Barbier bringing her knowledge to the next generation
by Derek O'BRIEN|09 NOV 2023
photo: © Lex Eckhardt
Dutch winger Zoe Barbier is on a new team in southern Austria this season but she’s playing a familiar role. The Graz Huskies are a young team and a brand-new member of the European Women’s Hockey League – an inter-state women’s league that also has teams in Hungary, Slovakia, Italy and Germany. For most of the Huskies, this is a new level of hockey, but a few of them have played in the league before, including 28-year-old Barbier.
In the team’s first regular season game, the Huskies were convincingly beaten 6-0 by GKS Bratislava – one of the league’s perennial powerhouses that is stocked with several players from the Slovak women’s national team. Speaking after the game, Barbier spoke like a coach.
“This was our first official game in the EWHL and a lot of the girls need to get used to the pace,” said Barbier. “They’ve got a lot of speed and have been playing a long time together, so it was definitely hard for us.”
Barbier, who has played for the Dutch women’s national team since she was 15 years old, has been well-travelled in recent years. Since the pandemic she’s played for clubs in Malmo, Sweden and Salzburg, Austria. After returning home to the Netherlands last season, she’s now back in Austria and the EWHL.
Last season was an interesting one. Barbier played for both the Amersterdam Tigers in the top Dutch women’s league and the Red Eagles Hertogenbosch in two men’s leagues. She was also a key member of the Dutch team that recorded an all-time best finish of third place at the IIHF Women’s World Championship Division I Group A in Shenzen, China.
Oh yeah, she also found time to be an assistant coach for the Dutch women’s U18 national team.
“The head coach from the guys’ team I played with last year was also the head coach of the (women’s) under-18 team and he asked me if I wanted to be an assistant coach,” Barbier explained.
“I was thinking about who could really help us with the team,” said Leo van Thillart, the coach in question. “I thought it would be good to have a woman because with the girls, you have a lot of different emotions than you have with the boys. And I thought about Zoe because, even though she didn’t really have previous coaching experience, she was already like a coach to the young players on the team.”
The Red Eagles team had an entire line of female players and Barbier, the most experienced of them, took on an unofficial coaching role.
“I was always coaching the girls on the bench, saying, ‘Hey, you need to improve this, you can improve that,’ and was always busy helping other people,” Barbier explained. “It’s hard for a lot of girls to play in a boys’ league, but in that way I tried to coach them as well because if they can improve against the boys, it will really help them against the girls and some of them were on the U18 team.”
Michelle van Ooijen is Barbier’s teammate in Graz and on the Dutch women’s national team. She also played for van Thillart’s men’s team in Hertogenbosch last year.
“I think she does a really good job,” van Ooijen said about Barbier’s ability to coach her teammates. “She understands the game, how everyone should play, and has a lot of good insight.”
Interestingly, Barbier was never asked to coach the other female players on the men’s team. She just took it upon herself.
“It was just natural, I guess,” Barbier shrugged. “When I see something that they can improve, I try to tell them. They always come to me for advice as well, so I’m happy to help them whenever I can.
“It was so much fun to pass on all of my hockey knowledge to the next generation and see them improve from it.”
Speaking about Barbier’s role on the U18 women’s team, van Thillart said, “Her job was more to guide the young girls individually while I was doing the overall coaching. I had my focus on the overall game so every time they came to the bench, she gave them little tips about where they should skate, what they should do, how to protect the puck, what the better options were ... I would also consult with her and (the other assistant coach) between periods as well.”
Being a coach on the U18 women’s team was not a big logistical challenge last season because Barbier was living in the Netherlands, but playing abroad this season will make it more difficult.
“We haven’t really talked about it yet, but it’s pretty hard to be there when I’m here in Graz,” said Barbier. “I think it would be better for them to have somebody there for the whole process instead of just the World Championship.
“But if they need me, then I’d love to be there.”
But Barbier has a bunch of new teammates this season, and when asked if she tries to do the same on the young Graz team as she did last year with the Red Eagles, Barbier replied, “I try to, yeah.”
“Sometimes too much,” van Ooijen chimed in.
“Maybe the younger girls a bit more than the more experienced ones,” Barbier added. “I find it easy to talk to them because they really want to learn.”
Being a new member of the team apparently isn’t an obstacle either.
“It just took one game and a couple of practices to get to know everyone, but now she does her job as a coach on the bench,” van Ooijen chuckled.
While another official coaching position might be unlikely for Barbier this season, it seems like it would be a natural progression after her playing career is finished.
“She’s really committed and you don’t see that often,” said van Thillart. “It’s always hard to coach when it’s not a professional sport and you have to rely on other jobs, but I think she can really help women’s hockey.”
“I think she should be a coach,” van Ooijen opined. “She’s very good at it.”
“I don’t know,” Barbier hesitated. “I’d love to but … I don’t know.”
“She just loves the game so much and she’s really disciplined, but not everyone is as motivated as Zoe,” van Ooijen articulated. “When she’s playing or coaching, she puts everything into it.”
“And then I get disappointed when other people don’t put in the same energy as I do,” Barbier agreed.
“I understand why she’d say that,” van Thillart said when told about Barbier’s reluctance. “I think the most difficult part of coaching is to motivate and get the players committed to something.”
After some thought, Barbier said, “If there’s a team that really wants to work and give everything, then I would definitely think about becoming a coach.”