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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.