well, I wrote down that, one, I wanted to attend the Okanagan Hockey Academy, two, I wanted to commit to playing at a university or college, and three, that I wanted to play for Team Canada”. It is reassuring and inspiring that Olivia has accomplished these goals so exactly, and some of them are still blossoming. She certainly possesses a sense of self-awareness, and her strong foundation in hard work and determination is paying off in tenfold. The general consensus between Olivia, her billet sister, and myself is that she should indeed frame this assignment from 8th-grade and hang it up.

“Have purpose”, Olivia tells me. “That is my favorite quote – ‘Have Purpose'”. Very profound indeed. She elaborates even further, “You need to do things with a purpose, and you need to do them to the best of your ability. Having purpose. Working hard. Saying things to yourself, like ‘I am going to work on my wrist-shot today’, and then actually going and doing it. You need to care about the little things. The other motto I follow is, ‘Do what you can control’. I can’t control things like, the other team, or the fans. But, I can control my attitude. I can control my work ethic. You should never be satisfied. Yes, it is good to celebrate the small victories along the way, but don’t be satisfied with them. There are many fish in the sea, and if you don’t work hard someone else could easily displace you. Keep your nose to the grindstone. But definitely, have purpose”. Listening to her talk, if I was Olivia Knowles’ teammate, I would be readied to go to war for her on the ice.

Let me repeat myself – Olivia Knowles is wise beyond her years, in case you have not garnered that already. She is a superb hockey player and Canadian. There will be many great things that she is going to accomplish in the years ahead, and we have only just scratched the surface of her potential. You cannot help but be excited for her and to get caught up in her sense of duty and character, and her enthusiasm for the future. Olivia Knowles has purpose.

 

 

Stellar goaltending: Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa

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Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa backstopped Team Finland to three bronze medals at the IIHF Women’s World Championships throughout her career.

The first time that I ever saw Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa tending goal was during the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics… and she was simply superb! At just 22-years of age at the time, Hassinen-Sullanmaa and then 16-year old Noora Räty were Team Finland’s exciting young tandem in the nets who backstopped the Finns to a solid fourth-place finish at the Torino Games. I marveled at how well Hassinen-Sullanmaa defended Finland’s net at such a young age, and how she fearlessly faced, even at times stonewalled, powerhouse hockey clubs like Team Canada and Team USA. Facing hall of fame caliber shooters in the likes of Danielle Goyette, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Angela Ruggiero, Hassinen-Sullanmaa held her own in a seemingly insurmountable situation for the Finns. Former US Olympic gold and silver medalist, AJ Mleczko, stated at the time, “Maija Hassinen is a fantastic goalie. She’s young. She’s got a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of youth”. It was that youthful enthusiasm imbued by Maija that caused me to immediately recognize that she was a stellar goaltender.

I first got in contact with Maija in 2008, and have remained in touch with her since that time. Knowing that she recently retired from active play over the summer 2015, I wanted to chat with Maija a bit and reflect upon her remarkable career, both internationally and in her native Finland, and to find out what she is doing these days.

As is the case with most top level hockey players, Hassinen-Sullanmaa began playing organized hockey at a very young age. “I was 6 or 7 when I started playing on a team”, Maija recalls. “I played first with boys as a defender, and after only a few years I started playing as a goalie on a girls team. But always when we were playing just for fun with my friends, I was the goalie. And that’s really where it all started”. To be precise, “where it started” was Maija’s hometown of Hämeenlinna, Finland, which is located in the southern part of her homeland; a town of about 68,000 inhabitants. “Hockey has always been a part of my life”, Maija said.  “I used to go watch the local men’s team play in the Finnish national league since I was a little kid. There were quite a lot of opportunities to play on teams always, and we played a lot outside with friends as well”.

I enjoy hearing Maija recall her memories of playing hockey outside as a kid. For isn’t that where hockey always seems to be rooted? No matter if I am considering my own childhood playing on the streets of Buffalo, New York USA, or talking to a Québecois winger hailing from Montreal, or an Ontario-born netminder out of the suburbs of Toronto, or even a stalwart defender from the heart of Russia, or a Finnish born goalie like Hassinen-Sullanmaa, that is the one common thread – hockey as a kid outdoors is magical. And growing up in Finland for Maija it was no different. I like knowing that this common ground exists among those who love the game of hockey, regardless of the countries we are born in.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa would find it a great honor to represent her country at both the Olympics and the World Championships.

Maija had her heroes as well. As a young female goalie who was born in the 1980s, it is likely no surprise that one of those heroes was the first woman to play in the NHL (albeit a preseason game), Canadian goaltender Manon Rhéaume, who also represented her country on the international stage, and had a taste of the NHL with preseason appearances in net for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Rheaume won gold medals for the IIHF Women’s World Championships in 1992 and 1994, as well as an Olympic silver medal in 1998 at the Nagano Games. Maija also idolized another former Canadian goaltender, Andrew Verner, who backstopped her hometown Hämeenlinna HPK in the mid-1990s. Verner being a former draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers, and a standout in the Ontario Hockey League with the Peterborough Petes. Like Verner, Maija would also end up playing for the Hämeenlinna HPK women’s team as she grew up and progressed as a goaltender.

