“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.

 

 

 

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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).

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.gofundme.com/forwomenshockeyua

 

 

“Until the very end”: Refika Yilmaz, Team Turkey

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Refika Yilmaz, 25-year old captain for Turkey’s women’s national ice hockey team. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

I can clearly picture her in my mind’s eye; a young girl, in-line skating in the orange haze of the Turkish sun. Alongside boys, firing balls and pucks from morning to night. Needing to move, needing to be active, and loving to skate. Her country, Turkey, is a most beautiful one; welcoming to foreigners with its delicious food, kindhearted people, and historic atmosphere. I know firsthand, having spent 2-weeks there myself in the Autumn of 2006. But it would hardly seem to be a place where you would come across a young athletic girl who was totally enthused with the game of hockey. In a land of Mediterranean sun and what seems to be eons worth of history, what is routinely called “Canada’s game” would not come to mind. Contrary to that thought though, I meet the inspiring captain of the Turkish national women’s ice hockey team, Refika Yilmaz.

While she is 25-years old now, Yilmaz started playing in-line hockey with boys at the age of 12. Born in the capital city of Ankara, Turkey,  she has been highly active from her youth to this very day. “My childhood was full of sports”, she tells me. “I would never stay in one place for a long time without moving. After school, I was always going to play football (soccer), or doing cycling, or in-line skating, or playing in-line hockey. I’m still the same now”. I tell Yilmaz that I am both amazed and proud of her when she informs me that she currently runs 8 to 14-kilometers everyday as part of a normal workout routine, but mostly for her own enjoyment. “I love running, and I want to attend some long distance races. In May, I will be doing a race in Izmir called ‘Wings for Life'”. I do not even know how Yilmaz finds the time, as she is currently preparing to move to Munich, Germany, so that she can complete courses for earnining her Masters degree at Cologne University.

From the start of our interaction though, I still cannot shake the question over how a young girl in Turkey could come across the game of ice hockey. Yilmaz elaborates for me on how it came about. “Actually, I was playing in-line hockey with boys at the time. A player from the ice hockey league saw me, and wanted me to come play ice hockey because I was the only girl who was there playing with the boys. During these years, they were looking at starting a women’s ice hockey league and were trying to gain interest and find players. So I started playing ice hockey”. Playing space would be extremely limited for Yilmaz and her new found sport, and she and her mates really had to make the most out of what was to be had. “In Ankara there were not many opportunities to play ice hockey. There is actually just one Olympic size rink, and all of the hockey teams were having to go there so that they could practice; even as much as two or three teams at the same time. We would divide the rink itself into two or three parts, depending on how many teams there were, and then doing 40 to 45-minute practices as much as two or three times a week. Unfortunately, this rink has since been closed and there are no other rinks of this size in Ankara; just small ones to do smaller practices. Most teams cannot even do practices now in Ankara. I really hope that an ice rink will open up soon and teams will be able to start doing practices again”, Yilmaz pines. Relaying this to me, I am even more amazed that the opportunity for her to play ever came about; certainly not under the easiest of circumstances.

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Team captain, Refika Yilmaz, shaking hands with the opposing captain. (Photo provided courtesy of Rafika Yilmaz).

Wanting to get a better understanding of how thoroughly she is acquainted with the game, I ask Yilmaz to tell me about her hockey heroes. We find common ground quite quickly when the answer ends up being the legendary Jaromir Jagr.”I love him as a player because he has such great skill! I am sure that he is going to continue to play like a ‘young player’ until the end. Jagr has a great sense of humor too. When he is on the ice, I can’t stop watching him without smiling”. Even though Yilmaz is now a veteran, even at 25-years of age, she still has stars in her eyes over her hockey hero. “I really hope that I’ll have an opportunity to meet him!”. When considering her own longevity, he inspires her even more so. “I want to play for the national team as long as I can. I think that I will continue to play until the very end, just like Jaromir Jagr”.

For Refika Yilmaz, the magnitude of playing for her country is so much bigger than what it means in her own heart, even as the team’s captain. “Representing my country is the biggest honor of my life. Because I am representing my family, all of my friends, all the people whom I have never met, all of the people that live throughout the country, from border to border. When I step onto the ice wearing the national team jersey, I know that I am note there are ‘Refika’; I am on the ice as Turkey”.

