“We haven’t been playing at this tournament for the past two years due to corona. It’s awesome that we finally can get together as a group and play for the championship. The feelings are great,” says Janka Hlinkova.
“We had a bit of a rough start. We’re getting used to each other again and playing at this level. It’s a learning process and every game is different. We just have to stick together and keep going.”
Starting against two of the favourites to win gold, Slovakia lost 2-1 to Norway and 4-0 to France. With yesterday’s 4-1 victory against the Netherlands they managed to avoid relegation and have the chance to go home with bronze medals.
The native of Stratford, Connecticut in the United States plays her second Women’s World Championship tournament for Slovakia after 2019 and was also involved in the Olympic Qualification campaign. In spring 2020 and 2021 all non-top-level tournaments had to be cancelled due to Covid.
The 26-year-old goes by her female Slovak surname Hlinkova in the country of her roots while she plays as Hlinka, the male surname of her father, in the U.S. Her parents emigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago. Father Jan, from Litmanova, played amateur hockey in Connecticut while her mother Beata, from Hrinova, was a cross-country skier. There are no direct ties to the Czech Hlinka dynasty in hockey. “But who knows. A lot of people say ‘just tell [Ivan Hlinka] was my great-grandpa’ but there are no direct ties,” Hlinkova says.
Hockey has taken her as far as back to her family’s roots with language being no issue as she grew up speaking Slovak at home.
“It’s awesome to go back and visit family when I can but it’s not a car ride to go and see grandma and grandpa, it’s a seven, eight hour plane ride. But it’s good to go back to your roots and see where you come from and even represent the country,” she says.
After graduating at Middlebury College where she played Division III hockey, she moved in 2019 to Slovakia to play a season with SKP Bratislava where she became the scoring leader of the women’s team that competed in the boys’ U16 league and was the base of the national team. That paved the way to her debut for Slovakia at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A.
The following two seasons she played for Skelleftea in Sweden’s second women’s league before moving back to her home state last year to play for the Connecticut Whale in the PHF (formerly known as NWHL).
“Every place has its own style of hockey. I haven’t seen it all but I’ve seen a little bit. Sweden definitely told me something different than Slovakia or the States did. I was fortunate to visit these places,” she says about her experiences in Europe.
The rebranded PHF has plans to grow further and be more attractive for female hockey players with bigger investments announced for the upcoming season.
“It’s still growing and in the process of getting better same as the NHL didn’t start with millions of dollars straight away. They had to work to get where they are now, same as we. We’re kind of like babies in those eyes but it’s growing, which is awesome to see,” Hlinkova says about playing in the PHF.
In the past season each team had two ice practices per week. With Connecticut that meant late ice time on Tuesday and Thursday starting at 21:00 while off-ice conditioning was individual. Weekends the teams had back-to-back games at home or on the road.
“Hopefully now it will get better with people having more money so they can live just off the salaries,” says Hlinkova, who earned an additional salary as a coach. “I loved to do it, but again, my salary couldn’t provide for me if I wanted to just play hockey. With the increase in investment more players will be able to just live off of their salaries, which will be awesome so they can focus on hockey and give a better product.”
For Hlinkova the season will come to an end tomorrow with a chance for a bronze medal with a regulation-time win against Austria tomorrow. However, Austria will be as motivated for the neighbouring clash as they need a regulation-time win to remain in the race for gold.
“Everything is possible, there’s still a chance for a medal, which we are definitely hungry for. Every team here wants to win, it’s not just playing hockey and experience it. We had a tough start but realistically we have a chance now that our minds are a bit in a different place than in the beginning.”