MARIEHAMN, Finland – Centred on the largest of its 6,757 islands, showcasing the women's game of all ages has been in the spotlight this week on the autonomous territory of Aland.
Perched on the Baltic Sea, between Mainland Finland and Sweden, the Islandia ice rink in Aland's capital Mariehamn saw two neighbouring rivals meet half-way as a four-day hockey feast got underway this week.
Three exhibition games between the women's teams of Finland and Sweden were contested inside the only indoor ice arena on the territory. With the two respective national teams gearing up for what is come later this season at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, Korea, it was the Finnish lionesses who prevailed 2-1 in the series playing in front of healthy attendances between 4-6 October.
Inspired by the displays, the festivities continued with the next generation taking centre-stage during the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend in an attempt to kick-start the development down the age groups on the autonomous Swedish-speaking territory, which is part of Finland and home to 29,000 people.
30 excited local youngsters born between 2008 and 2013 first gathered inside the Islandia rink cafeteria for an introductory meeting before entering the ice for an hour of hockey-related fun. With Carita Gullans of host club IFK Mariehamn in charge of the proceedings, she was aptly assisted by two inspirational mentors out on the ice. Lisa Mattsson, a 21-year-old forward formerly at Karpat Oulu and now Djurgarden Stockholm as well as 20-year-old Antonia Liljefors. Both players hail from Aland and once upon a time picked up the game in these very same surroundings.
“Out on the ice we divided the participants into four different groups according to skill level,” said Gullans. “We made passing exercises and played games, while the older players worked with Mattsson and Liljefors and also practised their shooting skills. It was all great fun and we are very satisfied,” said Gullans, who has been working on developing the girls' game on Aland since 2011. Based on the initial feedback following the weekend's event she is confident most participants will return and be part of the local league starting with under-10 players about to get underway.
“We already have a hockey school where boys and girls mix together and also on Sundays we have ice time for girls only, so the new players will have two chances to continue,” she said. “We now hope to establish four girls’ teams and play against each other in a newly started league. Everyone will be made welcome and we will make it a fun way to develop together,” Gullans continued.
As the only hockey club on Aland, IFK Mariehamn currently has 250 active players, where roughly 80 of them are female. Sharing the same language and with the proximity to Swedish mainland being only a two-hour hop on the ferry away, going west has been a natural route for Aland's hockey development. Two female teams from IFK Mariehamn already play in the Swedish leagues. Gullans now hopes that with the added help of the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend, the first step towards a shift in the prevailing attitudes in sport on Aland and beyond has been taken.
“In hockey, it is always the boys first. Now we hope it will help us to get more resources into girls' hockey and with that, we can start to build stronger teams from younger ages,” she said.