Recalling her stellar performance at the 2006 Torino Olympics, I came to ask Maija how the opportunity to play for the Finnish national team came about. “During the 2004-05 season (at the time she was playing for Finnish team Ilves Tampere), I was called for the first time to attend the camp for national team. And then the next season I was included on the team for the first time in Torino”. But while my recollections of Hassinen-Sullanmaa from the Torino Games are certainly memorable for me, they completely pale in comparison to what it would mean for her to play for her country, and especially what it would mean for her future in her personal life. “Well, it was amazing of course. It’s such an honor to play in the Olympics and represent your country. It was great to be able to play a lot, but a big disappointment to finish fourth. But a big thing for me from the Torino Olympics is that I met my husband there at the games”.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa would play 7-years for her hometown hockey club, Hämeenlinna HPK.

Despite facing powerhouse shooters from both Canada and the United States at Torino, Hassinen-Sullanmaa still put together very respectable numbers for the tournament. In four games, Maija would put up a .875 save-percentage to go along with a 3.38 goals against average and a total of 77-saves at Torino. When looking at these numbers, one needs to consider the attacking strength of both USA and Canada, and the disparity in scoring for teams like Finland when compared to either of those two dominant teams. The fact that Maija’s numbers were as sound as they were after having faced both of those teams is very remarkable. But though her individual performance was very solid, Hassinen-Sullanmaa and Team Finland would fall to the United States 4-0 in the bronze medal game of the tournament, and settle for the fourth place finish.

Though Torino would not turn out as she would have hoped, Maija would eventually find success in playing for her country, including a bronze medal she attained in front of her own hometown. For the games of the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships, Maija would backstop Finland to bronze medal victories in 2008 in China, 2009 in Finland and 2011 in Switzerland. “It’s been great to be a part of Team Finland for any event, and of course, especially for the ones where we won a bronze medal. The 2009 championships were a special occasion for me as they were held in Hämeenlinna, my hometown”.

Between the Torino Olympics and four World Championship tournaments, Maija would appear in 9-games for her country, compiling a 0.828 save-percentage within those four tournaments, as well as a 3.12 goals-against average. “I am proud of every time that I’ve had the chance to represent Finland, especially in the Olympics”.

Separate from the international stage, Hassinen-Sullanmaa would play 12-years in the top women’s hockey league in Finland, SM-sarja, of which the final 7-years saw her playing for her hometown club, Hämeenlinna HPK. Perhaps her most memorable season would come during 2010-2011 when Maija backstopped HPK to the national title. Maija was absolutely phenomenal that season, appearing in 15-regular season games and putting up astounding numbers with her 1.44 goals against average and .948 save-percentage that season. Maija’s incredible play continued through the playoffs on HPK‘s championship run, as she would appear in 6 more games with a slightly better 1.42 goals against and a .929 save-percentage.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa celebrating a Hämeenlinna HPK victory.

For those 12-years that she competed in the Finnish national league, Hassinen-Sullanmaa’s career numbers will make you do a double-take. Only once during her career did she put up a regular season save-percentage below a .915-percent, and that came during her very first season. On four different occasions her season ending tallies for save-percentage were above .940. Likewise, in the playoffs only twice did she ever fall below a .900 save-percentage for a season, and again, one of those was during her very first national league season. Those numbers speak volumes as to Maija’s success and longevity playing a high level of hockey for over a decade.

During the summer of 2015, Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa would officially retire from playing hockey and move into coaching with Hämeenlinna HPK. When I ask her why she opted to retire when she is still relatively young and was still putting up great numbers, Maija tells me that “I felt that it was time for me to stop and let the younger players have a shot… I’ve been working as an assistant coach for the HPK women’s team, and I am mainly responsible for physical training for the players and helping goalies”. It is nice to see how Maija has moved into a different role where she is still very much involved in the game, and able to impart knowledge and experience into a younger generation of players. “For the younger players, I try to tell them that you’ll have to work hard, but to keep enjoying the game and keep playing”.

Lastly, I ask Maija to tell me how she thinks her teammates from throughout her lengthy career would recall her as a player and as a teammate.”I think they remember me as someone who was really focused, hard-working and competitive”. I would have to agree with Maija’s assessment completely, for I see those same qualities when I look at her playing career as well. And while I know that there is always a time to move on and say goodbye, it makes you a little melancholy in knowing that you will not see a player you admired grace the ice with her presence forever. And as the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Championships get ready to get underway in Kamloops in only a few days, it makes me nostalgic. Team Finland will be playing among the top four teams that comprise Group-A; Canada, the United States and Russia. I pause and wonder how Finland would fare, and how would Hassinen-Sullanmaa fare, if she were to suit up for one more championship tournament with the best women in hockey today.

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Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa, now an assistant coach with Hämeenlinna HPK.

But alas, it is not meant to be and she has moved onto other things. I am glad that Maija found great success in hockey, as well as having found her husband. I am glad that she helps train and sculpt young female players today, and I am glad that she is doing so in her hometown where she played for so many years. It is nice knowing that even though she no longer dons the pads, a catching glove, a blocker and a mask, she is still donning a sense of “focus”, “hard-work”, and “competitive” nature. Great job, Maija! And thank you for the all that you have done for the game and for your country.