MOSCOW – Some of the youngsters who took part in the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend event in Moscow could barely even say the word ‘hockey’ when they first came to the game.
Following the success of the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in Sochi this year, interest in the game has exploded in Russia.
And at the Meteor sports school, more than 70 girls turned out for an open training session to celebrate the international event.
Considering the school had just one girl when it opened three years ago, its rapid growth is a testimony to how the women’s game is expanding in Russia.
For years Russian hockey had focused extensively on the men, with the women’s team in the margins – but that began to change as the Sochi Olympics approached and since February schools like Meteor have been working hard to maintain the momentum after the tournament.
Zhanna Shelchkova, who captained Russia to Women’s World Championship bronze in 2001, is one of the coaches at the school and she’s delighted by the way attitudes have changed.
“We had lots of girls who watched matches at the Olympics and saw women playing hockey for the first time,” she said on Saturday. “Some of the very youngest really had no idea what the game was all about before Sochi, they could barely even say the word ‘hockey’, but they liked what they saw and wanted to try.
“Before the Olympics there was never much information about women’s hockey and parents were often frightened that it was a rough, dangerous sport that wasn’t suitable for little girls.
“One thing that made a huge different was a TV program before the Games where we saw players on the national team out of their uniforms: people realized that these are nice, pretty girls and there’s nothing to worry about if your daughter wants to play.”
Nikolai Uryupin, the Vice-President of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia, also acknowledged the huge boost that increased media coverage had given to the game.
“During the Sochi Olympics there was great interest in the games involving women’s teams and it was gratifying to see the arena was full when Russia was playing,” he said. “Interest in women’s hockey at all levels, from professionals to beginners, can increase even more if there is more coverage in the media and on television, and the support of government organisations can be very important here.”
Back at Meteor, the influx of new players has attracted players from far and wide, undeterred by the school’s remote location in Yuzhnoye Butovo, deep in the Southern suburbs. Dmitri Davydov, director of the complex, is particularly proud of Darya Yermak, a forward in the older age group who started playing just six months ago and has already made an impact, scoring on her debut for the Moscow girls’ team in the Moscow Region championship.
At present the school enters two teams in the Moscow Region championship, one for girls born between 1997 and 2000, and another for youngsters born from 2001-2003. The emphasis at this stage is on player development, rather than winning championships. “We want to get them learning the game and enjoying themselves,” Shelchkova explained.
According to Uryupin, the strength of Russia’s women’s league – and the regular success of Russian clubs in European competition – is also helping to attract more women to the game. Meanwhile an extensive building program has seen the number of rinks in Russia double in recent years, going a long way towards addressing the problems of limited ice time – although at Meteor Shelchkova admits this can still be challenging given the huge demand among boys and girls, men and women of all ages.
The current season has seen further innovations to help nurture the growth of interest in the women’s game following the Olympics. A national under-18s championship staged its first round of games recently in Nizhni Novgorod with four teams battling it out over the course of a weekend; round two follows soon in Chelyabinsk with six teams planning to compete.
According to Shelchkova the new competition is a big boost for players and coaches alike. “It’s a real stimulus for the girls to get a chance to play against different opponents and it’s a good opportunity to play at a higher level,” she said. “It’s also useful for the coaches of the U18 women’s national team, because they get to see a lot more players brought together in a single competition.”
And Uryupin added that this competition, along with the creation of an U16 national team and the planned expansion of the adult league to include teams from Moscow and Kazan, was helping to ensure that Russian women’s hockey continues its encouraging growth.
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