Being team captain provides Refika with additional responsibilities that she does not shy away from. The responsibility to be that additional support her teammates need, and recognizing the struggles that can occur individually. “We are athletes. And in my opinion, athletes are emotional human beings, and many different environmental situations can affect an athlete; sometimes we can’t play as we do every time. When I see that one of us is not in a good mood, I try to talk with her one on one, face to face first. If that doesn’t work, we work to help each other and the sisterhood goes on”.

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Refika Yilmaz at the 2016 Women’s Division II-B World Championships in Spain. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

There is definitely a mental aspect to every game, and the mindset of Yilmaz and her teammates has to be understood. It is all about your point of view and approach to the games mentally. “Before games, we know that we will just play for 20-minutes multiplied by three times that we give everything for this game. I remind my team about that. We made many sacrifices to come to this level. Sometimes we didn’t go to school, didn’t see our families, didn’t see our friends – there was no social life. Just hockey. But within those three sets of 20-minutes, that is the time that we get our reward for all of those sacrifices”.

Sacrifices such as these are what led Yilmaz and her Turkish teammates to finish in first place for the 2015 Division II-B qualification, thus securing a spot and promotion to the 2016 Women’s World Division II-B Championships which were held in Spain from February 29th through March 6th, 2016. But it was through the qualifier games in Hong Kong in February 2015 that saw Yilmaz’s leadership skills come through while she was at her very best on the ice. Going 3-and-0 in the qualification games, Turkey’s women defeated Bulgaria, South Africa and Hong Kong. In the 3-games, Yilmaz recorded 5-assists and a was a plus-7.

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Team Turkey at the 2016 Women’s Division II-B World Championships in Spain. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

Unfortunately for Yilmaz and Team Turkey, the tournament this past March in Spain would not go as well. Turkey would lose all five tournament games, suffering a very lopsided goal differential of minus-32; having only registered 8-tournament goals as a team. But the important thing to realize is that Yilmaz and her teammates had made it into newfound territory for Team Turkey – the women’s national team had never made it this far before in international play. They learned from this experience and know what to expect going forward. And like newfound territory, it can be revisited, worked upon and improved upon. Refika Yilmaz knows that she and her teammates gave it their all and that they will continue to do so. “I just tried to do my best for my team and for my country. I am so proud of my team. From beginning to end. And I will be proud of us for my whole life long. The first place in the qualification championship was our first experience with this, and the best thing that we have done to this point. We were believing in each other. We love each other as a person first, then as teammates. Like sisters. Before and after games, we were talking about our mistakes and each game we tried to correct them”.

Yilmaz has some wise words, and has a strong understanding of how to guide a team that is still very much in its infancy in international competition. After all though, she has been doing it for quite sometime. “When I was 16-years old, I heard that the Federation would be choosing its first women’s national hockey team, and that we would have tryouts and elimination for roster spots on the team. You can’t believe how much I was doing at practices to be a good player and to be part of our first national team! Wanting to represent my country and wear my national team jersey. I was doing practices with boys and girls, it didn’t even matter, from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. I was attending any practices that I could find. It was my biggest passion, and I was playing with the same passion that I am with now. I just really wanted it and I got it. At 16, I was the youngest player on the national team”. Laughing, Yilmaz ponders, “Maybe I’m old now?… No, I’m still young”.

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Refika Yilmaz controlling the puck, fending off an attacker. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

Yilmaz’s enthusiasm for women’s ice hockey in her country is both obvious and contagious. I get caught up in her strong sense of pride for her country and for her teammates, and I really want to see this program foster throughout Turkey. Maybe especially because I have been there before, and caught a glimpse of the national pride that individuals like Refika Yilmaz imbue. I ask her about how the sport can be grown amongst a younger generation of Turkish girls. “There are many projects that could be run to go about this. First, we need ice rinks. I heard that there are to be some ice rinks built in Ankara, or at least around Turkey. I really hope that we see them soon. But for young girls, we don’t necessarily have to have an Olympic-sized rink. If it is too much, we can have many smaller sized rinks for beginners, or near elementary schools, or schools that wish to bring students to the rink to learn fundamental skating skills. Secondly, the Turkish Ice Hockey Federation can arrange meetings between the public and ice hockey players. Each player of a team can go to a university or a school, and can give a presentation about ice hockey. After some theoretical and practical knowledge, I think many people will have an interest in ice hockey, because ice hockey is one of the most impressive sports in the world”.

