The place is the Winter Palace in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and the stage the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division III. The Lithuanian team played and won its first game last Wednesday (4 December 2019) turning around the score from 0-1 to 4-1 against Hong Kong, China.
One 16-year-old was the star on the ice by scoring a hat trick including the first goal of the Lithuanian women’s national team in an IIHF event. Three days later Belgium was leading 2-0, but Miuller went into another streak of goals – four in a row – to make it 4-2 for her team. In the end it was another win for Lithuania (4-3). One round before the end of the competition Miuller is the socring leader of the tournament with 9 points (8+1), but more importantly Lithuania still has a chance for a top-3 finish with a win against South Africa today.
Lithuania is a Baltic country with 2.8 million inhabitants and in the sports world most famous for its strong basketball traditions and stars like Arvidas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Jonas Valanciunas and so on. Ice hockey was long on the back stage in Lithuanian sports, but there are two legends that were able to play plenty of games in the NHL – Darius Kasparaitis (863 GP) and Dainius Zubrus (1293 GP, 228 goals +363 assists), now the playing president of Hockey Lietuva. In the IIHF survey Lithuania has 2,466 registered players, including 90 women, six indoor and three outdoor rinks.
20 years ago there was a plan to build a women’s ice hockey team, but it failed when the initiator Jurate Ruleviciene moved to the United States. The current national team is a result of efforts and actions in the last five to six years and was really put together last May.
“First I wanted to play football, but my mum said no. I had just turned 9 when I started with ice hockey, so I’m playing seven years already. I saw three boys skating on the ice, they were falling and enjoying playing hockey, so I decided that I wanted to try this amazing sport too. Before that I was going almost every Sunday to skate on a rink for one year,” Miuller described her first steps in the sport. Her father is German and used to play football, but he got injured and finished his career prematurely. Her mother is Lithuanian and Klara Miuller was born in Klaipeda, Lithuania’s largest port town.
Playing with boys in the U12 division of the national championship, Miuller was quite a difficult forward to handle for the opponents. In 2015/16 season she had 16 goals and 7 assists in 26 games played. The following season her production increased to an average of two points a game (36+18 in 27 GP) and Miuller made a step forward with the U14 team (6+4 in 12 GP). In 2017/18 Miuller was even better in the U14 division – 57 points (25+32) in 20 games.
“I didn’t have any problems playing with boys. I used to be the top scorer of the team. My teammates grew up and it became more difficult for me, but I’m trying my best to keep up with them. Last season there were some different ideas for the girls. We decide to switch and to play in the Lithuanian championships and in the Latvian championship, but we spend a lot of money and time traveling to Latvia. Then there was an idea to play more tournaments, but it didn’t work either”, said Miuller.
“Lithuanian women made its IIHF debut only now because our best players are very young and we had to wait for them to be eligible to play in the Women’s World Championship. They are our leaders at the moment. Klara has a lot of potential and can go abroad to continue her development. Right now she is at the highest level of women’s hockey in Lithuania, but she has to decide if she want to stay or to go abroad.”
“At the moment I don’t have plans,” Miuller said. “I haven’t thought about that. Not long time ago I was in Berlin, I practised there and was trying to find a place in the German U16 national team because I have two passports – German and Lithuanian. But I was told that I have to practise my skating more and I wasn’t feeling very good being alone, without my mum. Last year I was invited to play in a tournament in Bolzano for a select team with 15 girls from different countries,” Miuller said about her contacts abroad. She is the youngest on the Lithuanian team in Sofia, born 4 November 2003. There are two other girls born in 2003 (Ula Aleksandraviciute and Polina Tolmaciova) while at the other end of the scale six of her teammates are over 35 years old.
“I know that I have to work on my skating, but I also want to be better with my hands – stickhandling and shooting. That way I can be more valuable to the team and we can win more games as well,” said Miuller.
Having in mind the possibility to continue her hockey journey with a scholarship for a U.S. college, she also has to work hard in the classroom. “I was more concentrated on hockey, but now I try to fix my grades at school,” she said. Until a few years ago she hadn’t thought about a role model but said: “It’s very nice to watch the way Hilary Knight is playing.”
Before the last game Romania and South Africa lead the standings with 9 points from four games. Lithuania and Belgium could reach the same number of points with both standing at 6 points right now. Lithuania will play South Africa in the first game but eventually the tournament winner won’t be known after the Romania-Belgium game in the evening and probably some math.
All games are streamed live on the tournament page.