However, ice hockey was mostly seen as a sport played by men and boys at one of the three indoor ice rinks or outside on rinks or frozen ponds. Temperatures in the capital of Bishkek, which will soon host the first-ever edition of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IV, have moved between chilly -8°C in the nights and mild +20°C on peak days.
Subtract a couple of degrees and you’re in the even colder climate about 400 kilometres east toward the border of China in the Issyk-Kul Region. That’s where 15 school girls wrote history by forming the first women’s ice hockey team of the country named Shapak. They came together to play hockey outdoor in the village of Otradnoye.
“In the winter, I create an ice rink. This is already the sixth year I’ve done it, I use my allotment all year round,” the team’s coach Salamat Abdyrakhmanov told Reuters. The farmland they use to play belongs to the coach, who initiated the women’s team for his daughter and her friends. He took out the car from his garage and converted it to a dressing room for the girls and to store the gear.
A first women’s team in Kyrgyzstan – that’s breaking stereotypes as a Facebook post from the federation introducing the team shows. “For many this seems absurd. But that’s not the case,” reads the post about introducing the first women’s team that is still “young and tender”. But despite that, they play against boys’ teams and gain experience. “We hope and believe that in the future they will worthily perform at tournaments of the Republic and in international tournaments.”
The news also reached Kyrgyz living abroad. According to Reuters, the Kyrgyz diaspora in Switzerland donated equipment.
Nuraiym Kenjebayeva is featured in a video of Radio Free Europe as the team captain, skating in a jersey of Swiss club EHC Basel.
“They said that girls were too weak to play and can be beaten easily. But girls are just as strong as boys. We never give up,” said Kenjebayeva, who back home helps her family take care of the cattle and watched international top-level women’s hockey on TV to set her dreams in hockey. “I want to reach their level. They are good players with great achievements. I want people to know that girls can play hockey in Kyrgyzstan too”, she said and dreams of later becoming the first female hockey coach in her country.
The team tries to break stereotypes and is still a minority in the Kyrgyz hockey family with 1,530 registered, most male players. But in their region they have become part of the hockey schedule.
“My classmate, the coach’s daughter, suggested I come and try to play,” goaltender Zarina Karabaeva told Reuters.
“I tried going in goal and because I was good at it they made me goalkeeper... it never even occurred to me that I would ever play hockey.”
She’s especially happy about the donated gear from the Kyrgyz diaspora in Switzerland. “When the puck hits you, it’s very painful. But after I received this equipment and uniform, I am not scared of anything anymore,” she told Radio Free Europe.
It may need some time until the community gets used to the new opportunity for girls to hit the ice in winter as there haven’t been women’s ice hockey teams before. Also for the parents, who in some cases were afraid having them play against boys.
Meylikan Dairbekova first couldn’t understand why girls would want to play ice hockey. Now she comes to watch every game of her granddaughter Sezim. “She’s been playing since the girls’ team started and I come to support her,” she said.
Now girls in neighbouring villages become interested too. And according to the Ice Hockey Federation of the Kyrgyz Republic, eight girls are training further away in Naryn, where another women’s team is planned.
Maybe soon the girls from the Shapak team will for the first time play another female hockey team, thanks to the braveness of the players and the parents supporting their dreams.