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Girls on Skates, pucker up!

15 February 2018

“The Ukrainian women’s national ice hockey team” is a phrase that hasn’t been uttered in a generation. Thanks to the efforts of a few determined women, the idea is closer to reality than ever.
It’s been 23 years since Ukraine’s women’s hockey team last skated off the ice, with a 2-0 defeat to Great Britain at the European Championships. It’s meant a generation of women has been denied the opportunity to play the sport they love. Well, nearly a generation. Five players – all over 40 years old – returned to the game when the women’s league was launched two years ago, including twin sisters Inna and Elena Vansovich of the Panthers. “It was a big tragedy for us”, says Vansovich. “We didn’t play for 15 years. Now we hope to play with our daughters”.
Four teams from Ukraine’s fledgling five-team women’s league will be in Kyiv in March to compete for the Ukrainian women’s hockey championship. The Queens of the Dnipro hope to repeat as champions, but the Kharkiv Panthers, the Dnipro Squirrels, and Kyiv’s-own Ukrainochka have a different outcome in mind. One thing the girls all agree on however is the need for Ukraine to revive its national women’s team.

Women’s Hockey Returns
Ukrainian athletes have seen far greater success in summer sports than their colder counterparts. Outside of biathlon, and maybe figure skating, most winter sports struggle to atract dollars and devotees, including hockey. The men’s game is also in shambles. With poor performances from the national team, an outcome of the league nearly didn’t even happen this season, it’s all the more surprising to see the women’s league flourish. Just three years ago, league founders Julia Artemieva and Nadia Boboshko (both from Ukrainochka) met each other after being recruited to play street hockey against a boys team. Soon after, an exhibition series against the Dnipro Squirrels was held, and, after much hard work and creative thinking, a full four-team league was founded last year.

Not a Women’s Sport
A lot of eyebrows are raised when the girls tell others they play hockey. “My friends think it’s not a women’s sport,” says Ukrainochka President Nadiia Boboshko. “It’s the girls that give a more interesting reaction. Dnipro’s Queens President Tatyana Tkachenko knows the feeling. “We get asked a lot about our manicures,” she recalls, “and how we fit into our equipment.” While some girls have some experience with the game – Panthers sniper Diana Kovtun grew up playing on boys teams and sleeping with her hockey stick, while Ukrainochka standout defender Masha Gromova lists American forward Hilary Knight as her favourite forward straight away – the reality is that many are new to the league.

No Players with Hockey Experience
That women’s hockey will continue to success in a country that proudly advocates more genteel roles for women is no sure thing. How do you recruit a team when a generation has passed since the last time your country took an interest in your sport? “You look at old photos,” says Panthers President Katya Sederenko. That’s how she was able to recruit the Vansovich twins and three other former national team stars. Tkachenko believes that athletes are the key, “We have no players with hockey experience, but we have a figure skater, a volleyball player, and a boxer.” Boboshko used a different approach: “You speak to the sisters and daughters of men’s players, to strong athletes from other sports, and to your friends that might want to try something new.”

She can Fight
There’s a few things about the sport that appeal to the women – the speed, the aggression, and the camaraderie amongst teammates. In a country that touts boxing as one of its favourite sports, the aggressive nature of hockey appeals to many. “Compared to football, hockey is much faster,” says Kovtun, who currently sits fifth in league scoring. “In football, you can’t get to the other end of the field in one minute. In hockey, you can go back and forth three times in that time.” “It’s not the speed,” her dad interrupts. “It’s because she can fight!”

Friends in Life
With former national team players playing alongside green recruits to the game, the league sports a wide range in quality. The mix in skill level is apparent at practices, as the women are usually divided for drills based on ability. Coaches work on the basic elements of the game, like skating and shooting, with the newer players. Stars like Kovtun, Gromova, and the Vansovichs work on other elements, like combinations. One thing they have in common is their shared passion. “I like the dynamics of hockey, its speed, constant risk, will,” says Tkachenko. “My teammates are my friends in life, we play for each other – you get a family!”

Motels and Marshrutkas
Their passion shows through in their commitment to practice. Teams hit the ice up to four times a week, often as late as 22.00 or 23.00 at night. Some even join men’s practices for additional training. Just because the league has shown some stability at a time when many of Ukraine’s sporting leagues have shown the opposite, however, doesn’t mean that it’s smooth sailing from here. Despite gifts of equipment from the NHL’s Melt Ice in Hearts charity to get the league started, and generous support from a few kind foreigners, many of the expenses (like travel) come from the women’s own pockets – the surest sign of commitment. “Last year we were in hotels and took busses to games,” recalls Sederenko. “Now we’re in motels and marshrutkas.”

Our Future
With the dream of a resurrected national team on everyone’s minds, the girls have tried to organise their own international tournaments. “We dream that the flag of our country will be raised in the international arena,” says Tkachenko. “We want to develop our hockey.” To that end, some players have travelled to the US to compete. A junior league is also a high priority, with each team appointing a member to focus on recruitment. “That’s our future,” says Sederenko. “If we don’t start now, the sport will die 20 years down the road.” A junior league would suit the Vansovich sisters just fine, as it would give their daughters an outlet to play competitive hockey. And who knows? If it happens soon enough, they might just be able to join their mothers on a resurrected Ukrainian women’s national team!

“We didn’t play for 15 years. Now we hope to play with our daughters”
“We get asked a lot about our manicures”

Tournament Standings

                                                Games            Wins                Losses

  1. Panthers                        9                      8                      0<
  2. Squirrels                       12                    6                       5
  3. Queens                          9                      6                      3
  4. Ukrainochka                9                      2                      5
  5. Avalanche                    9                      0                      9
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