MOSCOW – Russia is undoubtedly a hockey powerhouse – but up to now the game here has typically been seen a man’s domain. Traditional attitudes dating back to the time of the great Anatoli Tarasov, who famously regarded hockey as a sport exclusively for “real men”, have tended to keep women off the ice. But, buoyed by growing international success for Russia’s women’s team, a new generation of girls is ready to take on Tarasov himself – and events like the Girls’ Weekend session at the “Gorod” shopping mall in the Lefortovo District of the city are helping that process.
As well as running various junior teams for girls, weekend pick-up games – where any interested ladies can try out the game – are doing more than giving woman a chance to get on the ice. They are also helping to challenge prejudices that have, in the past, limited ice options to figure skating or speed-skating.
Marina Konstantinova, a former speed skater turned hockey official, and now a veteran of two Olympics and 12 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships as an on-ice official, helped to organize Saturday’s event as part of the IIHF World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend on behalf of the Hockey Federation of Moscow.
She’s determined to spread the message that girls can – and should – play the game, and welcomes the support offered by the Hockey Club Grad, based on the rink at the Gorod complex.
“A lot of people still think that hockey is a man’s game – Tarasov said that, and many think that women simply shouldn’t be involved in the sport,” said Konstantinova. “But people’s opinions are starting to change a bit. We can see that if women in countries like Turkey or India can play hockey, there’s no reason why they can’t do it in Russia.
“People worry because it’s a physical sport, but we don’t have problems with hard checking or injuries to players. For me, it’s better that a girl plays hockey, rather than wandering the streets where she might get involved with drugs. I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter and I’m really pleased that she’s starting to play hockey now, as well as dancing and tennis.”
Like many things in Russia, the authorities do well at promoting the highest levels. In recent years Russian teams have performed increasingly strongly, culminating in triumphs at the European Women’s Champions Cup, a bronze medal at last year’s IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship and giving rise to hopes of an Olympic medal on home ice in Sochi in four months.
Nikolai Uryupin, Vice-President of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and team leader for the women’s national team believes that the four-year international development program for women’s hockey has benefitted Russia as well.
“Our national club championship is constantly expanding, thanks to the constant support of the Ministry of Sport. We are steadily improving our results in major international tournaments, and Tornado Moscow Region has won the European Women’s Champions Cup several times in a row,” he said.
“Winning bronze at the World Championship is great, but we still need to look forward. Events like the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend give us great grounds for optimism. I’m confident that we can expect a further wave of development for women’s ice hockey.”
For Konstantinova, though, the concern remains that the grassroots find it difficult to grow. Once players are identified as potential members of a national roster – at any age group – there are opportunities. Until then, however, it can be a struggle to get ice time and coaching for interested youngsters.
Moscow has just two centres for women’s hockey serving a population of more than 10 million, and a lack of suitable venues can make it difficult to fit hockey training into schedules already crowded with school commitments. Then there’s the cost of equipment – no small expense, especially when working with children from large families.
That’s where events like the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend help. HK Grad, one of Moscow’s largest youth hockey organizations and also the home rink of the ‘Hockey Legends of the USSR’ team that offered its ice, as well as free skate and equipment hire, giving first-timers a chance to try out on the ice under the guidance of no fewer than six ex-international players.
The turn-out was respectable, with 28 youngsters from pre-schoolers to teens coming along. Staging it in a shopping centre also helps tackle some of those prejudices about women playing hockey – shoppers heard regular announcements about the event during the day, and since the ice is handily placed between the cinema and the food court crowds of Saturday night picture-goers also got a quick look at what was going on.
“We’ve had a lot of help and support from Grad, and we’re very grateful for that. It all reinforces the fact that there are women playing hockey, and people who are interested in the women’s game,” added Konstantinova. “They have a girls’ team here, and hold pick-up games, so people coming to the shopping centre can see that there are women who play hockey.”
At times Konstantinova is positively evangelical in her passion for women’s hockey, so it’s little surprise that she describes the sport as being ‘like a religion’. That level of commitment is backed up by the presence of half-a-dozen members of Russia’s 2001 bronze-medal winning team at Saturday night’s session – many of whom had brought their own daughters along, handing the baton to the next generation.
But there’s a serious social message beneath it as well. At a time when many in Russia are concerned about the country’s demographic situation and the perils awaiting its youngsters, sport can play a key role in steering young people towards a healthy and successful lifestyle, building lasting friendships while helping to shape the character of the country’s youth.
“These girls are our children, but they are also the mothers of our future, of the next generation,” Konstantinova added. That’s precisely why, in her view, it’s vital to give them every opportunity.
The World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend continues in Russia in the upcoming two days. As part of games of the women’s hockey league, girls’ hockey events will be staged in Chelyabinsk, Dmitrov, Krasnoyarsk, Mozhaisk, Nizhni Novgorod, St. Petersburg, Tyumen, Ufa, Ukhta and Yekaterinburg. A record number of girls will participate this year giving hope for a boost for female hockey in the country.
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