Under the guidance of a veteran women’s national team and university coach – who has won gold at the Olympic and Women’s U18 World Championship level – Hungary is set to make its debut in the elite division of women’s international hockey this April, at the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Halifax and Truro.
The Hungarian national team won promotion to the top division on home ice at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A. Under the tutelage of Pat Cortina, Hungary survived a close group and made history as the first women’s national team from the country to earn promotion to the top level.
With the COVID-19 situation and his club commitments, Cortina was unable to continue working with the Hungarian national team. General Manager Marton Vas and the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation decided to go in a different direction, this is how Lisa Haley came into the picture.
“I talked to some people that I trust, such as (former Team Canada Head Coach and IIHF WOmen's Committee member) Mel Davidson who was one of those people, she knows the game around the world better than anyone. She was telling me that I will be surprised, they will have a high level of skill and will be hard skaters.”
Haley has already had the chance to become familiar with the players, coaches and the support staff, especially during evaluations of her new team in two training camps. Haley had the opportunity to get a clear picture of the skill level that her players are at, and what they still need to work on.
“Our best players are very skilled and have the talent to play at the highest level. I was prepared but it was great to be reassured based on what I saw. We have talented younger players who need some physical development but there is a great foundation in terms of skating and puck skills.”
Haley also mentioned how she was surprised about the camaraderie of the team within the locker room.
“One off-ice aspect that I also noticed was the great scenes of community, the staff knows each other very well from years past, but even the players who really care about each other and are helping each other. In Canada it is so competitive that you are trying to take every advantage that you can get. Here it is different as everyone is trying to help each other to be their best.”
After being around the Hungarian national team at the beginning of August she had the opportunity to be on the bench for two games against Denmark during the first international break of the 2020-21 season. Hungary came up on the short side of one-goal games twice as they lost 1-0 and 4-3 against the Scandinavian rivals. Denmark finished second in the 2019 Women’s Worlds Division I Group A, and won promotion together with the Hungarians.
For Haley, the international break showed her what the team does well, and also where improvements need to be made. Before the first puck drops at the Women’s’ Worlds in Halifax in April 2021, there remains a lot of work to be done.
“The speed of the game at the top level is surprising, it doesn't matter if you are in Canada, the U.S., Hungary, at the club level, there is always a little bit more time to make your decisions, but when you get to the top division the game is so fast.”
“For us we need to get used to using our speed on both sides of the puck, which will be very important. We use our speed well with the puck, and we are learning how effective our speed can be without the puck, meaning defensively. And the faster we get used to playing will lead us to making the correct decisions at a faster pace. This will be the biggest jump for us.”
“Right now we need to have a structure in place for the day to day aspect of the program, this is routine contact with our strength and conditioning coach, our mental skills coaches, and supporting them with nutrition, sleep performance and the correct form of equipment. My next steps will be to provide the support for them in all of these areas so they can reach their full potential.”
Lisa also gave insight into the type of coach she is. She spent almost a decade and a half as the first head coach for Saint Mary’s University, which she followed up with being the first head coach at Ryerson University. The 2020-21 season will be her tenth, along with being the Hungarian head coach as well.
Internationally, as an assistant coach Haley helped guide Canada’s U18 women’s national team to its first-ever gold medal at the 2010 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship. At the senior level, she was on the coaching staff at two Women’s Worlds, winning silver in 2008 and 2013, and captured Olympic gold in Sochi 2014. In 2011 and 2014, she served as a mentor coach at the IIHF women’s high-performance camp for the top under-18 players in the world.
“My coaching style paints the picture of what should happen versus focusing on what was wrong, it should be about that this is the right way forward, and also to have the player discover it for themselves by asking them “what did you see there?”.
“This pathway leads to more confidence, which I think is really important in the female game in general. It is a different mindset than the male game where you are trying to get the guys to pass the puck whereas here the girls are passing too much. It seems they are nervous to be the one to take the shot, or they hesitate because they do not want to make a mistake. For me, if you are trying to do the right thing in that moment and it turns out to be a mistake, that’s ok. We all make mistakes, and if they are honest mistakes, that’s how we learn the quickest, and that also leads us to our full potential the quickest.”
Next April in Halifax and Truro, the Hungarian program will cross a major milestone of a journey that began ten years ago when the country first competed at the Division III level.
By the sound of it, the Hungarian program and senior national team will be in good hands.