After four years with the University of Wisconsin’s women’s ice hockey program, Katarina Zgraja decided that she didn’t want her hockey career to be over just yet. It was in her fifth year at the University of Wisconsin, when she was unable to play with the team because her eligibility was gone, that she started to look at options abroad.
“I was just at school and not playing hockey,” Zgraja explained. “I guess it gave me time to think and miss hockey a lot. So I started to reach out to teams.”
The 24 year old defender from Waterloo, Ontario, is now in her second season with ERC Ingolstadt of Germany’s Frauen Eishockey Bundesliga.
Last season was very successful for Zgraja in terms of scoring. She had 17 goals and 26 assists through 24 games, which put her third in the league after Julia Zorn of ESC Planegg and Tracy McCann, an American import on the Ingolstadt team.
“At the University of Wisconsin I kind of had a different role, I was not a goal scorer,” said Zgraja. “I tended to be more of a defensive defenceman, so I suppose when my coach [in Ingolstadt] said hey, we kind of need you to help us out point-wise, I just took it as a little challenge and stepped out of my comfort zone a bit and things worked out pretty well.”
Known as ‘Zigi’ to the team, Zgraja has impressed with her two-way play, athleticism, and work ethic.
“On the ice Zigi is a pure leader, but she does not lead by speaking up, she leads by example. Every shift is 100% back and forth,” said coach Christian Sohlmann. “As we had a pretty small D-core last season, she was double-shifting almost every game and never got tired … As a defenseman she finished third in the league in scoring, which is impressive. Right now Zigi is by far the best defender in the Bundesliga.”
Zgraja, who has been able to work full-time in Germany while playing for Ingolstadt, has only had good things to say about her teammates as well.
“I was really bummed after the [2016-17] season ended because I was like, I might never see these people again, I’ll probably not see these people again. I made some good friends on the team and they’re all really genuine, kind people and when you’re on the ice you just have fun together. So I’m looking forward to just playing with some of my friends again.”
“The language barrier is whatever, it’s not a big deal, we’re all still people, we still have the same interests, we can still joke around even if conversation is a little bit more simple. Sometimes I like that.”
Last season was historic for Ingolstadt, as they finished second overall in the league, the highest they have ever placed. The team was close to first place too, being just four points behind the champion, ESC Planegg.
“One more win against the actual champion and we would have gone first,” said Sohlmann. “Ingolstadt came up from the second division to play in the Bundesliga in 2012/13 and finished sixth (out of seven).” Since then the team has climbed up the standings, finishing fifth in 2013/14, third in 2014/15 and 2015/16, and now second in 2016/17.
The team has a new import this season: Brooke Reimer (née Ammerman), who was a senior on the University of Wisconsin team when Zgraja was a freshman. Ammerman played with ESC Planegg and the NWHL’s New York Riveters after graduating from university, and has now moved to Ingolstadt with her husband, who plays for the Ingolstadt men’s team.
“It’s kind of a Wisconsin connection I guess, it’s really exciting,” said Zgraja of having Reimer on the team. “She’s a really talented player as well. She was in the same year as Hilary Knight … and that was a really strong class.”
Zgraja and Reimer are not the only Wisconsin players to travel overseas to Europe to play hockey after graduation, and while North American players have been playing abroad for years, it is becoming more and more popular.
Those who have experience playing in Europe have spent ample time talking to other North American players about their post-university playing options. For example, former Wisconsin player Jordan Brickner spent time playing with both Salzburg and Lugano, and was someone Zgraja talked to when she was considering playing in Germany. Now Zgraja is doing the same for other young NCAA players.
“I’ve even talked to younger girls on Wisconsin and they all seem at least a little bit interested if not extremely interested, so that’s a good thing,” said Zgraja.
Having imports play in leagues overseas is not just a great opportunity for the imports themselves. It also plays a huge role in improving the depth of leagues like the Frauen Eishockey Bundesliga.
“There’s not enough players and girls growing up playing hockey over here, or there’s not enough resources—basically the same thing with every country, the US and Canada was at that point at one point,” said Zgraja. “So I think that’s also why it’s good that this league is having imports come over here.”
The 2017-18 season is now underway for ERC Ingolstadt. For more information on the team, please visit their website at https://www.erci-frauen.de/
Photos courtesy of ERC Ingolstadt.