I believe that Yilmaz is definitely onto something here. The sport can be grown by spreading knowledge and information. I would be willing to bet that most Turkish people know very little about ice hockey, and likely have never seen it played. But if you can assign a spokesperson, ideally Refika Yilmaz herself, who is knowledgeable and passionate about the sport, but is also very articulate and engaging, possessing a strong belief in the building blocks for growing the sport she loves, I think that the way her plan is envisioned, it is already bound to work. Seeing how much pride Refika and her teammates have in their hockey team and in their country, I WANT this program to grow. For them. And for hockey.

Refika, keep doing your thing! Keep growing ice hockey in Turkey. It’ll work. For many years to come.

 

 

“Wolfpack Mentality”: Clara Hernandez, center for Team Spain

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Clara Hernandez moves the puck for Team Spain during a 3-2 win against Iceland at the 2016 Women’s Division II-B World Championships (Photo courtesy of Clara Hernandez).

I did a Google search for popular sports in Spain. The most popular sport, by far and wide, is soccer; that goes without question. Listed next in line after soccer are basketball, tennis, cycling, handball, motorcycling, Formula One racing, water sports, rhythmic gymnastics, golf and skiing. I would surmise that when most foreigners think of Spain, they envision the top sports as being soccer and perhaps stereotypically (if not a bit politically incorrect) bullfighting. It is not until after scanning over all of these sports that I even find a sniff of hockey, and even then it specifically lists “roller hockey” – not “ice hockey”. And although I love roller hockey and have played in roller hockey leagues myself, I begin to contemplate the question in my head – “does ice hockey exist anywhere in Spain?”. Low and behold, I end up meeting a young lady for Spain’s national women’s ice hockey team, Clara Hernandez.

“Yes, I’d say that roller hockey is way more popular here”, Clara tells me. “There are many more teams for roller hockey than ice hockey, and I think women’s roller hockey has a lot more history here too than what ice hockey does. But in Spain ice hockey is starting to grow pretty fast”. Though the 21-year old Hernandez did not initially find her hockey roots on the ice, roller hockey seems to be far more readily available to interested athletes, even in schools. ” I started playing in my school when I was nine years old. I was born in a small city called Avila but when I turned nine we moved to a bigger city called Valladolid. When you talk about roller hockey in Spain I would say that Valladolid provides a lot of opportunities to play. I am obviously very thankful that we moved there”.

Trying to beat boredom in a new school, Hernandez’s mother encouraged her daughter’s interest to get involved in playing organized sports, thus bringing about the first opportunity to play hockey. “I actually remember this moment very well” Hernandez says. “I was with my mom at the school. Just kind of bored; trying to choose some sport or other activity that I could do during the school year. But then I turned my head and suddenly saw some guys playing roller hockey, and I immediately said ‘Mom, I want to do that‘ “, she recalls quite fondly. It is interesting to see how the real hockey enthusiasts and the lovers of the game can recall so vividly those first moments of getting acquainted with their sport. The memories stand out so vividly in the mind’s eye, no matter if you are from Canada, USA, Russia, or even Spain. The raw beginnings of the love affair with hockey never seem to fall from memory.

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“The Wolfpack”, Team Spain – Clara Hernandez and her teammates at the 2016 IIHF Division II-B Women’s World Championships (Photo provided courtesy of Clara Hernandez).

