VIERUMÄKI – In 2006, there were about 2,500 female hockey players in Finland. Today, six years later, the number has doubled. One reason is the Girls’ Hockey Day program the Finnish federation has put in place.
“In an average year, we have about 40 such events around the country, arranged by clubs,” says Johanna Pelkonen, the Female Hockey Development Coordinator at the Finnish federation, and the lead instructor of the development camp’s Learn to Play program.
And once the children have tried hockey, if they like it, they can join the club that organized the event.
The Learn to Play program had five instructors and 40 small girls and boys, for the 16 participants to work with. In short, the program focuses on providing the tools for recruitment of young players, specifically to increase the number of girls playing ice hockey.
Even shorter, it puts “fun” into fundamentals.
Last year was the first time the Girls’ Hockey Day was organized internationally as well and on Thursday, the Learn to Play program opened the Vierumäki rink doors to beginners in a summer version of the Girls’ Hockey Day.
The participants - children from the region, including boys in this summer version - got to try their hand at stickhandling and shooting pucks and balls off a board before hitting the ice for a 45-minute practice for where they got some skating tips, learned how to fall and get up, and got to play a little.
“This, the Girls’ Hockey Day, is how we can reach the girls who haven’t discovered hockey yet. The girls who play on boys teams, they’re there, we have them, but we have to get more teams for girls, and we have to make hockey look attractive to girls,” says Pelkonen.
That’s why the Girls Hockey Day in Vierumäki also had special guests like HockeyBird, the official mascot of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and that’s why there was a face painting station where the players were turned into lions.
And yes, on the ice, some players wore pink sweaters.
“The Finnish lion is beautiful, but it’s not a reason to take up hockey. We have to make it more of a girls’ thing, and different colour sweaters is one thing. Boys just want to have the puck and play, girls want to know how things are done,” says Pelkonen.
Of course, sweaters aren’t enough, and Pelkonen says that while the Finnish federation has been successful, there’s still more they can do.
“To be honest, when parents see hockey players with bloody eyes [like Finnish forward Jesse Joensuu’s at the 2012 World Championship], they don’t feel the urge to take their children to a hockey team,” she says.
“There’s no way around the fact hockey image is a little violent,” she adds.
That may be so, but Pelkonen is also optimistic about the future, and she believes that six years from today Finland will again have doubled the number of female players, to 10,000.
“Once we reach a critical mass, the recruitment will be a little easier. Our 5,000 is a good number, but football has 25,000, and is by far the biggest ball sport for girls. The tide is turning, though, and there isn’t as much resistance on the field anymore,” says Pelkonen.
The women’s national team’s success helps attract players, and attention, but the problem is that the team only gets any media visibility in Olympic years. That’s why Pelkonen wishes that the Finnish SM-liiga clubs would push more for girls’ hockey.
“If nothing else, they should realize that there’s a lot of fan potential for them as well,” she says.
According to Pelkonen, there is one way women’s hockey would be guaranteed more media attention.
“It’d be great if, say, Teemu Selänne’s daughter would pick up hockey,” she says.