Saying 'szia' to Hungary
by Liz Montroy|28 AUG 2022
Hungary's Hayley Williams skates down the ice at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images

Spoken by approximately 13 million people, Hungarian is most closely related to Finnish and Estonian, and as Sarah Knee, Taylor Baker and Hayley Williams have learned, the Uralic language can be difficult for English speakers to learn. It’s a challenge that the trio of dual citizens are more than willing – even honoured – to take on.

“Szia,” said Knee – which is ‘hello’ in Hungarian. “It’s unlike anything. [The team] speaks a lot of it in the locker room and they’re really open to teaching us.” Baker and Williams insist that Knee’s Hungarian is the best. “My Hungarian is terrible,” laughed Baker. “I’m trying, but I’m nowhere near Sarah’s level.”

For American-born Williams and Canadian-born Knee and Baker, representing Hungary at the World Championship was not an option that was on their radar until they made the move to Hungary to compete for teams in Budapest.

“I sent out a cold e-mail to a bunch of teams in Europe, from Germany, Switzerland and then Hungary, because I saw on Elite Prospects that they had a team,” said Knee, a former Cornell University defender. Her NCAA coach, Doug Derraugh, recommended that she play hockey in Europe following graduation. “I’d never expected that there would be women’s hockey there or how good the quality would be.” Knee was offered a contract with KMH Budapest for the 2018/19 season, which she accepted. “It was like the best year of my life.”

She returned to the team for a second season, and was soon invited to national team camps. “From there it was just sort of a seamless integration. I was offered citizenship, I took it. I thought it was a great opportunity. I never planned to join the [national] team, that wasn’t my expectation when I came to Europe, so I’m really grateful that I got that opportunity.”

Knee just finished her fourth season with KMH Budapest, winning the EWHL championship for a fourth year in a row, and is now at her second World Championship representing Hungary.

Baker, who grew up living just 10 minutes away from Knee in Toronto and is now partnered with her on defence in Frederikshavn, also moved to Hungary to play hockey after her NCAA career. Graduating from RIT in 2020, the onset of the pandemic meant that her options in North America were suddenly limited, so she decided to look into teams in Europe.

“I ended up in Hungary. I’m not really sure how, it just kind of happened,” said Baker, who has played for MAC Budapest for two seasons and is making her World Championship debut. Similarly to Knee, after integrating with the Hungarian hockey community, Baker was offered citizenship and an opportunity to compete with the national team.

“If you would ask me in college two years ago if this is what I would be doing, I would probably say no way,” said Baker. “But I think that putting on any country’s jersey is an honour. I couldn’t thank everyone enough.”

For Williams, who spent one season in the NWHL (now PHF) with the Buffalo Beauts and two in the CWHL with the Brampton Thunder and the Toronto Furies, her journey to the Hungarian national team actually started in Russia.

“My first immersion into a new culture was in Russia,” said Williams, who played two seasons for SK Gorny before the team folded a week before the start of the season in 2020. “I fell in love with the country of Russia. I really immersed myself, learned the language. I was really sad to have to leave.”

KMH had shown interest in Williams prior to SK Gorney folding, offering her a spot on the team that she declined at the time. But with suddenly no team to play for, Williams reached back out to them. Originally she envisioned herself playing in Hungary for six months and then returning to Russia, but her experience with KMH was beyond what she expected.

“I was also offered to have a spot on the national team, and I don’t think that anybody would really not consider that offer,” said Williams. “I’m very honoured that I was and that kept me there for another year. I’ve now been in Hungary for two years and this is my first World Championships with the team.”

“It’s amazing to be able to say that I play for Team Hungary. If we could go back in the history of my life and figure out how I got here, it’s a real rocky road, but I wouldn’t change anything for the world and I’m super grateful.”
Hayley Williams
Forward Hungarian women’s national team
Despite the language barrier, Knee, Baker and Williams are honoured and passionate about representing their new home. Their opening comeback win over Germany at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship – and the boisterous singing of the Hungarian national anthem that followed it – still meant just as much to them as if they were representing Canada or the United States. 

“I think when you grow up in North America, or in any country, you develop a sense of what the world is based on where you’re from because you’re around the same kind of thinking,” said Knee. “When I came here in my first year I kept a really open mind and recognized that culturally it is different than where I’m from. But just because it’s different doesn’t mean that it’s bad. I've learned a lot and I've grown a lot.”

Hungary has had a roller coaster of a tournament already, following up their historic victory over Germany with a difficult 7-1 loss to Czechia. The team's focus now turns to their next game against Denmark and using their day off on Saturday to get back on track as they continue to battle for a spot in the quarter-finals on Sunday against host Denmark.