Clara began to be fostered in the game of hockey, and developed an appreciation and understanding of what it takes to be a competitor; whether it is on a roller rink or on ice. Not necessarily versed in the global game of hockey at the time, a coach and a teammate come to mind when she considers her early hockey heroes. “I look up to my first roller hockey coach in school Andrés Portero ,and then also my teammate, Leticia Abrisqueta, because of their hard work, and because of their sense of taking care of every detail and taking care of the rest of the team”. Abrisqueta also plays alongside Clara currently on the national women’s ice hockey team.

After becoming proficient at her new found sport of roller hockey, within a few short years the opportunity to play on the ice and at the international level would begin to present itself for Clara. “Spain’s women’s ice hockey team is extremely young and really has not been around for very long”, she says. “I was only fourteen years old when they decided to start a women’s national team, and we first ended up doing a tournament in France before joining Worlds competition”. Considering that Hernandez is only 21 and the national ice hockey team began when she was 14, the sport truly is in its infancy for Spain. This makes it not only very exciting for the athletes, but also explains why there is such little information available about it. Still, for Clara Hernandez it is truly meaningful to be such a pioneer in the sport that she loves. “I was lucky enough to see the team born and to be part of it”. Grassroots hockey, so to speak.

Clara Hernandez plays center currently for the ice hockey club Kazkabarra Negu-Kiroletako Cluba. “I am living in Barcelona. And though there are not a lot of ice rinks in Spain, I decided to join this team, which was great”. This team is located in San Sebastian, Basque Country – a region in Spain in the western Pyrenees, spanning the border between France and Spain, and the Atlantic coast. This year’s club league is comprised of seven total teams, though Hernandez tells me that the number is steadily growing.

Where Clara Hernandez really was able to shine and demonstrate her puck-skills was at the 2016 IIHF Division II-B Women’s World Championship which was held from February 29th through March 6th, with none other than Spain as the host nation for the tournament. Six different nations comprised the teams competing, including Spain, Turkey, Australia, Iceland, New Zealand and Mexico. Hernandez and Team Spain were simply superb right from the start, pulling off an 11-1 shellacking of New Zealand on the Leap Year February 29th game. Clara recorded an assist, 2-shots on goal, and a plus-1 during the dominating victory.

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Clara Hernandez, prepared to receive her silver medal at this year’s Division II-B Women’s Worlds. (Photo provided courtesy of Clara Hernandez).

Throughout the rest of the way Spain would only lose one tournament game, and that at the hands of a 4-1 loss to Australia. Otherwise, Hernandez and her teammates pulled off wins with a 3-0 shutout over Mexico, a 3-2 victory over Iceland, and an 8-1 win over Turkey to secure the silver medal for their country. Hernandez would finish the tournament with 5-assists in 5-games, including a 3-assist production in the final game against Turkey; doing her part to ensure the victory and the second place medal. “We are very, very happy about our performance, but we have been chasing the gold since our first appearance at Worlds when we also got silver. But to me, it was just the best feeling, and always the best days in the year”.

The tournament was a huge success for not only Hernandez, but for Team Spain in general. Spain’s goaltender, Alba Gonzalo, was absolutely phenomenal between the pipes; in 5-games Gonzalo would post an astounding 95.28 save-percentage after turning aside 105 shots and only allowing 5-goals. Gonzalo would be named the tournament’s Best Goaltender, while one of Spain’s top defenders, Vanesa Abrisqueta, would be named Best Defenseman. Meanwhile Clara’s memories from the tournament seem to resonate hunger more than anything else; a hunger to get better as a team, and to begin competing at a higher level. Silver is great, but Hernandez wants better. “The best memories from the tournament are really from before the games when we are getting ready as a ‘wolfpack’ and just listening to our coaches’ words. A silver medal means a lot, but at the same time it only make us think about gold”.

Spain’s national women’s team has high expectations for it program. “In 3-years, we will be in the first division they say”, Clara tells me. And while they are currently demonstrating their impressive prowess at this level, moving up another division is not out of the question; especially considering this most recent silver medal run, and the fact that they have youngsters like Hernandez, who is already a veteran at 21, and the soon-to-be 19-year old phenom goaltender, Gonzalo. Hernandez tells me with self-assurance, “I will keep working so I can continue to be part of the national team and help us to go up to other divisions. I would like to get the gold. I want to improve and learn as a player, and play more tournaments just as every sportswoman would want. And to make it to the Olympics”.

