Countries’ challenges

Women’s hockey leaders talk about their situation

14.07.2014
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Hockey Canada’s Melody Davidson presents women’s hockey in her country during the 2014 IIHF Women’s Hockey Summit. Photo: Martin Merk

VIERUMÄKI, Finland – Women’s hockey leaders from 15 countries joined for the 2014 IIHF Women’s Hockey Summit as part of the 2014 IIHF Women’s High Performance Camp to discuss about their challenges and find solutions.

“Women’s hockey has gone a long way but still needs to improve,” said IIHF Women’s Committee Chairwoman Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, an IIHF Council Member who was a pioneer in Hungarian women’s hockey.

IIHF Sport Director Dave Fitzpatrick looked back at the last think-tank meeting and recommendations from there and the World Hockey Summit four years ago. It was right after the 2010 Olympics when the integrity of women’s hockey was challenged.

Four years later, women’s hockey comes off an amazing Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in Sochi with more high-quality games than ever.

“In the last 25 years women’s hockey had a tremendous growth compared to men’s hockey in its early phase,” Fitzpatrick said and added that in Sochi 2014 there were only three out of 20 games with questionable competitiveness (five goals difference or more) compared to nine in Vancouver 2010. Today women’s hockey exists in almost 50 countries.

Several steps were done since 2010 like a mentorship program for women’s coaching, coaching seminars, eliminating transfer service fees for female players, the high-performance camps, new playing formats for the IIHF championships, subsidizing national association development programs in addition to grassroots programs such as the already existing Hockey Development Camp and the new World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend. Recently the eligibility rules for female hockey players were loosened.

The 15 represented national associations presented their situation and their challenges in their countries when it comes to women’s hockey. Like in international competition, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are far off with tens of thousands of female hockey players and full commitment to women’s hockey throughout their organizations.

In other countries it’s not always like that. Often national associations often don’t get enough funding for women’s hockey, have often few or no full-time staff and not all hockey clubs give women the opportunity to play. In many European countries it’s often small clubs that have a good women’s hockey program while big clubs stay away. Many countries also have in common that few women go into coaching. Some complain about lack of awareness or respect for women’s hockey.

A positive common denominator is that the countries present meanwhile have an U18 women’s national team – a category that was added in IIHF competition in 2008. Some countries even have an U15 or U16 national team program for female players.

“If you haven’t planted the trees the right time to plant them is now,” recommended Melody Davidson of Hockey Canada where 86,600 female players are registered, 17,000 of whom are under-18.

USA Hockey follows with 65,000 registered players and Minnesota as the strongest state. Like for Canada, women’s hockey is the area of growth for the Americans as Jim Johannson said. Taking checking out of U12 boys’ hockey also had the side effect that girls stay longer boys’ hockey. Roughly 1.2 to 1.4 million dollars are spent for women’s hockey including $400,000 Olympic support. Johannson also thanked the college sport organization NCAA for their effort with about $15 million a year spent on women’s hockey programs by 34 colleges and universities at Division I level thanks to the strict gender-equality laws. From these programs not only players from the U.S. benefit but also more and more coming from Canada and Europe to study and play in the United States.

“The challenge for all players is what players do when they leave NCAA hockey, how to train and keep them together,” he said.

Otherwise most countries have their own plusses and minuses. Most women’s national teams have six to 12 camps prior to the Women’s World Championship with 50 to 65 days they spend together during the season, usually less for the U18 Women’s World Championship.

In Austria, women’s hockey is organized through a separate entity within the association that also includes a cross-border league with teams mostly from neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia to increase competitiveness in the region.

Denmark is one of the smaller countries present with 400 players – 237 of them under-18 – and eight clubs that have women’s hockey teams.

“Playing with boys is our lifesaver,” said Christine Russell and spoke for many other nations because that’s where girls develop more rapidly.

“To have enough games, girls cannot fully go to the girls’ side, they need a boys’ team to have competitive training in addition to national team programs,” said Arto Sieppi of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association.

“The sister of Emma Nuuttinen plays with a boys’ U13 team where she has five to seven trainings a week and 60 to 80 games a season.”

