GENEVA – Switzerland’s only World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend event was not only special because of its 140 participants, but also thanks to some help from the Genève-Servette men’s professional team including a locked out NHLer.
“The event was going great. It overcame our expectation,” said Ksenia Fliguil of the Association Genève Futur Hockey, the youth organization of the club. “We aimed to double or triple last year’s amount of participants when we were around 50. On Sunday we had 140 ladies from the age of 7 to maybe 45. From what I’ve heard they told me everybody was excited and had great fun.”
Having so many girls was a challenge, Fliguil admitted, but one the organizer and its many volunteers managed to work out well.
“Our main goal was to introduce hockey to those who had never played,” she said. “We also had some who already played before. So we had six groups by age and level.”
The many girls new to hockey were helped by coaches and boys playing on the junior teams, but the organization also got some boost from the men’s professional team that is currently the surprise leader in the Swiss league standings.
Even though Genève-Servette had a road game in Kloten on Saturday night and the players returned home at 2am, the six players supposed to join the event showed up in the morning as punctually as a Swiss watch.
Among the players was even a locked out NHLer, the San Jose Sharks’ Logan Couture, who is playing hockey for Genève-Servette during the ongoing labour dispute.
“It’s very cool,” the 23-year-old says about the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend. “Being Canadian we see a lot of girls’ hockey. It’s a national sport. Everyone plays hockey, whether it’s boys or girls. To see the girls who start to play here is pretty cool. It’s nice to see them play and be part of it.”
The players joined the girls on the ice for about 20 minutes. And once their session was over around lunchtime, they were kept busy signing autographs.
“I’m sure it’s a good experience for them,” Couture said, “and a lot of them are fans of the team and were excited to see us.”
Although it was quite some work to so after coming off a second defeat in 13 games, it’s work the 2011 NHL All-Star doesn’t mind.
“We also do a lot of community events in San Jose and also when I played junior hockey in Ottawa we got involved with the community whether it’s girls’ hockey, kids’ hockey or other events,” Couture said. “It’s a good way to give something back to the community and the fans, to all these people who support us at the games. It’s nice to give back to them and support them.”
And also on the ice Couture can be happy. After coming in late without having had a pre-season, he has had to play catch-up, but has now started to score points for the team.
“It’s a pretty good experience,” he said about his Swiss adventure. “It’s different than what I’m used to but it’s fun. The hockey is good, the team is playing very well, so it’s a good experience.”
For many of the other players, however, it was the first time they saw girls play hockey.
“They were here at time with a smile, but they’re always ready to help,” Fliguil said about the male players. “For many players it was a first to see girls play. I think they enjoyed it as well.”
For the local players helping out the girls might have been something new, but not community work itself. Their club has the probably busiest schedule of the country when it comes to community and PR events, but that’s also reflects the level of recent success enjoyed by a club that was promoted back to the National League A in 2002 after a drought of 27 years in the semi-professional and amateur leagues.
Since being back, the hockey team won back the hearts of sports fans in Geneva in large part thanks to its community work. In the last three years the arena has been packed with slightly less than 7,000 fans in almost every game, and the ongoing project of a new and bigger arena draws ever closer to reality.
“At such events we can get to know the people in Geneva who love hockey and sports in general more closely. It’s a pleasure to communicate with them and it’s good for the marketing of the club,” said Chris Rivera, a former U20 national team player who worked his way up through the junior ranks and is now in his ninth NLA season at the age of 26.
“It was a nice event and it was nice to be able to see female hockey in Geneva and all the girls who like hockey,” Savary said about joining the girls’ event. “People think women’s hockey is something different, but they also have the passion and the pleasure for the game.
“We played a bit with them and passed the puck, and I think they had fun with us on the ice. That made it a pleasure for us as well.”
Last year, Geneva’s girls’ hockey day became the start of a women’s hockey program for the club. Since the IIHF initiative started, the weekly girls’ practice was constantly attended by 15 girls. After the successful recruitment event on Sunday, Fliguil has bigger plans.
Events like these are certainly a boost for the Romandie region, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Although ice hockey is popular there, the top women’s hockey players and clubs come from the German- and Italian-speaking areas of the country.
“One of our goals is to start a female team in view of next season,” Fliguil said.
But while the men’s team needs more capacity in its arena, the youth department also lacks the quantity of ice sheets in the Geneva region.
“In Geneva we have a lack of ice time, but since the IIHF event last year we organize weekly practices at the outdoor rink that is open from November to March,” she said.
“Hopefully we get more girls to participate in our female program. After last year we had constantly 15 girls for our weekly practice and hopefully after today we can get 30 or 40, continue the training, get more ice time and found a team for the Swiss league next season.”
The event in Geneva is certainly a good example of what can be reached with a girls’ hockey day especially with the support of the whole hockey community. And it’s just one of many success stories among the more than 340 events worldwide.
Click here for the World Girls' Ice Hockey Weekend tracker.