“Kids and adults, it leaves something to look forward to once or twice a year,” Irish Ice Hockey Association President Aaron Guli said of playing around the world. “That keeps them focused on off-ice training, training on-ice [in Belfast] when we have the time. We try to create these kinds of events that they can then take part in.”
Ireland’s women’s team is about to participate in such a tournament, having arrived in Kuwait for the inaugural IIHF Women’s Development Cup. The pandemic postponed this event, originally slated to happen around 2020, but it will be played between today and 12 November, with Andorra, Colombia, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates joining Ireland and host Kuwait.
“Women’s hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in the world right now,” said Guli. “[This event] is a testament to how women’s hockey is growing.”
The Irish Ice Hockey Association, and Guli in particular, can be credited with coming up with the idea of the Development Cup six years ago, with the premise of creating an event for IIHF members who do not compete in the World Championship program and face similar obstacles, such as a lack of facilities.
Not lost on the Irish women’s team is the fact that this event marks 10 years since their last appearance at an IIHF event. In March 2011, they made their debut at the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division V, followed by their second (and last) appearance in December 2012.
It was shortly before this, in 2010, that Ireland lots its only ice rink, the Dundalk Ice Dome. Since then, Irish players have travelled to a rink in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which can take them anywhere from one to six hours to get to. The distance, and the usually late night times, bring challenges to building the sport amongst kids and youth.
This does not mean that there is a lack of interest in ice hockey in Ireland however – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“I think once we get a facility, we will be flying,” said Dorinda Sinton, Ireland’s Women’s Development Officer. The Dundalk Ice Dome helped spur the creation of Ireland’s women’s program in the late 2000s, and Ireland’s hockey community knows that getting a new facility would lead to a great resurgence of the sport.
Sinton has identified that Ireland has a significant number of players, both current and prospective, and that the only thing holding them back from progressing in the sport or seriously committing to it is the ice situation. This is not a completely new circumstance for Sinton; originally from a rural area of New Zealand, she grew up without any rinks close by, eventually learning and playing the sport in Auckland.
“I keep an eye on what’s happening in New Zealand,” said Sinton. “I take quite a lot of inspiration from it. From what it was [when I left] to what it is now, it’s huge. There’s been massive leaps and bounds.”
Ireland also has a strong inline hockey community, with many athletes playing both inline and ice hockey. Sinton has drawn on her own background in inline hockey in her endeavours to build its ice equivalent, often arranging events incorporating both.
“We have a lot of roller hockey players, but they’re just mad for ice in the Republic of Ireland,” said Sonya McEneaney, who captained the national team in 2011 and will be an assistant captain on the Development Cup team. She also previously served in the Women’s Development Officer role. “Women in sport in Ireland is only coming to the fore now, they’re only starting to take women in sport seriously over here.”
McEneaney will be one of just a few players on the Development Cup roster, including Claire Adams and Gabriela Vlasankova, who played in Ireland’s only Women’s World Championship appearances. The majority of the roster is players such as Anna Capcarrere and Hallie Cummins, who Sinton says “are young and have heaps of talent.”
For these young players, the Women’s Development Cup is an opportunity to gain vital competitive experience that they can’t otherwise get at home. For Irish women’s ice hockey as a whole, this event will hopefully shine a light on the sport, and demonstrate it’s potential.
“We’re just really really excited, and for a lot of us we didn’t think that we would get to this stage again,” said McEneaney. “I think some people just thought, we’re not getting a rink, it’s gone since 2010. But it does show a glimmer of hope I think for women’s hockey. And if we bring home some sort of silverware, the younger girls that are playing at the local roller hockey clubs, they have something to aspire to. If we do get a facility, they will know, I’ve seen these girls wear the Irish jersey, and I want to be her in five, 10 years.”