Kuwaiti women enter stage

New women’s hockey nations in development programs

09.07.2018
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From the desert country of Kuwait to the Sport Institute of Finland in the forests north of Helsinki: Laila Alkhbaz is one of two participants from the Gulf state to take part in the development programs of the 2018 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp. Photo: Martin Merk

The 2018 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp does not only include top junior players working on becoming world-class players but also development programs for countries that are not that far yet.

Among the countries that sent participants to the camp programs are some that are working on launching women’s hockey or already have female players and want to establish a national team in IIHF events in the future such as Estonia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Lithuania, Serbia and Ukraine. They work in the Leadership Development Program and the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend program together with colleagues from current or former top-level nations such as the United States, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia and Kazakhstan.

Two of these countries work on their IIHF debut on the ice next season. Ukraine has established a women’s program within the last few years and will for the first time play in the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B Qualification in Cape Town, South Africa. Also next spring, the Kuwaiti women’s national team will enter the stage in the IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia program.

While Ukraine has prepared for this moment with the IIHF’s recruitment campaigns such as the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend and the Global Girls’ Game to help build a five-team league, Kuwait is the lesser known debutant.

Laila Alkhbaz in the Leadership Development Program and Rawan AlBahouh in the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend hope to change that in the upcoming season.

“I’ve been a supervisor for the women’s national team for one year and am looking for leadership role,” Alkhbaz said after watching presentations from mentor Steve Norris and some of the countries.

Currently there are over 50 female players in Kuwait in three teams.

“We have a hockey school for girls between 4 and 14 years, then a team for players older than that and the national team,” she said. The teams usually practise and play internal games while last season the national team also went abroad to gain more experience.

“We had a camp in the Czech Republic in August 2017, played a tournament in Bangkok in November, and later in Abu Dhabi with Gulf teams where we took third place,” Alkhbaz said. After losing the games in Bangkok, the first win in history came against the Dubai Gazelles in Abu Dhabi. “In October we will play again in Bangkok and next year we will have a camp in Slovenia before the Challenge Cup of Asia.”

The debut in an IIHF-sanctioned event will be in the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia Division I. Both divisions are planned be staged not far from home in Abu Dhabi next spring. The venues, dates and participants of the Challenge Cup of Asia program will be decided next month.

How did Alkhbaz land into ice hockey?

“Last year my friend joined the team and liked it and I went to the ice rink in Kuwait and watched the hockey. Before I didn’t know what hockey is because hockey is not popular in Arab countries, it’s not like football or basketball. I asked the Winter Sports Club in Kuwait. I played but hurt my elbow, I was afraid to continue but stayed with the girls to help them,” she said.

She did a government course to become a supervisor and is happy to be at the Leadership Development Program that is taking place as part of the current women’s camp in Finland.

“I’m looking forward to be a good leader for the team. I’m so excited to be here and I’m looking forward to develop my skills so I can help them to be better,” she said. “I hope I’ll get better in everything to make my team better.”

For that she had to take time off from her job as a computer teacher for kids and her IT study. Beside her job and study, there’s not much time left. Ice hockey has become her biggest hobby since last year. “I’m with the hockey girls. I like to make our relationship stronger. It’s better to be one family,” said Alkhbaz.

Currently there’s just one ice rink in Kuwait. One that’s international size and has hosted IIHF events in men’s hockey before. In the winter months the Winter Sports Club also has a small ice sheet to practise shooting.

After the first camps, the Kuwaiti is thinking about the next steps after the upcoming debut of Kuwaiti women’s ice hockey on the international stage.

“Now we focus on the Challenge Cup of Asia and after that we will work on entering the World Championship but maybe it will take time,” she said.

To reach that level and fulfil the minimum participation standards, they will need more female players in the country and a national championship with enough teams and games. “I hope it will happen, inshallah [if God wills]. We are trying to develop the team and the skill of the team. We had girls who didn’t skate before but some are good players and we hope we will develop them and make them better.”

She hopes a league for women can be established, maybe already in September. And she thinks about games against boys. And her colleague AlBahouh learns more about recruitment and teaching small kids to play with the goal of running such events in Kuwait.

When the women’s team started first time in 2007 there was no support and the project died. This has obviously changed with the relaunch 11 months ago. “Now it’s good and now we are looking to have our own ice rink for ice hockey and figure skating,” she said. Having two Kuwaiti at the camp is also a strong signal for the development of women’s hockey and to raise the level back home.

Coming to the Sport Institute of Finland in Vierumaki also means a big change of scenery. Away from the desert country with guaranteed sunshine and temperatures of currently up to 49°C to the changeable and mild Finnish summer at the institute surrounded by green forests and lakes.

“It’s my first time in the north. I didn’t have time to see much yet. I really like the place and the facilities here. In my country it’s very hot right now,” she said. “It’s a pleasure for me to participate in the program and I hope I will learn much this week.”

Status report from the other countries

The program started with lectures from the mentors and from the represented countries at very different levels. On the upper end there are countries like Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia that have top-level experience and a full league program but are fighting for awareness and against stereotypes about women’s hockey. Germany is another top-level country represented where numbers for young girls have gone up since joining programs like the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend. During the last year there have been 10 per cent more female players.

Great Britain with two nationwide leagues and an English league in two geographical groups is also among the bigger programs represented but wants to improve in terms of retention.

In Kazakhstan and Ukraine the championship games are played in a couple of tournaments and they are among the countries where not all communities and junior coaches are interested in girls playing hockey with boys, same in other central and eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic or Latvia.

Turkey has now 300 female players of which half play in the women’s and U18 leagues with teams from three cities but money is a problem for women in club hockey as they have to pay for equipment and travel that can be far as the distance between Istanbul and Erzurum is over 1,200 kilometres. There like in Romania the public perception of hockey as a men’s sport and trust from parents is a problem. It’s not always easy to convince parents that ice hockey is a safe sport for girls and women until they see it themselves.

South Africa is another country in the lower divisions present here and has 130 players from four regions, most of them (88) from Gauteng where two women’s teams play in the boys’ U18 and U16 leagues in addition to a small-ice development league with four women’s teams. But with only 60-90 minutes of ice time available for a women’s hockey team per week they want to work on an off-ice program.

In Croatia players need to give sacrifice to keep women’s hockey alive as there’s no financial support and no sponsors and practices are usually late night at 23:00. Also Bulgaria with currently 44 female players hopes to learn more and find a strategy to grow hockey.

Ukraine has profited from the recent recruitment offence in international ice hockey and has gone up from virtually no female players to 193 players and a league with five teams that may get a sixth team next season. Similar in Estonia where the league restarted with four teams from four cities after many years without women’s hockey after using the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend as starting point.

Latvia and Lithuania with a new women’s hockey program work together with a Lithuanian team that joined the Latvian league last season. The Lithuanians hope to one day have a women’s league too and a national team that can join the Women’s World Championship program in 2021.

Serbia could be another team to try that step with currently 63 female players but right now most play in boys’ teams until U16 and there’s just one women’s team. The Serbs hope to get more education on female hockey and coaching.

Other countries have even bigger challenges. Women’s hockey in Ireland suffers since the closure of the country’s only ice rink in 2010. The few remaining female players have to play in men’s teams and cross the Irish-UK border to play games in Belfast. In FYR Macedonia there is just one female player, who is in the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Program to learn about organizing recruitment events and learn-to-play events. Kyrgyzstan reported to have no female players at all and is thinking how to launch a program.

Despite the very different levels and places the women and men in the Leadership Development Program come from, they all have the same goal: to improve women’s hockey in their countries, networking and learning from each other.

MARTIN MERK

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