That quest takes place in Chomutov, from 11 to 14 November, and it won’t be easy. The Hungarians are in a group with Norway, Poland, and favoured hosts Czech Republic, but if Hungary can advance to Beijing, it would mark a decade of extraordinary progress for a country not known that well for its women’s hockey program.
The task is tough, but not impossible. The team gained a bit of confidence along the way because during the Women’s Worlds in Calgary in late August, the Czechs defeated Hungary only 4-2, the kind of score that makes the Hungarians feel they are close, very close.
“We definitely see a huge chance for the team to win the tournament and qualify for the Olympics,” Lili said of Hungary’s chances.
At 15, Lili Pinter was part of the Division I U18 team in 2012 that first had to win a qualifying tournament in Italy just to get the WW I, then beat all comers to earn promotion to the top pool of that event for the first time. A year later, Hanna, two years younger, joined Lili when the Hungarians played at the top-level U18 Women’s World Championship for the first of two straight years.
“The first championship in Asiago, we didn’t expect anything,” Lili recalled. “We all knew each other from a young age, so we tried to do our best, and we won. That was a huge surprise. And then the federation gave us more and more support as we had better results. I’m very proud of this team, and it shows the world what we can do. It’s not the biggest sport in Hungary, and the conditions aren’t the best for growing the game, but we can be very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
“Our team is different than say Canada,” Hanna added, “because after U18 a lot of players go to other sports or stop playing hockey, so those of us who stayed were going to get a chance with the senior team. It’s an amazing journey, and we’re all so happy to be here. It’s hard to comprehend what we’ve achieved and where we came from. At the start, we just collected all the girls who were playing on the boys’ teams. That’s how the program started. It was just fun, and we just sort of said let’s try to play at the World Championship! And we moved up level by level on the global stage. It was really quite amazing.”
The sisters played concurrently in the U18 and top level, helping the team rise methodically from Division II-A to I-B, I-A and, finally, in 2019 to the top pool for 2020. And then the pandemic hit, and the ecstatic players were forced to wait. And wait. And wait.
“We came home from Sweden so excited when the 2020 season was over to prepare for the World Championship, but then they cancelled it until May,” Lili related. “We thought that was okay because we would have camps and keep practising together, but in May when they cancelled the tournament totally, it was terrible. Everybody was crying. We’ve been waiting for this for two years! It was such a special time when we made it up to the top, and we were so dedicated during the last two years. It was difficult to stay motivated because you didn’t even know when we’d be playing. What am I training for? It was our worst nightmare, but we were above grateful to the IIHF and the Canadian federation when they made it happen in August.”
Hungary finished in 9th place, their lone points coming off a 5-1 win over Denmark in the preliminary round. But although the pandemic had forced them to wait for more than a year to play, it also gave them a respite of sorts; no teams were promoted or demoted in 2021, so Hungary will be back in the top pool in 2022.
The lives and careers of the Pinter sisters very much encapsulate the difficulties of playing women’s hockey outside of North America. Hanna is studying to be a rehabilitation coach. She has finished her B.A. and is considering doing graduate work in Sweden. She attended the Budapest Business school and is also studying to be a personal trainer while taking an English course at Linkoping University in Sweden. Busy? You bet.
Lili is doing her Masters program in English at Stockholm University, at the business school, and is considering doing her Ph.D. The sisters’ connection to Sweden started in 2015 when Lili started playing hockey there right after high school. Hanna joined her a year later.
“In women’s hockey it’s not easy to sustain a career without an education and work,” Lili explained. “We don’t make enough money to call us professionals. Education was always very, very important for us, so, luckily, we have some options but we can’t only just play hockey. With hockey, work, and school, it’s really very hard. But then it’s worth it when you get the chance to go to the World Championships. It’s more than a hobby, but it’s not your full-time job, and you know you’re not going to do it forever.”