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Clara and some of her “Kazkabarra Negu-Kiroletako Cluba” teammates, after they had received their silver medals and trophy. (Photo provided courtesy of Clara Hernandez).

Hockey enthusiasts, especially of the women’s game, may indeed not have long to wait before they see Spain in the limelight. While their team is growing out of humble beginnings, they possess strong ideals for cornerstones. You read Clara mentioning a “wolfpack” mentality amongst her teammates. Teammates. Team. Clara speaks it herself. “Being aware that I am part of a group. So the group/team always comes first. And most of all, I need to be thankful about all the moments that I have had the chance to live, and all the support that I have received from my family and friends along the way”. The foundation is indeed there. Now it is time for Clara and Team Spain to move onto bigger and better things as a hockey club. In Spanish “La mejor defensa es el ataque” means that “Attack is the best form of defense”. Spain is in attack-mode right now! Knowing that the team, the “wolfpack”, comes first and foremost, be prepared to see what Clara Hernandez and Team Spain can do. Odds are they will turn more than a few heads in hockey realms across the globe.

 

 

 

 

The Fighting Dane: Debbie Andersen

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16-year old ball of fire for Team Denmark, Debbie Andersen taking the face-off draw. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

These days, the game of hockey stretches to all corners of the earth, and particularly throughout the European Union. While its Scandinavian brethren Sweden and Finland have long been hockey hotbeds, the game has also been embedding its roots into the country of Denmark. This current 2015-16 NHL season has seen seven Danish players crack NHL lineups, including regulars like Anaheim goaltender Frederik Andersen, Colorado’s Mikkel Boedker, the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen and Montreal’s Lars Eller. Possessing a strong interest in the women’s game, it makes me wonder as to whether women’s hockey has much of a presence in Denmark as well. I end up meeting a 16-year old ball of fire for Denmark’s national U-18 team, forward Debbie Andersen.

“My favorite hockey player is Sidney Crosby”, Debbie tells me. I am sure that even the NHL would be impressed to know that an aspiring 16-year old female hockey player in Denmark calls the face of their game her favorite NHL player. “My favorite team is the New York Rangers”, she says; even better. But Debbie has her own personal heroes too that fall a bit closer to home. “There is also a player on my team who never gives up, and I really look up to him; I want to be better than him someday; his name is Joah (Aalling)”. Debbie and Joah play for Denmark’s Aarhus IK hockey club. Speaking more about Joah, it is obvious that Debbie knows that in order to succeed in hockey and to remain at a successful level, she needs to work on her game constantly. “He is a player who wants hockey more than anyone else that I’ve ever met. He makes me want to fight even harder, and that is what makes a ‘favorite’ player in my eyes”, she expounds. “He trains six times a week and shoots pucks daily, and I’ve started to do that also. I get inspiration from him that I have not really gotten from anyone else other than my coaches”.

Located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, Debbie lives in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, which is also where her hockey club is from. The second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus’ own hockey club is not far from where she lives at all. “There are not many hockey clubs in Denmark, and most are pretty far away from where I live, but in Aarhus it only takes me five minutes to get to training. But if I play or train in another place, it usually takes me one or two hours to get there by car”.

Debbie began playing hockey at eleven years old, and has played as a forward right from the get-go. “Forward is my favorite position, because I’m a fighter *she laughs*, and I want to be the one who makes the goals and assists; I’ve always wanted to play forward for that particular reason”. I suppose that in a family where she is the only girl with three brothers, two of whom are hockey players as well, Debbie would indeed be a bit of a scrapper both on the ice and at home. Though Debbie does credit one of her brothers for starting her interest in playing. “My brother saw a hockey movie at school, came home and said, ‘Mom, I want to play hockey too; it looks like fun!’. I went with my brother and my mom down to the hockey hall to register him and me too, and since then I’ve never left the ice!”.

