HÄMEENLINNA, Finland – The final tournament of the European Women’s Champions Cup starts today with teams from Finland, Germany, Russia and Switzerland. Among the players are three Swedish internationals who set their sights on the EWCC title with Tornado Moscow Region.
“I see us as favourites, and I know that if we are playing as well as we are able to, we should win all three games,” said Tornado forward Danijela Rundqvist, feeling confident ahead of the tournament, set to be played between 24-26 February in Hämeenlinna, Finland.
The Russian club, which stormed through the previous round in Dornbirn, Austria, touches down in Finland as pre-tournament favourites and the top-seeded team in the battle for the EWCC trophy against hosts HPK Hämeenlinna, ZSC Lions Zurich from Switzerland and German champion ESC Planegg at the Metritiski Areena.
The signing of three Swedish national team players – Rundqvist, Elin Holmlöv and Kim Martin – ahead of this season has been mutually beneficial. Tornado is a perennial contender in women’s club hockey, and the Scandinavian women were able to play the game they love – and make a living out of it – while getting more opportunities to play in international club tournaments than back home in Sweden.
“I am living my dream here,” said Rundqvist on her life in Dmitrov, 65 kilometres north of Moscow. “I am now able to live 100% as a hockey player and also be able to pay my rent and expenses and it feels great.”
The 27-year-old Swede spent last season in Canada with the Burlington Barracudas, playing against the crème de la crème in the CWHL. Although making great strides playing-wise during her spell in Ontario, living on a shoestring budget and paying most expenses out of her own pocket started to take its toll. So when Tornado came calling, it was an opportunity too good to turn down.
Her sentiment was shared by the two Swedish University of Minnesota alumni, Elin Holmlöv and netminder Kim Martin, who quickly followed suit, with all three Scandinavian recruits signing up for a one-year deal with the Russian club.
Arriving to their new home in Dmitrov – a tidy looking town with just over 60,000 inhabitants – without a grasp of the Russian language can be a daunting task. But Frida Nevalainen, a former Tornado defender who blazed the trail last season as the first Swedish player in the Russian league before moving on to archrivals SKIF Nizhni Novgorod, reassured that they were in good hands, and so far the trio have been mightily impressed by the set-up at Tornado.
“We have full-time coaches, we have a manager, a club director and they are always available to us. From our club office they take great care of everything surrounding visas and documents, so the club is very professionally run and I am delighted to have been offered such an opportunity,” said Rundqvist.
Considering its relatively brief history, the standard of the Russian women’s game has improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years. But according to Holmlöv, the Russian game and its six-team league has still some catching up to do with the leading nations ahead of the Winter Olympics on home ice in Sochi 2014.
“Having played in the U.S. the last few years, the main difference is that college hockey is more intense and played at a faster pace than here in Russia. In Sweden, the level of the teams is of a more even standard than here in Russia where it's very much us against SKIF,” said the 24-year-old forward.
“But what is very positive here is that we have time to focus on playing the game. We have a very strong team with around ten national team players from Russia, the three of us playing for Sweden, Jana Kapustova from Slovakia, Melissa Jaques from Canada and a bunch of talented up-and-coming players, so we are developing during our practice sessions, which are very intense," said Holmlöv.
The daily routine for the Swedish Tornado players follow the same pattern: ice practice in the morning, later the gym and then lunch at the arena. Once training has finished, the door is wide open for the players to try and embrace a new culture.
“Kim and I have visited St. Petersburg and Moscow,” said Rundqvist. “Otherwise we watch KHL hockey, visit the bowling alley, eat out at times, go to the tanning salon and watch movies on the laptop.”
“It is a life without stress and we have a lot of time outside of hockey,” said Holmlöv. “Living and playing ice hockey in Russia is an experience and I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to come here. I've learnt a lot about myself and also developed a great deal of patience since I’ve been here.”
“You learn something new each day and take note of the differences with the Swedish way of live.
I remember the time when Melissa Jaques and I went grocery shopping and ended up using Google translate with four of the staff surrounding us trying to figure out what it was we were looking for. We stood there laughing together with these four incredibly helpful ladies and although we never found what we originally were after, we were nevertheless content. Small matters you can deal with at home with ease suddenly become difficult and it happens quite often here, but it's nice to see how helpful people can be.”
A new lease of life in Russia seems to have worked out well for the Swedish trio so far. They all featured prominently when Sweden defeated Finland, Germany and Russia during last weekend’s four nations tournament on home ice in Oskarshamn. Goaltender Martin who then made her 200th appearance for Sweden is now looking forward for continued success at the EWCC finals, but doesn’t take anything for granted, not even a starting place between the pipes.
“I was out injured for ten weeks, but I am back to full fitness again,” said Martin, who was deputized in her absence by Anna Prugova, the 18-year-old goalkeeper who has been Russia’s number one in the net since last season.
”We will now have to wait and see who the coach wants in goal, but I am very much looking forward to the tournament. All the teams taking part are good, so it will definitely going to be tough,” said Martin.
The final tournament opens today with the Finnish hosts HPK Hämeenlinna playing Germany’s ESC Planegg at 14:00 local time. Tornado Moscow Region will face EWCC rookies ZSC Lions Zurich from Switzerland at 18:00.
IIHF.com will provide live scores on the tournament page.