BAD TÖLZ, Germany – This weekend, U.S. forward Kelley Steadman is attempting to win her second European Women's Champions Cup with her Russian-based club team Tornado Moscow Region.
The Tornado team is aiming for a third consecutive title in the most important women’s club competition in Europe, underway this weekend in Bad Tölz, Germany. Bringing back many of the key players that brought the team the cup, Tornado are the favourites to win.
As member of the US women‘s National team in 2011, Steadman won the gold medal at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in Zurich. She plays alongside former U.S. college players Zuzana Tomcikova (Bemidji State University), and Iya Gavrilova (University of Minnesota-Duluth), who last competed for the Russian national team in Sochi. Tomcikova, a Slovak national team netminder, was named MVP at the 2011 IIHF Women's World Championship.
Gavrilova, a fixture at forward for Team Russia, played in the U.S. for Minnesota-Duluth and extended her career in Canada at the University of Calgary, winning a CIS championship.
Although many eastern European and Russian male hockey players have migrated to the North American hockey leagues, few players travel in the opposite direction. Though many young women players from North America wish to continue their hockey careers after graduation, opportunities are limited in the west. This often means searching for a spot in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
“I knew I wanted to play overseas but I didn’t know much about any of the teams or how the process works,” said Steadman. “I talked to some friends who had already played in Europe and they told me about the hockeywomen.de project.”
Based out of Germany, hockeywomen.de is a non-commercial project designed to improve women’s hockey outside North America through a growing network of players, officials, supporters, media, and sponsors.
As things turned out, the best team in the European women’s club hockey landscape wanted her, and soon after Steadman was contacted by Tornado Moscow Region, which competes regularly in the Russian Women’s Hockey League.
“I honestly was a bit nervous thinking about playing in Russia. It is so far away and in North America sometimes the news still does not show the best picture of Russia,” said Kelley about when she was contacted.
“I talked to a couple of people, especially Iya Gavrilova and Zuzana Tomcikova, whom I knew from college hockey in North America and who had already been part of the Tornado team. I also spoke with Melissa Jacques, who had played for Tornado for one season, and with Sara O’Toole, who is in her third season in Russia (playing for Agidel Ufa). After conversations with Olga, Tornado’s team manager, everyone made me feel very comfortable about playing for Tornado and so I decided to join.”
For Gavrilova, who is one of nine Russian Olympians on the team, it was an easy choice to go to Tornado full-time after her stint with Minnesota: “I returned because it was an Olympic year,” she related. “I thought it would be better if I could be part of all the national team camps. From my previous time here and because I knew many players and staff from the national team, it was an easy transition for me.”
Both Steadman and Tomcikova's main reason for the decision was the chance to play in the only professional women’s hockey league in Europe, which Gavrilova maintains is on par with women’s college hockey. “It is the same,” Gavrilova said. “Except that in Russia it is our job so you only have to worry about hockey.”
What do players expect when they join a team in the Russian league? Players generally get a salary, living accommodations, hockey equipment as well as travel expenses supplied by the team. In addition, teams offer medical care.
“We have a team doctor, a massage therapist, and relationships with hospitals in the area,” said Steadman. “The team offers anything you need to play your best.”
Gavrilova, knowing the situation in Russia very well, confirms that this is normal not only for Tornado players. “All teams in the league are structured similary. We don't have a two-class society here.”
For these benefits though, the players have to work hard. During the week, the players have on and off-ice practices each day. The weekends are for games. “On a typical day, we have practice at 10am on the ice and then we have an off-ice workout in the weight room. Then players can bike on their own or stretch or use the gym for extra workouts,” Steadman describes. “Afterwards we get lunch with the team. Usually we are done at the rink in the early afternoon.”
While there is free time for private activities, is that possible without help from a “native language” speaking teammate?
“Iya and Zuzana have been so helpful and supportive to me from the minute I got to Russia. I can’t thank them enough for everything they have done for me so far. I have gotten to the point where I can order my own food at restaurants and read menus for the most part. By the way: It has been fun to learn a new language and has been easy to communicate through my teammates when needed.”
The Tornado players do a lot to help foreign players feel at home. Iya Gavrilova knows how to help her teammates become more comfortable. “I always try to help. Especially since I know how it feels to be in a different environment, in a different culture, I try to make the girls feel welcome!”
Because the Tornado players all live in the same area and some even in the same apartment building, they spend a lot of time together. Steadman enjoys that:
“My teammates help to explore Dmitrov (the city where the team is located) or Moscow. Usually we have dinner together or watch hockey games, go bowling and do other things. It is definitely nice that we live so close to each other so we can spend time together off the ice, as well.”
She seems to be happy with her decision. Even the long travels to the away games in this huge country are taken in stride. Depending on the distance, the team travels by bus, train or airplane.
Travelling to games means getting the chance to see different Russian locations. Steadman always travels with open eyes to see a lot of the former “unknown world”: “Russia is definitely different than North America, but not as much as many people think. This is one thing I always tell people from back home.” She has become a kind of ambassador to people in North America encouraging them to learn more about Russia and to see the country in a new light.
“I have been lucky enough to travel around Russia and have been to Moscow over a dozen times. I also visited Alena Polenska, another former college player, in St. Petersburg for a weekend when we didn’t have any games, and loved the city very much. Russia is just like any other country in Europe. Some cities are much bigger and more modern, some are smaller and more industrial.”
Talking to Kelley she gives you the feeling that she does not regret her decision.
“I can already say that I had an amazing experience here! I could continue playing at a high level as the league here is really strong, I have been able to be paid to play the game I love. There hasn’t been anything here that has made me feel unsafe or made me rethink my decision and I have seen places I never would have seen otherwise.”
But the biggest benefit has been the human experience Kelley enjoyed. Not only because of the professional organization and treatment by the team, but: “I have made friends that will last my lifetime.”
Although she will return home after one season she has a clear and honest message for any other North American player: “It has been a great experience and I wouldn’t change anything about the year I have had here. I would definitely recommend playing in Russia to other North Americans looking for a place to play overseas!”
Tomcikova echoed her feelings. “I would recommend it to every player, as well. It has been a great experience. And I think its good for people to broaden their horizons.“
And in her eyes, the foreign players will help to improve the level of Russian women’s hockey, too: “Well there is space for improvement. College hockey in America is much better, but I think our team is very talented and we have shown this on an international stage. I think it would help to get more foreigners and experienced players. I think the league has potential. It just needs time.”
But first, the team wants to prove its talent and win the European cup for the third time in a row. Opening the tournament with a 6-1 win in the first game versus the Swedish champion AIK Stockholm, they are already on the way to make the championship a reality – and to bring Steadman her second international championship on European ice.