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Debbie Andersen being mobbed by her teammates after a Denmark goal. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

Her fighting spirit is what Debbie believes is the most important part of her game, and something that she would extend to other players wishing to learn the game as well. “I think that the most important thing for a hockey player is fighting!”, though she does not mean fisticuffs or brawling; more so, approaching the game with tenacity and ferociousness. “Fight for every puck. Fight against every opposing player. And never give up on that. Be there for your teammates and support them, just like you would want to be supported”. I love this spirit that Andersen embodies. She is that type of player that fits the old adage; you love having her on your team, but would hate playing against her. Andersen is a disturber to the opposition, battling in corners and creating scoring chances both for herself and for her teammates.

This “junkyard dog” style of play and her “never give up”-attitude are what garnered Debbie’s nomination for the Danish U-18 national team that competed in January 2016 at the IIHF Women’s World U-18 Division-I Championships that were held in Miskolc, Hungary. Denmark had actually earned entrance into the tournament by finishing first in the 2015 Division-I Qualification which took place in Poland. For Debbie Andersen, being selected to play for her country was the most meaningful experience of her young life thus far, though it took her strong sense of diligence and commitment to attain it. “All girls who were playing hockey in Jutland were invited to a training camp run by the national team coaches. After several trials with the team, they decided to bring me along for a tryout with the entire national team. They have not kept me off the team since, and I have just continued to fight and work hard to keep my spot on the roster”. There is that fighting spirit again from her. I like the fact that Debbie humbly acknowledges that there are no guarantees, and that if she wants to continue to represent her country and play the game she loves, that she cannot slow her pace; she has to continue being committed.

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Debbie standing tall on the Team Denmark bench during the 2016 Division-I U-18 Women’s World Championships in Hungary (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

But for at least 2016’s version of Denmark’s U-18 team, the hard work was all worth it and something that she will be able to revel in forever. “My favorite memory was when the team and I put our equipment on for the first time and our jerseys. You are just so happy to know that you are one of just a handful of girls who is going to fight for your country. After that, the next biggest memory was the first goal we scored as a team in the tournament”. Denmark’s first goal would come in their third game of the tournament, scored by Andersen’s teammate Michelle Almquist, during a 3-1 loss to Germany. “They were both memories that I will never forget”, Andersen tells me. “It was just so big for me, that even now I will sometimes feel a tear running out of my eye. I was just so proud!”. And while Denmark would not muster a win during their five games in the tournament, being able to represent her country is something that will forever belong to Debbie as she continues throughout her hockey career.

And Debbie already has goals for the years ahead. “I really want to play college hockey. I really just want to get to the highest level that a girl can. And then after that, I really want to coach a team of my own someday”. I love knowing that she has these goals, and we then discuss what it will take to get more girls in Denmark interested in hockey; how do we grow the sport from here. To me it seems that Debbie has thought the process out, and has a strong sense of what it will take to promote hockey interest among young Danish girls. “There really aren’t that many girls in Denmark who are interested in hockey”, she says, a little disappointed. “But I think that if girls started to play some hockey in school, and then at home too with their friends, they’ll see that it’s a lot of fun and they’ll want to play too. Make them feel the fun of playing hockey – just like I did”. And she is right. Give them the opportunity to see how much fun this sport is. I recall being a seven year old in Buffalo, whacking a ball around with my hockey stick in our frozen backyard… there is just nothing else like it, and a youngster can easily fall in love with the game.

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The diminutive fireplug for Aarhus IK , Debbie Andersen, fighting for puck possession against a much larger opponent. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

There is no slowing Debbie Andersen down. This young lady is a Tasmanian devil of sorts, at least on the ice and with her dreams for growing women’s hockey in her home country. “I really hope that girls’ hockey can become much more popular”, she almost pleads to me. “Girls’ hockey is just as important as men’s hockey. Yes, we are girls, but we want to play just as much as the men do… at least me!”. I like this kid; she has got superb leadership qualities and some bite to her. I think that if you put Debbie Andersen at the helm of women’s hockey in Denmark, made her a spokesperson of sorts, that she could definitely rally young girls and get them interested in the game. She leads by example, and as this young lady gets a little older and begins playing for the national women’s team, she may very well have inspired a large grouping of young girls to fall in love with the game as well. Go Debbie!

 

 

“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.