Three years of suffering are over for the German women’s national team. In Burlington they will play in the top division for the first time since 2008. With them will be goaltender Viona Harrer, who minds the net for a semi-professional men’s team.
Germany has recovered from some tough years in women’s hockey. After getting relegated in 2008 and missing the qualification to the Vancouver Olympics the year after, the team of long-serving coach Peter Kathan celebrated its promotion on home ice in Ravensburg last spring.
Being back after a four-year hiatus, the Germans won’t be counted among the favourites by any stretch. But having a netminder in good shape will prove to be important, also as the competitors in Group B don’t lack for world-class goaltending.
Sweden’s Kim Martin has been among the best netminders for many years. Switzerland’s Florence Schelling was the best goaltender nationwide in U.S. college hockey and was named one of the top-3 players in NCAA women’s hockey. And Slovakia’s Zuzana Tomcikova was named MVP of the 2011 Women’s Worlds after keeping her team in the top division almost singlehandedly.
But the Germans are expected to offer tough competition to opposing forwards as well. Viona Harrer is well prepared after spending yet another season in men’s hockey.
The 25-year-old has been facing down pucks from male forwards ever since she was five years of age. She made it up to the top men’s junior league with Bad Tölz where she even played a couple of games with the senior team in the Oberliga, a semi-professional league that is Germany’s third tier.
“I also have female friends, but in sports I always liked to measure myself against boys, simply because they play better,” Harrer told German newspaper Badische Zeitung. “Already as a little girl I was a talented athlete and competing against boys was the better challenge for me.”
After ending her junior career, Harrer moved within Bavaria to Erding, famous for the wheat beer named after the city, where she played in the fourth tier of German hockey. In 2010/2011 she was named best goalkeeper of the league and helped the Erding Gladiators earn promotion to the Oberliga where she remained in the net.
Harrer is only of very few female players who have played at that level with men. One who made it even higher was Maren Valenti in the ‘90s. The forward even had a full season in the second-tier league with Freiburg and even played a game in the top league DEL with Eisbären Berlin, although it was just a shift of 44 seconds.
Playing in a men’s league as a skater is rare. Finding female goalkeepers in European men’s minor leagues tends to happen more frequently. Girls usually play with boys when they grow up in Europe as junior leagues for female players normally don’t exist due to lack of players. They play with the boys until their early teenage years before moving to a women’s senior league becomes an option.
Some eager players try to stay with the boys as long as possible to improve their skills. In Germany they are allowed to play in any men’s league.
“In the net physical contacts don’t play such a big role, that’s why you find female goaltenders in men’s leagues here and there,” she said. And that goalkeepers – no matter of their gender – are generally protected well by their teammates, making it an even better experience.
Being a goalkeeper is in her genes, Harrer explained. Her grandfather was a hockey coach and founded an ice hockey club, and her father was a goalie. Her brother played hockey and inspired her to go onto the ice as well. She was also playing football at the beginning, but hockey was more fun for her.
Harrer doesn’t feel like a complete stranger in the men’s league. When she was nervous at the beginning, it was not because of the men, but because she wanted to shine at this higher level. Opponents don’t react specially. And Harrer is almost fully part of the Gladiators’ locker room. She wouldn’t want to miss this part of the team-building process.
Only opposing fans might have some chants ready that are better to be overheard, she said. And her own fans made a Viona Harrer fan scarf with the slogan “Rock it Baby”.
Changing from men’s to women’s hockey for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Burlington will be special for her. When she changes to the women’s national team, it’s almost another world.
“It’s slower, the shots are not as hard and there are fewer checks, also due to the rules [body-checking is not allowed]. Women also play less aggressively,” she said. “And with the ladies you also have to be more careful with criticism because they react more sensitively. When the coach says something, women weigh each word. Men might feel angry, but they don’t take it that personally.”
Harrer has been playing in the Women’s World Championship since 2004 when she was just 17. Last year she conceded only one goal in three games at Division I level and posted a 98.4 save percentage. Her performance can be a deciding factor for Germany’s ambitions to stay among the elite nations.
The recent years have shown that the gap between the cellar dwellers of the top division and the top teams in Division I has become marginal.
That’s why Harrer also needs to rock among the best female players in the world. Her first game will be against archrival Switzerland on Saturday evening.