Russia’s Women’s Hockey League got right behind this year’s World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend, with all seven teams staging events across Russia to mark the occasion. With a series of master-classes stretching right across the country from St. Petersburg on the Baltic to Ukhta in the far North and Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia, about 350 people took part – 150 regular players with girls’ teams and a further 200 girls and young women who were new to hockey and, in some cases, stepping onto the ice for the first time. In addition a local organization organized another girls’ event in Moscow.
It’s a testament to the progress the women’s game has made in Russia: four years ago, in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, it was very much a minority sport; the country’s contribution to WGIHW was limited to isolated events set up by local clubs. But the success of the Olympic tournament and the establishment of a professional league, now operating under the aegis of the KHL, has helped the game to expand rapidly.
In St. Petersburg, Yulia Karpova, now a coach with Dynamo St. Petersburg, talked up the impact of the 2014 Olympics – and is hoping for a similar boost in February. “The Games in Sochi gave a real push to the development of women’s hockey,” she said. “People watched the games and saw how much excitement there is in women’s hockey. Even without the high speed and big hits of the men’s game, fans were fascinated by the tactical side of the game, the skills on show and the unrivalled passion that the girls showed for their sport.
“After the Olympics, many girls took up the sport – their parents encouraged them because of what they saw in Sochi, which shows how the Games bore fruit. If the action from Korea is shown on TV at a convenient time, there’s no reason why we can’t get a new wave of popularity and even more girls getting involved.”
Karpova and Dynamo organised a full week of events in the build-up to the weekend. SKA-Avrora, the only girls’ team in the city, was invited for an open training session with Dynamo, rubbing shoulders with the pros on and off the ice. And there was a big crossover with other sporting events in the city: Dynamo’s players were guests of honour at SKA’s game on Friday evening, signing autographs and promoting women’s hockey in the city. Even off the ice, the WGIHW was big news: on Saturday the team held an open fitness session in a local park, attracting a further crowd of enthusiasts.
“Petersburg is a real hockey town now,” Karpova added. “And it’s not just SKA – there’s real interest in Dynamo and we get good crowds too. We’re also seeing a boom in amateur hockey, with more and more recreational teams and competitions.
“It’s great to have SKA doing so well and raising the profile of hockey. Dynamo’s players get along to some of the games, hold autograph sessions and take the chance to tell people about women’s hockey, about our team. There’s always great interest among the fans, and some of them start following our games as well.
“When I first came here, hardly anyone really knew about women’s hockey, but that’s changed over the years. We’ve got a pro team, two girls’ teams and an amateur women’s team. Plus, there are even more talented girls who play on boys’ teams.”
Karpova is part of a hockey dynasty: her grandfather, Nikolai, won Olympic bronze with the USSR in 1960; father Sergei was a World Junior Champion in 1979 and now her daughter is taking her first steps on the ice. “That was something she wanted to do,” Karpova said. “When she was about three we first tried to get her skating and she wasn’t keen. But after we moved to Petersburg, and she was already a bit older, she started asking when she could start skating.”
The weekend festivities went far beyond St. Petersburg. In Moscow Region, the WHL’s champion, Tornado, staged a master class in Odintsovo. More than 100 came along, and a couple dozen girls aged 5-12 took part in master classes under the guidance of World U18 bronze medallists Daria Seredina, Alyona Novikova, Yelizaveta Zenchenko and Kristina Korotkikh.
For Valeria Pavlova, of Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, the weekend even sparked a hint of envy. “I grew up in Tyumen, and when I was a girl we never had opportunities like this,” she told the club’s press service after a master class for 25 girls aged three and upwards. “We only ever played with the boys. Today I could see how the girls’ eyes lit up, how much they got out of everything. It was emotional for me too.”
There were further master classes and friendly tournaments in Yekaterinburg, Ufa, and Bogorodsk, near Nizhni Novgorod, where SKIF held its annual Girl’s Weekend event and attracted 120 participants. And in Ukhta, close to the Arctic Circle in the Komi Republic, the local Arktik-Universitet team took on a men’s team – Gazprom Transgaz Ukhta. The unique challenge game attracted a large crowd, with many children getting their first look at a pro women’s hockey team. The girls competed well, having the better of the first period before tiring and going down to a creditable defeat.
All seven events governed by the league were intended to introduce the game to youngsters who had never previously had the chance to play, and hoped to inspire new dreams of starring on the ice among the next generation of Russian girls.