The language of hockey
by Adam Steiss|12 JAN 2020
Korea's Sinhyun Kang faces off against Eve Aizpurua of Spain. 
photo: Vedran Galijas

We are halfway through the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games’ 3-on-3 competition, a tournament that's developing into a big success story across the board.

The men’s and women’s tournament featuring 208 athletes representing 43 different nations has been a hit so far in Lausanne, drawing crowds eager to see the new format for the first time. They have been treated to a lot of goals, some great plays and tons of games played through the preliminary round, which lasts from 10-13 January. 

It’s been a whirlwind couple of days for the young men and women playing in the 3-on-3. Most of them met their teammates for the first time just 24 hours before the first puck drop! Some on the girls’ teams joined their Youth Olympic squads even later, arriving from the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Group A and Group B tournament in Fussen, Germany and Katowice, Poland, respectively.

But talking to them, it’s easy to see how in just a few days this Youth Olympic experience has had a big effect on their lives, not just for being the first athletes to try this new ice hockey event at an Olympic level, but by the fact that they are making new connections to players they might otherwise never have met or played with.

Just ask Chun-lin Hwang from Chinese Taipei, competing in Lausanne for Team Green in the women’s 3-on-3. Last year, Hwang found herself competing against a player from Korea at the 2018 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Group B Qualification in Jaca, Spain. They took a picture together and stayed in touch after the tournament and now, accidentally, the two fast friends now find themselves competing on the same team in the Youth Oylmpics.

“I made friends with a girl from Korea that I played against last year, she is very nice and I like that we play now together and know each other more through hockey.”

Her friend is Sinhyun Kang, who has played hockey in Korea for six years before joining to the Youth Olympics. Having watched her country host the Olympic games two years ago in PyeongChang, she is thrilled to be part of the Olympic movement this year and is aiming to take the next step and help her country get back to the Games.

But first, Kang’s immediate goal is to win a gold with her friend, together with other girls from 11 other countries that form the Green Goblins, the team nickname they chose to compete with at the YOG.

“We know that we were both going to come to the Youth Olympics for 3-on-3, but we only found out that we would be on the same team together when we got here,” said Kang. “She’s now one of my best friends. The whole team is close together now and we are hoping to win together.”

Each team has players from between 12-13 countries. 
The two unlikely teammates’ stories are being repeated in the 15 other men’s and women’s teams competing at the Games, who have enthusiastically adopted the new 3-on-3 format.

“I thought it was very strange at first but its’ amazing,” said Spain’s Eva Aizpurua. “It’s very fast and you have to know where is your teammate on the ice.”

“We have to communicate. If we can’t with language we talk with our hands and even draw, I asked my coach for a paper and drew a play up for a girl that didn’t understand.”

On the men’s side, the offence has been fast and furious, with 211 goals scored in 12 games for an average of 17 goals per game. Only three of those games were decided by five goals or more, a testament to the efforts by the tournament organizers to ensure competitive parity among the teams.

“I love the creativity and the speed,” said Kerem Alsan from Izmir, Turkey. “I have friends from this team and other teams, I’m not surprised we went with 3-on-3 with other countries because it’s going really well. It’s really fast, you have to think fast and act fast because the ice is really tight.”

Having just half the ice to work with is not what players are normally accustomed to. While cross-ice is often a regular aspect of practice for young players, rarely is it employed in a competitive format and never in an international competition of this level.

“It’s hard, you only have two players to pass to, when you make one wrong pass the other team can go to your net and you have to be careful with your passes,” Anke Steeno from Belgium, playing for Team Yellow.
Lots of goals are being scored in the 3-on-3, particularly in the men's format. 
photo: Vedran Galijas
But aside from the competitive aspect, there is the inherent uniqueness of the mixed-nation format, which gives players what is really a once-in-lifetime chance to play with ice hockey players from so many different backgrounds.

“When they told me that they were gonna make three-on-three, I didn’t understand why,” said Julia Termens of Spain. “Then they told me we were going to be mixed, and I thought it was a good opportunity to meet new people and make good friends from other countries and learn new things from other teams.”

There have been a few bumps along the road of course. Language was the biggest issue initially, but some early team-building practices initiated by the team coaches, as well as the player themselves, have helped a lot in building a tight team in a short amount of time.

“We are going to be with each other for a week, so it was important we know each other, can talk with each other, and become friends as well,” said Sebastian Hagen Aarsund of Norway. “Everyone understands each other, hockey is a universal language.”

“They’re awesome,” said Argentinean player Mila Lutteral of her teammates. “We met each other and learned our names and added each other on Instagram. We have a great team and already are really close to each other.”
IIHF coaches have helped the team integrate and overcome language issues. 
For some of the players, their journey to the Youth Olympics began back at the test event held in the summer during the 2019 IIHF Hockey Development Camp in Vierumaki Finland. Among the former campers is Thawab Al-Subaey, a defenceman who is Qatar’s first-ever athlete at any Winter Olympic level.

 “I made friends with some of these guys before in Vierumaki, I think we can be the best team. I like the 3-on-3 it’s always shooting, shooting, shooting, I like the offence,” said Al-Nurbaey.

Regardless of nation or cultural background, one thing is for sure, these kids came to play and are in it to win. Already through two games, both the men’s and women’s teams are competing hard on the ice and looking for a playoff berth.

“I know a few of the guys from the other teams from the (Vierumaki) camp, its’ good to play against them and I felt confident going in,” said Matthew Hamnett, a player from Singapore competing for the Orange Infernos. “The guys on my team though I only just met, I think we really bond with our common identity, our common goal is to win and we’ll do whatever it takes as long as we can win.

“The guys from Spain, Korea, Japan, everyone’s great and I make good friends,” said Fermin Javier from Mexico. “You only have a small time and you want to play well with them. I like to be here and it’s hard to believe I am!"