The weekend tournament saw the host nation take on the women’s national teams from Serbia and Croatia – Bulgaria was unable to attend due to Covid protocols – and is the first leg of a new Balkan tournament modelled on the Euro Hockey Tour format and called the Women’s Development Hockey League (WDHL). Each of the four countries is due to host a round robin competition, generating a season of 12 competitive international fixtures for each nation.
During the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend 50 players from the three countries were on the ice in the age of 15 to 46.
Anthony London, a Bosnian-Canadian dual national, coaches the national women’s team and the Lavice (Lionesses) club team in Sarajevo. He was involved in hastily putting together the weekend tournament when it became clear that the original host, Bulgaria, would have to pull out due to the on-going restrictions.
“It went really well, pretty positive for a first-time event,” he said. “And it was a bit of a shop window for us as well. We had girls coming up afterwards who had been doing some figure skating and were now getting interested in hockey.”
That could potentially add to the pool of around 35 female players in Bosnia’s fledgling women’s program. The country’s ice hockey association was founded in 2001 but much of its time has been spent trying to build a men’s program. And that, indirectly, led to the birth of women’s hockey.
“The group of girls who are now the core of our national team, when they were about 14 or 15 a lot of them had brothers who were playing hockey,” London said. “They would be hanging around the rink, this would be 2015 or so, and it wasn’t long before they asked to train with the boys. We said of course they could, but one of the mothers pointed out that we couldn’t do it properly until we had enough girls to make a team. So they went out and hauled their friends in, and that was the genesis of the women’s club.”
It hasn’t always been plain sailing since then – players growing up and going to university disrupted the group – but the Lavice club is now an established part of the hockey landscape and a distinctive feature in the former Yugoslavia. And several of the older women who got involved – often mums looking to support their daughters and make the club viable in its early days – have been bitten by the hockey bug and continue to play into their 40s – “despite all the bumps and bruises and pains that go with that,” jokes London.
“In this region, we’re the only one with a specific women’s hockey club, and that’s essentially interchangeable with our national team. In other countries, the girls are usually training with men or boys at their clubs and then come together as a national team, so we’re a little unique in that sense. It’s not quite a full national team, there are a couple of players based outside the country, but it’s pretty close to it.”
“In some ways, that Covid pause was a blessing,” London added. “We couldn’t travel anywhere, so we invested in ice time and coaching. We could work on the basic skills and not have to worry about competing.
“And we were able to attract a few new girls last year because we were one of the few functional institutions. All the sports halls closed, all the schools closed, but ice rinks fell into a bit of a grey area and all our clubs, girls and boys, were able to keep practising. That was an opportunity to attract more people.”
Building bridges across bordersIn his professional life, London works with the OSCE, having previously represented other international organisations and human rights groups in the region after he first came to Sarajevo from Canada in 2004. Much of that work involves dealing with the turmoil that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – but despite the complex history of the neighbouring countries, hockey is helping to bring people together.
“There are a few factors, but a lot of it is just a kind of hockey spirit,” he said. “We’re a bit of a fringe sport, so the passions maybe don’t run as deep as in basketball or football where you see crowd trouble at international matches. But I always feel that the rougher the sport, the more people are gentlemanly off the ice.”
“And because the community is small, it’s tighter-knit. There’s an appreciation of how fragile it is. There’s an understanding that we need each other, in terms of travel there’s nowhere else to go.”
Preparing for BelgradeBosnia’s women are hoping to make their World Championship debut this season, having missed out due to Covid. The team is due to play in Belgrade in the Division III Group B and London expects a tough challenge. Same as Bosnia & Herzegovina, also host Serbia and Israel are working on their debut while Estonia returns after a long absence.
“We know that Serbia is going to be very strong, they’re stronger than us,” he said. “But there’s Estonia, Israel, we don’t know what they’re going to look like. We’ll have to do some scouting but we’re ready to go.
“And the future looks good. Serbia and Croatia are quite a way ahead of us, Bulgaria as well. They have longer traditions and their girls have been playing for 10-15 years, since they were little. Now our youngest generation is about 13 and they started when they were about five, but most of the girls on our national team started when they were 14/15.
“It used to be that we only had ice for a couple of months each year, so even after playing four or five years it added up to just one season. Now we have ice for 6-8 months each year, at least, and we can start developing a generation. We have a generation of girls in their early teens who have been playing since they were five years old. We hope that when they are 15-18 they should be able to compete with other teams in the region and at World Championship level.”