KUTAISI, Georgia – Georgia has 335 registered ice hockey players, none of them female. The Georgian Ice Hockey Federation wants to change this, by ushering in a new era with its World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend event.
Although Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, hockey hasn’t played a big role in the Caucasian country. The climate is too warm most of the time, even during the Soviet era there haven’t been more than a few recreational teams in the capital of Tbilisi. Therefore hockey is a rather new sport to many people in the country.
The Georgians are one of the oldest Christian nations and proud of their heritage and tradition, which can have a patriarchal mentality go with it at times. That gives the Georgian Ice Hockey Federation the challenge to tear down two walls of scepticism.
“We have two challenges. First to promote ice hockey as a sport in a southern, sunny country because for many people ice hockey in Georgia seems to be strange,” said Alexander Vashakidze, the Georgian Ice Hockey Federation’s General Secretary.
“In addition we also want to introduce ice hockey for women, which seems to be an extra surprising program for some people. But we will do it step by step.”
When he grew up, ice hockey was mostly popular on TV when the Soviet national team played for Olympic and World Championship gold. He and other Georgians remember a popular Russian song of that time and its lyrics portraying hockey as a sport for tough men. And Georgian women showed little interest in playing a men’s sport. The most successful female athletes compete in individual sports. Volleyball is also popular among the female population.
But times are changing.
“With the girls’ hockey event we tried to prove that hockey is not only for men,” Vashakidze said. Today women also play rugby and wrestling, two popular sports in the country. And in Turkey women also play hockey, he added.
Georgia has ice rinks in four cities. Batumi, a Black Sea city in the south close to Turkey, hosts the only international-size ice rink but currently lacks for hockey coaches. Hockey is mostly played in three other cities. There are smaller rinks in the capital of Tbilisi and in Kutaisi as well as an open ice rink in the mountains, in the winter sport resort Bakuriani.
The girls’ hockey event last weekend took place in Kutaisi.
“It was a bit challenging because we just started the program for boys a few weeks before. We established a new club there and thought: ‘Why not doing it for girls as well?’ The IIHF recruitment material has really helped us to set it up. We did the best to please the girls and parents,” Vashakidze said. “It’s an important city for us. It’s the second-biggest city, it’s central. Also the parliament has moved there. It’s a good start for us here.”
The event was an eye-opener for many hockey people in Georgia. It was not huge in size – ten girls between 11 and 14 years of age attended – but it was a remarkable premiere. These were the first female players ever in the country in a city where the temperature is between 20 and 25°C during the day even right now.
“The event was really fun. They really enjoyed it. These were the first female players. I hadn’t expected before that it would be so fun for the girls,” Vashakidze admitted.
“In Georgia like in other southern countries people are skeptic about women playing a so-called ‘men’s game’ but these girls had a lot of fun and their parents were happy.”
The ice rink in Kutaisi is not new. Figure skaters have used it for three decades. Now the Georgian Ice Hockey Federation hopes that ice hockey will be played more often.
The newborn hockey girls had previous training on ice with figure skating. They didn’t need lessons in that aspect and directly went on to stick and puck handling. After getting on hockey gear for the first time in their lives, the coaches had some hockey drills ready followed by a mini-game.
“At the same time, the event co-ordinator was with the parents and explained them why girls can and should play hockey,” Vashakidze said.
He feels that girls’ hockey can grow to something bigger in the country after feeling positive support from the community. He wants to repeat the event during next year’s World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend and hopes to have events in other cities.
The federation also has other thoughts with women’s hockey in the back of their heads. They know that in men’s hockey development started decades later compared to traditional hockey powers. In female hockey with fewer participants, progress can be achieved quicker with determination and hard work.
“For the men’s national team it looks unrealistic that we could ever beat let’s say Canada or the United States or Russia. In girls’ hockey it will be rather possible to catch up,” he said.
A good example is the Hungarian women’s U18 national team that made it to the top division within the shortest possible time and reached a respectable sixth place ahead of countries like Russia, Germany, Switzerland, France or Norway.
After the first step the challenge will be to get regular practice for the girls in Kutaisi and convince girls and their parents in other regions.
“After the girls’ event I received a call from Bakuriani in a mountainous area where we have one team, the Bakuriani Falcons, and they now want to have a girls’ program as well,” Vashakidze said.
In Georgia there’s a saying ‘If you can’t walk, you can’t run’, he explained.
“We have to walk step by step now. The event was a good example and a boost for the girls,” said Vashakidze.
“It’s our first experience and now we know how to organize such an event. Next year I hope we can also involve Bakuriani and Tbilisi after this positive example.”
Next year, that’s the weekend of the 11th and 12th October 2014 when the next World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend will take place. Mark it in your calendar if you want to try hockey or organize an event like over 340 organizers in 31 countries this year.