“Playing on boys’ teams is important for the girls’ development,” said Kolbenheyer. “But in Hungary we sometimes still have coaches who don’t want female players on their teams.”

It can also be the so-called “smaller” hockey countries that can grow. France for instance has gone from 668 players in 2000 to 1112 players in 2014 plus 15 French in foreign leagues and will organize two IIHF women’s championships in the upcoming season – in Rouen and Vaujany – with events surrounding them to promote women’s hockey.

Hungary has gone from between 100 to 200 players during most of the millennium to 570 players and an eight-team league in the last few years. The U18 national team recently competed in the top division for two years. To continue their upward trend internationally, the Hungarians want to add a strength and conditional coach to the team staff, a mentor coach from abroad, fitness tests during the year on and off ice, prepare individual training plans, develop online daily training and a nutrition calendar.

Germany is in a comfortable situation compared to most of its neighbours with the national training centre in Füssen they can use anytime as Michael Pfuhl explained. Also, some national team players each year are part of a sport program of the army where they are paid army members and can train for their sport.

Japan can easily keep up with Europe with their numbers such as 1,419 registered female players and 65 camp days for the women’s national team.

“But we unfortunately only have few (six) international games prior to the Women’s World Championship. Most games are against high-school teams,” said Toshiyuki Sakai. The reason is little competition for the number-one spot in Asia in the last few years with the decline of the Chinese and Kazakh women’s national teams.

Finland and Sweden operate at another scale than most European nations. Finland has 4,787 female hockey players, Sweden 3,186. 121 clubs run girls’ hockey schools in Sweden as former national team player Erika Holst explained. There’s an U16 girls’ tournament with regional selection teams called Stalbucklan and five hockey high schools for girls compared to 33 for boys. Soon the women’s league will be extended to ten teams with two big clubs establishing a women’s program.

In Switzerland the financial support for women’s hockey has improved for the new season. “Thanks to the Olympic bronze medal,” Daniel Monnin added. Thanks to that U18 players won’t have to contribute money for the camps anymore. The medal may give hope for more awareness, which has been limited before Sochi 2014. In Switzerland 35 club teams compete in the women’s league in three divisions.

But not every domestic women’s hockey program has the same problems and it’s not always the money as Laura Rollins from Norway explained. “In Norway we have to be more efficient with the money we have,” she said. Thus the biggest challenges for women’s hockey in Norway are lack of staff, more coaching education is needed in women’s hockey and better acceptance.

“Only two of the bigger clubs in Norway have female teams,” she said although at least the registration number has grown to 800. “It’s good for the future but still not good for high performance.”

Also Alexander Ulyankin, the head coach of the Russian U18 women’s national team, said money is no problem for women’s hockey in his country.

“We have to increase the acceptance of women’s hockey, work on coaching education at the beginner’s level and find more local volunteer coaches,” Ulyankin said. “Our challenge is the small quantity of female hockey players compared to other European countries, lack of interest in women’s ice hockey by the population and leaders in sport. Our problems are not financial.”

With 562 registered female players, Russia is indeed ranked low, even behind countries like Austria, France or Great Britain despite sixth place in the Women’s World Ranking and a world championship bronze in 2013. The difference maker is the strong effort of the Russian hockey and sport authorities in their work with elite female players.

Russian women’s national team players are professional hockey players and don’t have to earn their money elsewhere. They have 250 days of training and competition a year with 60 games in national team and club hockey as Ulyankin explained. By 2018 the number shall be increased to 300 days. The women’s national league is being reformed to become a professional league with men’s clubs forming or supporting women’s teams that may also be opened for other European and Asian teams like the Kontinental Hockey League on the men’s side.

The Russians also aim at forming a new U18 women’s championship, a new national team for 14- to 16-year-olds and a university championship for women.

Although missing the goal of winning a bronze medal, Russia recently had best promotion for women’s hockey at full arenas in Sochi. The games there set a new standard for women’s hockey worldwide.

Tomorrow: The way to PyeongChang 2018 and ideas for the future.

MARTIN MERK

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