GRAZ/MEXICO CITY – The IIHF’s new initiatives are designed to help women’s hockey grow, but in order to do so, these initiatives need support at national and club level. Positive developments can be seen in Central and Eastern Europe, with even a new league in Mexico.
Finland and Sweden are the superior European nations in women’s hockey, and the Russian league has been gaining ground by signing international players to pro contracts. But it has been difficult for other European countries to give players the opportunity to play at an adequate international level, outside of the IIHF’s Women’s World Championship and European Women’s Champions Cup.
One positive example to improve the situation is the Austria-based Elite Women’s Hockey League (EWHL). Since its start in 2004 it has included teams from neighbouring countries: the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia. One year ago we reported about the most unique inclusion: the national team from the Netherlands.
The inclusion wasn’t that easy because the travel distance to the Netherlands was far for the other teams. Therefore the clubs agreed to provide financial support to accommodate the Dutch team on its tours through Austria and nearby regions, while in return the team played only a few home games in the Netherlands. This year, the Dutch national team will play most of their games in the Netherlands.
“Almost all teams want to go to the Netherlands,” says Martin Kogler, the EWHL’s general manager. “Only Slovan Bratislava will play their games at home, the Vienna Flyers are not sure yet.”
The league will expand to 20 regular season games for each team with a double round robin, which allows two-game road trips to the Netherlands.
This year the league will include six teams: three from Austria (Salzburg Eagles, Vienna Flyers, Sabres Vienna), Slovan Bratislava from Slovakia, the Netherlands’ national team and Pantera Minsk from Belarus as the newest entry.Pantera Minsk the newest addition
Pantera was founded only last year as the first women’s hockey team in Belarus and includes domestic players and national team players from Latvia and Slovakia, as well as a couple of players with Belarusian-Russian double citizenship. The team played in the Latvian league last year, winning all 16 games. With this record it did not only earn a spot in the IIHF European Women’s Champions Cup, but it was also admitted entry to the EWHL.
“We are looking forward to playing in the EWHL. It is an important step for us to develop women’s hockey in Belarus,” says Yevgeni Kukushkin, Pantera’s sports director. “We’re excited to get to know the level of play in Slovakia, Austria and the Netherlands and to play against these teams.”
Pantera will play a couple of home games on the opponents’ ice, but with travel support from the Belarusian club it’s planned that the three Austrian clubs will play in Minsk.
Pantera Minsk will focus on the EWHL while also having a team in the Latvian league.
In their first games Pantera had no chance against last year’s runner-up Slovan Bratislava, losing both games at Bratislava’s 2011 IIHF World Championship arena, 6-0 and 7-0.
However, it looked more promising against the Vienna Flyers. Latvian national team defender Laila Dekmeijere-Trigubova opened the scoring for Pantera at 11:13 of the first period and after three unanswered Austrian goals 14-year-old Belarusian forward Karina Shyptitskaya cut the lead to 3-2 with ten seconds left in the second period. The Flyers eventually won 4-2.EWHL Supercup with Germany and Switzerland
The EWHL also expanded in another way. It includes two German top teams (ESC Planegg and OSC Berlin) and Swiss champion ZSC Lions Zurich in the EWHL Supercup. That means the teams will not be fully included in the EWHL and play in their domestic championship, but they will play a couple of games against two of the permanent EWHL teams, national champions Sabres Vienna and Slovan Bratislava.
“Many teams from Central Europe joined the EWHL because they don’t have competitive leagues at a high level,” Kogler explains. “In Germany and Switzerland it’s different. We’ve had German teams in the past, but playing full seasons in Germany and in the EWHL was too much for them, especially since our members were asking for more games. That’s why we came up with the Supercup.”
By defeating the ZSC Lions (4-2) and OSC Berlin (8-0), German champion ESC Planegg took over the lead in the Supercup competition.Turkish national team tours through Austrian Bundesliga
The changes in the Austria-based leagues continue in the Bundesliga, the second tier for Austrian women’s teams behind the EWHL. The league includes not only four more Austrian squads, but three from Slovenia and as of 2011-2012 the Turkish national team.
The Turks were admitted as a guest team. They will play all games during two tours through Austria and Slovenia. The Turks are travelling from game to game right now while another tour will follow in February.
Until now it has been a rough learning experience for the Turkish women, who have lost all six games with a goal record of 3-85.
Turkey played in the lowest tier of the Women’s World Championship last year, losing to Poland, Spain and Bulgaria but defeating Ireland. This year the Turks will not play in the Women’s World Championship program, but focus on improving the domestic programs.The Turkish national team in a 11-1 loss to the Sabres Vienna II. Photo: RST FotoserviceMexico launches women’s league
While national associations and clubs find new ways to promote women’s hockey with cross-border initiatives, a new country is joining the women’s hockey community: Mexico.
The country recently launched its first season of the women’s league (Liga Mexicana Femenil de hockey sobre hielo). A total of 61 players from seven states were registered this past summer and allocated through a draft to the four teams: Blue Ice Breakers, Black Widows, Pink Blades and White Pearls.
A women’s hockey tournament was played in 2010-2011 season and the success inspired the Mexican Ice Hockey Federation to establish a league.
Games will be played in three long weekends in Cuautitlán Izcalli in Mexico State, and another one in Querétaro.
The White Pearls took the lead after winning all three games on the first weekend. Fernanda Chavez scored a hat trick in the 3-0 win in the White Pearls’ opening game against the Blue Ice Breakers. The Pink Blades are in second place after the first week of play, before the Black Widows and the Blue Ice Breakers.The White Pearls in their 3-0 victory in the opening game of the Mexican women’s league against the Blue Ice Breakers. Photo: Jorge Femat Solis
Because the gap in women’s hockey behind the North American teams and the best European teams has been big, the organization has ambitious goals and hopes to get to the top notch of women’s hockey with more enthusiasm for the female game.
“The current situation in women’s hockey means that Mexico might be able to compete in the Top Division in about six to seven years, which likewise would allow us to compete in the Olympic Games,” says Joaquin de la Garma, the Mexican Ice Hockey Federation’s President.
The Mexicans are planning an international invitational tournament and hope to join the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in the future.
There are currently 37 nations in the Women’s World Ranking, quite a few teams to overtake to fulfil Mexico’s Olympic dream, but sometimes dreams come true.