It was March of 2008 in Miercurea-Ciuc, Romania when, with a 3-0 loss to Iceland, Estonia finished just one point shy of the podium at their second Women’s World Championship Division IV tournament and played their last IIHF game for 13 years.
Despite having competed in the IIHF World Championships in 2007 and 2008, women’s hockey faded away from Estonia’s sports scene with the advent of 2008’s global economic crisis. However, the sport is now in the midst of a revival, with a rebooted women’s league currently in its fourth season, and the anticipation of competing on the international stage once again at the 2021 Division III Women’s World Championship.
Women’s hockey appears to have been essentially nonexistent in Estonia until 2015, when former national team player, Katrin Talvak tried to resurrect the sport by gathering experienced players along with new skaters in Tallinn, the country’s capital.
“In addition to that group, girls from Kohtla-Järve were also practicing,” said Veronika Tiganik, who was one of the new players who started in 2015. “From there, slowly but surely, new teams and new girls started appearing, and by last season we had five women’s teams competing in Estonia’s women’s league.”
The Estonian Women’s Hockey League (Eesti Naiste Hokiliiga), a version of which also existed in the early 2000s, officially relaunched for the 2017-18 season. Amongst the teams is Tallinn’s HC Grizzlyz, the newest addition to the league and the team Tiganik helped form and Talvak now plays on.
Although Tallinn already had a team in the league in 2017 (HK Roosa Panter), both Tiganik and Grizzlyz co-founder Christin Lauk felt that female players in Estonia needed to have the opportunity to choose where they wanted to play and that with Tallinn being the largest city in the country, it warranted having two or more teams.
“One day we just passed around the idea of creating a new club,” said Tiganik. “Some people were pessimistic and did not really go with it, but I guess the idea stuck with Christin [Lauk] and me … I didn’t have to think at all—I was all in straight away.”
“I began to think quietly about what the name of the club might be, what the logo could be,” said Lauk. “I told Veronika, ‘Hey, I’m still thinking about starting this new club, and I’ve already come up with variations of the name. Do you think we’ll do it?’ Fortunately Veronika agreed.”
The HC Grizzlyz made their Estonian Women’s Hockey League debut in 2019-20. In addition, the team competed in neighbouring Latvia’s women’s hockey league, the only Estonian team to do so.
“We are always looking for opportunities to get better, stronger, faster, to gain new friends and experience,” said Tiganik. “Playing in the Latvian league was definitely a completely different experience from playing in the Estonian league.”
Unfortunately, the Grizzlyz’s inaugural season was cut short due to COVID-19.
“The Estonian champion was not determined and our Latvian league games in Tallinn were cancelled, which was extremely disappointing because we were really looking forward to playing Latvian league games at home,” said Tiganik.
However, Estonia’s 2020-21 season is now in full swing, albeit with a few changes. As a result of issues with player numbers and a lack of goalies (all due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the Grizzlyz have combined their squad with HK Everest Kohtla-Järve for the season, competing under the name Everest-Grizzylz against three other teams: HK Roosa Panter, HK Säde and HK Fuuriad. The Latvian league has yet to begin the 2020-21 season.
On the horizon for Estonia’s players is the 2021 World Championships and the women’s national team’s long awaited return to the international stage. The team will be led by head coach Inguna Lukasevica, a former Latvian national team athlete, and the Estonian Ice Hockey Association is using three tryout weekends to identify those who will represent the country in March. Around 30 players, most of whom compete in the Estonian Women’s Hockey League, showed up to the first weekend this past August.
The privilege of playing a sport they love both locally and internationally is not lost on Estonia’s female hockey players.
“I love everything about it,” Tiganik said. “The speed, the action, even the sweating. The feeling after every practice and game in indescribable. However, for me, the most important part is the team. I am very much a team player and to succeed with my friends—it means the most.”
Game results from the Estonian Women’s Hockey League can be found here. The Estonian national team will be in action at the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship Division III tournament in Kaunas, Lithuania, from March 15-21, 2021.
Photo courtesy of Veronika Tiganik