Turkey’s tenacious up-and-comers
by Liz Montroy|11 MAY 2022
Turkey’s Ayse Kocak at a face-off against Croatia’s Eva Cavka.
photo: Elvar Freyr
Shortly after captaining Turkey’s U18 squad to a silver medal at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division II Group B, Ayse Kocak joined Turkey’s senior national team for the second year in a row. Little did she know however, Kocak would end up spending much of the remainder of 2020 practising in her hallway with her brother rather than on the ice with her teammates. 

When rinks and gyms were closed and a curfew declared in Turkey last April due to Covid-19, the up-and-coming defender found herself having to use her creativity and tenacity to find ways to train at home and maintain her momentum.

“We turned the corridor of our house into a training place in which we were making passes to each other,” explained Kocak, who also built stickhandling stations in her backyard. “[We] used the doorway as a net... Sometimes I made my younger brother goalie. Normally he’s centre, but I made him goalie, and he let me shoot on him.”

Turkey’s national team coaches put together virtual tests and online meetings for their athletes, along with an at-home conditioning program that was delivered through a mobile application. Players used what space and resources they had at home to stay in shape – Ebrar Oguz, for example, did sprints on her balcony.

Kocak and Oguz were the youngest Turkish players in the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B, the last IIHF tournament that was able to take place in early March 2020 before the cancellation of tournaments due to Covid-19. Turkey had a good showing, finishing fourth for the second year in a row and heading home with tight one-goal losses against the eventual gold and bronze medallists, Australia and New Zealand.

Merve Tunali, who worked with the players as assistant coach on the U18 and senior women’s national teams, speaks highly of both Kocak and Oguz and their potential to play a significant role on the national team in the years to come.

“She has good hands, definitely has strength on the puck, and good fakes,” Tunali said of Oguz, who led Turkey in scoring at the 2020 U18 tournament. “She has good lower body strength that supports her to be a great explosive skater. I define her as a warrior who never stops.”

“She is mentally very strong and determined,” Tunali said of Kocak. “No matter what happens during the game, she never lets anything affect her mission. She is good at taking possession of the puck at face-offs, putting pressure by being an insistent forechecker, and making good decisions, especially in the offensive zone.”

20-year old goaltender Merve Karatas, who backed up Sera Dogramaci in 2020, also had to come up with innovative training methods, making weights out of household objects and taking up juggling.

“She is able to make fast moves under pressure,” Tunali said of Karatas. “She is highly coachable, always open to development, and a non-stop worker towards her mission.”

Rinks have re-opened in Turkey, and the country’s national team and women’s league have been able to resume training for this season. Since returning to the ice, Turkey’s young athletes have been able to reflect on their time training in lockdown and the things they have learned as a result of the challenges they’ve faced.

“Normally I have training all the weekdays, before the pandemic,” said Karatas. “So sometimes I got very tired and was saying, ‘Why do I have training today again?’ But through the pandemic I realized how much I love ice hockey and how much I miss going to the ice every day.”

With no 2021 events for Turkey, Kocak, Oguz and Karatas focused on enhancing their individual skills as well as contributing to their teams in the Turkish women’s league. The nine-team league was played with 16 regular-season games for each of the teams in Ankara, Erzurum, Istanbul and Kocaeli followed by the playoffs.

No longer eligible for the U18 national team, these three players also have their sights set on continuing to play with the senior team. In October it was back playing in the Olympic Pre-Qualification Round 2 Group H in Bytom, Poland. Next is the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B that starts next Tuesday in Zagreb, Croatia.

Despite the training and development obstacles they have faced due to the pandemic, Kocak, Oguz and Karatas are determined to continue to play a role in furthering Turkey’s achievements on the world stage.

“I believe that Ebrar [Oguz] and Ayse [Kocak] will be among the top scorers of the senior national team in the coming years and that Merve [Karatas] will be among the goalies with high save percentages, contributing to the confidence of the team,” said Tunali. “They all have great potential to each have a significant contribution to the women’s senior national team.”

The 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B will be played from 17 to 22 May with Iceland, Turkey, Croatia, Australia and South Africa. All games will be streamed live on the tournament page.