When recruitment pays off
by Martin Merk|24 FEB 2023
Nela Lopusanova skates in her second year at the 2013 World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend event in Zilina.
photo: Adrian Danaj
If you’re a hockey enthusiast and have never heard about Nela Lopusanova until last year, this may certainly have changed in January. The numbers the newcomer had at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship and the wunderkind skill that went viral with the videos on the @iihfhockey social media accounts spread around the hockey world.

The numbers she had at a tender age of 14 against girls three years older than her were simply astonishing. With nine goals and 12 points she led the tournament in points and goals, so that getting voted Most Valuable Player by the media and Best Forward by the tournament directorate didn’t come as a surprise.
The WW18 is not the only stage where she amazes teammates, opponents and spectators alike.

This month she played her first tournament for the Slovak women’s senior national team, starting with a hat trick in a 7-6 loss to host Hungary in Budapest.

Lopusanova also impresses in domestic play where she splits ice time at her hometown team MsHKM Zilina (Vlci Zilina- mladez)  between the women’s senior team and the boys’ U16 team.

In seven games in Slovakia’s top women’s league she scored 18 goals and 30 points in just seven games in her second season. That places her second in the league in points per game.

Even more impressively is her output in boys’ hockey where she shows that she is a top player of her age group among both boys and girls. She plays in the top U16 league against boys of the same age or a year older than her. The only girl on her team, Lopusanova comes second in team scoring with 18 goals and 41 points in 12 games but first in goals per game and points per game. With 3.42 points per game and 1.5 goals per game she is statistically among the best under-16 players of Slovakia among boys. No player who played at least half of the games has a higher points-per-game average than her.

The skill shown at the arenas, in videos or by the numbers is a result of meticulous work, joy of playing the game but also of making her way into the sport. Teams sports in general and ice hockey in particular have for a long time been chosen rather by boys than girls. But the work behind the scenes to promote women’s ice hockey by the IIHF and its members in dozens of countries has paid off and improved the quality of women’s hockey.

One initiative that tackles recruitment is the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend. It started in 2011 with the aim of motivating potential organizers around the world to organize try-hockey events for girls only, connect organizers worldwide and spread the message and happy faces in today’s world of digital communication.

Each year in October, thousands of girls try and play ice hockey in hundreds of events in up to 42 countries. Many experience the joy of ice hockey for the first time, no matter whether they are in Brazil or Finland or Indonesia or the United States.

Since 2011 the number of registered female ice hockey players has grown by 24 per cent from 176,311 to 218,952 also thanks to initiatives like that.

The increased participation and visibility within the Slovak ice hockey family is also thanks to events such as the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend. In Slovakia it also started in 2011 with one event in the town of Detva. In 2012 there were three events in Bratislava, Kosice and Zilina. The one organized by SK HOGO Zilina stood out as one of the busiest worldwide with 120 girls on the ice and 416 people at the rink and help from women’s national team players as well as from the men’s club from junior players helping the newcomers on the ice to pro players signing autographs.

Zilina? Yes, that’s the city where wunderkind Lopusanova comes from and where she plays. And guess what? She was in the group of Zilina’s first World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend participants in 2012!

Maria Zemiakova, a hockey coach and long-time IIHF game official, became her first coach and remembers well that four-year-old girl who came onto the ice all smile in a pink Hello Kitty shirt.
Nela Lopusanova visits Zilina’s first World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend event in 2012 as a four-year-old.
photo: Courtesy of Maria Zemiakova
“Nela comes from a sports family, and her natural sports talent was evident from early childhood,” Zemiakova said. “It was up to her parents to help their daughter to develop her talent. And they did it very well. Her parents supported multi-directional development and avoided overloading and burnout.”

Lopusanova learned her skills in ice hockey, ball hockey and football. Before mentioning the coaches, Zemiakova credits her parents Slavka and Jozko and her grandfather Jozko, who accompanied her hockey career, and her brother Simon Lopusan, who is six years older and inspired her to follow him in trying ice hockey.

“I watched her performances that are shocking the world with tears of emotion and amazement,” Zemiakova said looking back to past moments she shared with her former player.

Since the first World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend in Slovakia, the number of girls and women registered in the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation has grown from 312 to 847 and the female participation rate doubled.

This season the number of World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend events and venues coordinated by the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation has grown to 16 making Slovakia one of the busiest countries during that weekend that has become a tradition each October in the women’s hockey calendar.

The growing player pool especially among younger age groups starts to bear fruits in the results at international competitions. After having spent its first eleven years of existence in the second tier, the Slovak U18 women’s national team earned promotion to the top division in 2019 and has stayed there ever since. It has first left countries such as Denmark, Germany, Hungary and Japan behind and in 2022 also overtook Switzerland. In 2023, surrounded by the hype of Nela Lopusanova’s astonishing debut, the Slovaks defended sixth place in the U18 Women’s World Championship and came one step closer to fifth-place neighbours Czechia with a tight 4-3 loss in the preliminary round (4-0 in 2022).

Slovakia is a proof of how recruitment can pay off after some years. The country has increased the pool of female players with their efforts in a way that the results have become visible after years of recruitment campaigns and development efforts. And now with Nela Lopusanova Slovakia has brought out one of the brightest talents of the women’s game, who as a 14-year-old will hit headlines more often in the future.

Thanks to these efforts it seems only a question of time until Slovakia will reach the top level also with the women’s senior national team and be back at the Olympic Winter Games in women’s ice hockey for the second time after 2010.