For the last six years Lili has been playing for SDE HF in Stockholm, a situation that developed organically in every way. “When we started playing with the under-18 team and then the senior team, we started to travel a lot to IIHF camps, international tournaments,” Lili explained. “Our parents really liked that we were getting to know the world, and I knew early on that I wanted to study abroad. So I knew coaches who were living in other countries. I had a tryout in New Jersey one time, but I thought it was better for me to stay in Europe. One of the coaches on a boys’ team was from Stockholm, and he arranged a tryout for me in Sweden. I loved it from the first day.”
But although it sounds romantic and fairy-tale-like, the move from Hungary to Sweden, from teen to young adult, from school to hockey, was anything but fun.
“In high school at home, you just have school and hockey,” she continued. “You live at home. When I moved to Sweden, I had to work as well. I think all the girls on the team do. It’s just very hard at our age to balance hockey and school and work. It takes a huge effort to overcome the everyday challenges and to play well when you play hockey. It’s time consuming and exhausting.”
“This is why I decided to go back to Hungary,” Hanna offered. “The first time I went to Sweden, we woke up every morning at 5am, went to work for 8 hours, and after work you went to practise. This was our life. And on the weekend, we travelled to games. That’s when I decided to focus on studies.”
Their mutual love of the game began early, and nothing could dissuade them from pursuing their puck passions.
“We had the chance to take skating lessons with our kindergarten class, and our teacher was a hockey coach on some other teams,” Hanna said. “We tried other sports, swimming, water polo, dancing, but we started to go to practises at a mall. At first it was hard when we changed from regular skates to hockey skates. I remember falling one time and pulling myself up along the boards and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out!’”
But things did work out, in part because women’s hockey in Hungary does not attract a huge cohort of young players. Once you’re in the system, you can continue to play for quite a long time if you show dedication and commitment.
“In Hungary, there aren’t many girls who play,” Hanna admitted. “I think we played with boys until we were 18 years old. At about 15 we played a bit with women’s teams because we were playing for the national under-18 team. But I think it was an important thing. It was the only option for us, but it also helped us to develop more.”
And because hockey isn’t Hungary’s top sport, there aren’t many indoor arenas, which means there aren’t limitless opportunities to play and practise.
“We practise only when there are camps, but we have a lot of camps,” Lili continued. “And we’ll play against boys’ teams as well. But after we got to the top pool at the U18, many of the girls moved from home and played abroad, and that made it more difficult to get everyone together for camps. With club teams, we practise every day.”
But now, their biggest test is at hand, and the Hungarians are only too happy to have Lisa Haley guiding them. Haley, who coached Canada at the WW18 and WW, is hugely popular and respected by the Hungarian women.
“Everybody likes Lisa,” Lili enthused. “She’s a truly amazing coach. She’s the first female coach we’ve had. She has a special perspective on girls’ hockey and understands the struggle a little bit more than a man, understands where female hockey is on a global level. Her approach is a little bit different, but she has a huge name in hockey and everybody respects her. When we first heard she was joining the team, we thought it was a dream. She has a reason for every team meeting, every camp and practise. It’s been amazing to play with her.”
The Canada-Hungary connection runs deep, and in recent times goes back to Pat Cortina, who has god-like status in Hungary. The Montreal native is the only coach in IIHF history to take both the men’s and women’s senior teams from Division I to the top pool. The men won Division I-A in 2008 to earn promotion to the top a year later for the first time in 70 years, and in 2019 he guided the women’s team to victory at WW I-A to earn another promotion, which Haley inherited this past season.
Both Hanna and Lili knew their time with the national team was coming to an end in Calgary. They aren’t going to make a serious living playing hockey, and now is the time education and job opportunities work in harmony. Nonetheless, both see hockey as a continuing part of their lives.
“I would like to stay involved in hockey, whether it’s with a girls’ team or boys’ team,” Hanna said. “I’d like to take courses in coaching. I think the contacts we’ve made in hockey are important.”
Lili agreed. “My major is in accounting, but our whole career in hockey, basically our whole life, has been special, and I’m sure we’ll stay connected to the hockey world in some ways, as players or other ways. It’s like a second family, and we’ve developed lifetime friendships. We grew up together and did so much together in hockey. I feel lucky to have had those global friends and experiences.”