“Ukrainian women’s hockey does exist, and its rise is unstoppable”, the young defender for HK Ukrainochka tells me with great conviction. There is an obvious fire in her eyes, and a fire in her belly too, as Marina Kobchuk makes this declaration. And when she begins to explain to me the great strides that the founders of the women’s hockey movement in Ukraine are making, her excitement is both contagious and I am all ears, eagerly wanting to learn more.
HK Ukrainochka came into existence in late 2015, and the organizers of the hockey club made sure that they started the program properly. Kobchuk explains to me that “the initiators managed to formalize the team as Ukrainochka Hockey Club. They passed the club law, confirming the founding members, they developed the logo and jersey design, and made a business plan for the future”. The beginnings of Ukrainochka are very interesting, especially learning from Kobchuk some of the trials in the early goings of the club, but inspiring too when learning the commitment level and personal interest from her coach, Evgeny Alipov. “During our first year, the team played a lot of games with amateur men’s teams, occasionally requesting the help from juniors and sports schools. It didn’t always prove worth doing though, given different skill levels and speed. But our new coach (Alipov), who started training the team in August 2015, inspired optimism in us by also bringing along his twin daughters to join our team. Even when his girls were doing synchronized swimming, he was dreaming of training them to play hockey”.
With Alipov at the helm on the bench, as well as even having the President of the Women’s Ice Hockey of Ukraine, Yulia Artemieva as a teammate at forward position, Marina Kobchuk was greatly appreciative of the strides that Ukrainochka invoked to continue building the team and doing it rightly. “First, the women’s hockey team received several sets of hockey gear from the NHL thanks to the charity fund, ‘Melt Ice In Hearts’. Second, the junior members of the teams (including Kobchuk herself) were invited to Washington D.C. to join a training camp within the scope of the SportUnited program. Third, the founding members of our team have set up the Women’s Committee of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine“, Kobchuk tells me. And the fourth , and perhaps the most important factor at its very roots, if not the most fun, is that Kobchuk’s Ukrainochka played against one of the other fledgling women’s clubs in Ukraine, the Dnipropetrovsk Belki (Squirrels). The inaugural first game between the two newly christened rivals created the necessary spark for giving Ukrainian women’s hockey its momentum to build and grow. Kobchuk further explains, “the game results were mixed with Ukrainochka and the Squirrels coming on top in turns, but more importantly, our team played and showed it could win games. That gave the girls unforgettable fireworks of emotions that we had never felt before. These were the first women’s hockey games in Ukraine in many years”. The game itself featured a strongly contested race between the two clubs, which seemed in doubt as Ukrainochka allowed an early lead to turn into a 7-7 deadlock as Dnipropetrovsk rallied to knot it up in the third period. Fortunately though for Kobchuk, one of her teammates put home another marker to make the score 8-7 late in the third, thus sealing the victory for Ukrainochka. “We all fell over in happiness; it’s a moment that I’ll never forget”, she recalls.
These early matchups between Ukrainochka and Dnipropetrovsk have already helped to double the amount of teams in the Ukrainian Women’s Hockey League for the 2016 season, and Marina can already see that the competition will increase twofold from here. “This season will be a very serious championship, with four teams in contention; HC Ukrainochka, HC Dnipro Squirrels, HC Avalanche from Kremenchug, and the HC Panthers from the city of Kharkiv”. To see the league double in size in a year’s time is a good indicator that the women’s game in Ukraine has the momentum to continue building itself. The opportunities to grow the game are being sought out by the organizers. “At this point there are few opportunities in Kiev”, Kobchuk tells me. “We are the only women’s team, and there are only three ice arenas. But they are open and available to train at even at 11:00 at night”. As we have talked the past few days, I know that Kobchuk has made great use of the late-evening practice and training times available to her, working on her game until midnight more than once.
Marina Kobchuk is only 17-years old, and it is even more remarkable to learn that she only began playing organized hockey just two years ago. A national women’s ice hockey team for Ukraine has not seen any formalized playing action since the early-mid 1990s, so there was very little for Kobchuk and her teammates to familiarize themselves with and look up to. “We haven’t played any international games yet, but in five years time I would really love to play for Ukraine as a member of Group-B”, referring to the lower-tiered rankings of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s grouping of the women’s national teams.
That being said, Marina Kobchuk has still very much fallen in love with the game of hockey, and has developed a strong understanding of it at an early age. “I play defense on the left-hand side. At the very start, I was actually drawn to playing the goalie position, but later I moved out a bit further from goal and settled into playing defense. I was advised to this position by Coach Alipov, and I was happy about that”. In a short time Kobchuk developed strong positional play, utilizing her body and her size to diminish scoring opportunities by the opposition. “I like pushing and knocking down my opponent, and mind you, I manage to do all that without breaking any rules. A defender is good at organizing attacks and especially counterattacks. In order to do that though, one needs to be able to see the ice, the players’ positions, and then be able to evaluate the situation in terms of attacking well before engaging in a fight for the puck, and even after having won the puck. Skating and interaction between your partners is essential”.
It is somewhat easy to see how Kobchuk has become so enamored with the game, and why her hockey sense is flourishing – she has support coming from all avenues. “My mother did figure-skating and competed at the amateur level, and my dad has played hockey with his friends for years. I also have a younger brother, and he will be playing hockey soon too”. When speaking of Ukrainochka, the constant support of her teammates has kept Kobchuk on track, especially that of her coach’s twin daughters Helen and Elizabeth, two 18-year olds that have been by her side all along. “Never for a second have they ever gave up on me. They always keep me mind, and it has allowed us to play in the top-five together for our club”.
Like any lover of hockey, Marina Kobchuk has her professional heroes too. “There is one hockey player that I like a lot, and that’s (Alex) Ovechkin. Not only does he score a lot, but he is an inspired scorer. Every time he gets the puck, spectators pay more attention to the game. He can score even when falling to his back, he can do a figure-skating trick to get around a defenseman, he can do a wrap-around, which is one of the most beautiful things in hockey”. Like Kobchuk, I have long admired Ovechkin myself. Despite any critics he may have, I do not think that there has been a more exciting player in hockey for the last decade.
To me, it is inspiring to have met Marina Kobchuk and to see the amount of excitement she has for hockey. This is how the women’s game in Ukraine will grow – by having motivated, hard-working young ladies like Kobchuk be part of the early beginnings. Marina is the kind of player that any coach would love to have on their club, and it is something that she can pass along to others, particularly girls her own age and younger. “Ice hockey is character-building”, she says. “It hardens you and builds up your stamina. Ice hockey instills positive emotions that are not dependent upon the result of the game, and it gives you the opportunity to vent any negativity. Every game is something new that you have not experienced before. Hockey players are role models, in terms of their will to win, their strength, and their daringness”.
Marina Kobchuk will be a key contributor to Ukrainian women’s hockey for many years to come. She is an intelligent and inspiring young lady, and she is made up of the type of character that any fledgling project needs to get itself going, and to get others onboard. But most importantly, what is most remarkable about Marina is her true love of the game. This girl plain and simple loves hockey; it is her life, and her passion. I feel inspired to have made her acquaintance, and I know that the Ukrainian Women’s Hockey League has a gem of a person and player in Marina Kobchuk.
If you would like to help promote women’s ice hockey in Ukraine, please offer support to them through this GoFundMe page for providing donations to support their game: