Story of the Week
IIHF - Debut win for Ukraine’s women
Success in South Africa at first Women’s Worlds event for Ukraine
With the Pyeongchang Olympics in the rearview mirror and the anticipation of Beijing in four years, there’s been a lot of coverage recently of how to jump-start a national hockey team’s development, with both South Korea and China seeking to make the most of their automatic Olympic berths and take the best team possible to the Games. This story about the Ukraine women’s national team winning their first World Championship event has some superficial similarities, but instead of talking about how to improve a team’s ranking, the Ukrainian women had a different goal to accomplish—they had to create the team itself.
One of the things that stands out the most in this article is that Ukraine is not really a non-traditional market. There have been a handful of Ukrainian NHL players, even more in the KHL, and the country has its own men’s pro league, as well as the infrastructure necessary for hockey to flourish (namely, places to skate). The problem, as Ukrainian women’s captain Diana Kovtun says, was that while girls could fall in love with hockey, someday girls will become women, and those women had nowhere to play.
“I started playing hockey on a boys’ team when I was about 12,” she said. “After a couple of years, I couldn’t keep playing because there’s no mixed hockey for older players. I had to switch to football.”
You see this sentiment in North America too - there’s a bit of a campaign on right now to get women to stick with sports in their teenage years, which is when they usually drop out. In North America it’s about societal pressure and the lack of full-time future opportunities. In Ukraine it was much more basic—creating somewhere to compete at all. The IIHF currently ranks 38 national women’s programs and with this win the Ukrainian team will finally rejoin that list.
To get there they built a five-team league from scratch, grabbed the opportunity of a national spotlight on hockey at last year’s U-18 men’s Div IB World Championships to lobby their federation, and provided an “almost entirely amateur” squad with a professional level support team.
The three women credited with founding the Ukrainian Women’s Hockey Championship — Olexandra Slatvytska, Nadia Boboshko and Yulia Artemyeva — are described as having “expertise in finance, marketing and law” as well as various ties to the sport of hockey. Ukraine’s success speaks to the importance of expertise in the infrastructure side of things. It’s one thing to want to play. No matter how naturally talented a player is, to create a sustainable, successful league, you must understand the importance of getting the right paperwork done, how to catch the right eyes, and how to find sustainable funding. These are challenges every league faces, no matter the country. You can have excellent players on the ice, but they need strong off-ice support to succeed.
There are a lot of holistic aspects to high-level hockey that can easily be overlooked or pushed aside, and despite this being Ukraine’s first World Championship appearance, they didn’t mess around with the details. Video coaching, a massage table, guidance regarding nutrition and sleep hygiene—it is both impressive and encouraging that a women’s team only just entering IIHF play would already be providing all of these things. We saw several articles during the first year of the CWHL-China partnership where the North American players talked about having to instruct their Chinese counterparts not only on the fundamentals of the game, but on a healthy diet that would properly fuel their training. The Chinese have had a national women’s hockey program since the 90s — more of a focus on the off-ice aspects of hockey might have seen them stay at a higher level. They’re really important, and something we can hope more national teams will provide from the jump going forward.
“Growing the game” is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot in women’s hockey, but that growth doesn’t look the same everywhere. A country that had no place for grown women to play made one, put together a national team two seasons later, and won the tournament to qualify for the DivIIB World Championships. There are currently ten Ukrainian men’s hockey players registered for every one woman; the women’s national team, and women like Slatvytska, Boboshko, and Artemyeva, are trying to change that. Considering what they’ve accomplished so far, there’s every reason to believe they’ll succeed.
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