With the backing of Dynamo Minsk, the country’s KHL team, the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association took part in this year’s World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend, staging two events at the Minsk Arena, a host venue for the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014 and 2021.
The event marks a welcome boost for women’s hockey in Belarus, which peaked with the established of HC Pantera in 2010. That club, the first pro women’s team in the country, won the Latvian championship three times but folded due to lack of funds in 2013. Now, perhaps, the time is right to begin rebuilding women’s hockey in the country and the ‘Hockey in Heels’ project aims to encourage girls – and their parents – to see women’s hockey as a viable sporting option.
A statement from the BIHA noted: “Currently, women’s ice hockey in Belarus is not as well developed as we would like, nor as it was in the past when HC Pantera was established. The club clearly showed that there is considerable interest in women’s hockey and great potential as well. Several of our players went on to have successful careers abroad.”
The highlight came on Sunday, when 19 girls from hockey schools in 11 different towns and cities across the country came together to play an exhibition game during the first intermission of the KHL match-up between Dynamo Minsk and Ak Bars Kazakh. The youngest of the girls, Sofia Rusentskaya, was just six years old; the oldest in the group were 11. They all got to experience the atmosphere of a capacity 15,000 crowd at the Minsk Arena.
Lyuba Lagoda, who travelled from Pruzhany, a town in the Brest Region to the west of the country, said: “It’s great that we had the opportunity not only to watch true professionals play the game, but also to try out the Minsk Arena ice for ourselves. I think we showed that girls can also play hockey. Maybe after tonight it will be easier to get my friends to join in with this sport; so far it’s not been easy to persuade them.”
Dasha Kolonchuk and her younger sister Anya are learning the game in Minsk. Dasha, 11, explained how she started in the sport. “First my parents took me to figure skating, but I couldn’t get into that. You just skate from one board to the other, there’s nothing interesting. Hockey is a completely different thing. My dad took me to a hockey practice and I liked the game a lot. Even though I practice against the guys, I can always keep up with them.”
At present, the main focus is on children’s and youth hockey. The aim is to make the sport more accessible for all, regardless of gender, skill level or experience.
Irina Kavetskaya, International Development Officer at the BIHA, added: “Our girls are encouraged to go to ice hockey schools where they can play alongside the boys. When they can’t play mixed hockey with the boys anymore, there are still opportunities in the amateur leagues but at the moment we have no women’s league or professional women’s club.”
That could change in the future. “There are no specific plans to bring back HC Pantera, but we would certainly like to have a female team in Belarus again. The same goes for the Russian Women’s Hockey League: there is no specific discussion about having a team from Belarus participate so far, but it might be a good option once we have a Belarusian club that can compete at this level.
“A balance should be found between growing our own Belarusian players and inviting some good imports who can be role models and pass on their knowledge and skills to our girls.”
The weekend began with a separate event on Saturday as part of the BIHA’s ‘Hockey in Heels’ program. Six hockey-mad young women got a chance to experience life at the highest level of the game. The group enjoyed a guided tour of the Minsk Arena, met Dynamo head coach Craig Woodcroft and had a full on-ice coaching session with two Dynamo players, national team forward Alexander Kitarov and U20 national team goalie Nikita Tolopilo – see video below.
Once again, the girls acquitted themselves admirably – pointing the way to a brighter future for women’s hockey in Belarus.