Mentorship: The guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person … A period of time during which a person receives guidance from a mentor (Oxford Dictionaries).
International women’s hockey was not looking very good after the 2010 Winter Olympics. Canada and the United States consistently beat teams by scores of 18-0, 13-0 and 10-1. Even the semifinal games were blowouts, with the United States beating Sweden 9-1 and Canada beating Finland 5-0. These lopsided scores in favour of the North American teams caused International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge to state that if the competition among countries in women’s hockey did not improve, then the sport – which in 2010 was making only its fourth appearance in the Olympics – could be removed from the Olympic games entirely.
In response to this, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) appointed Canadian Tanya Foley as their Women’s Program Manager, and in 2010, Foley began a two and half year journey in an attempt to help other nations improve their female hockey programs.
While the IIHF no longer has a Women’s Program Manager (partly for financial reasons), Foley played a significant role in implementing a range of programs that have had an important impact on the world of women’s hockey. A constant theme throughout much of Foley’s work – and a key component of international female hockey development – is mentorship and leadership from the experienced nations, players, and coaches.
In 2011, Foley and the IIHF women’s committee organized a high performance camp where senior and under-18 players from the top 14 nations in women’s hockey were given a chance to experience what is involved in being a high performance athlete.
“We brought in coaches, predominantly from Canada and the US, and we really set a schedule, we set meals,” Foley said. “We basically brought a high performance world of what the Canadians and Americans have been doing and exposed the rest of the world to it.”
Canadian and American players attended the camp as well, but their main role was to act as mentors for the other players. For Foley, one of the neatest things she witnessed at the first high performance camp in 2011, was the way North American players stepped up to fulfill their roles as mentors without any instruction.
“One player in particular was exceptional at it – that’s Julie Chu from the US. She would sit down at every meal with a different group of girls … and she would just sit down and talk,” Foley said. “It was the best exchange that could have ever happened and it wasn’t something we planned. The seminars, we had all that stuff in place, but the [best learning experience] was from those girls watching the Canadians and Americans on the teams.”
Mentorship is not a one-way street. As mentors and leaders, the Canadian and American players who attended the high performance camp also learned a lot. They were challenged in their knowledge of being a high performance athlete and were encouraged to think about and reflect on why they do the things they do to become good athletes and hockey players.
“When you live it you kind of just do it,” said Foley. “There they had to actually sit down and actually think about it.”
The first camp was held in Bratislava and camps in following years were held in Vierumäki, Finland and Sheffield, Great Britain. Later camps focused more on the under-18 players than the senior players. The IIHF high performance camp is still ongoing today, but now, instead of bringing all of the players to Europe for one camp, players from several countries are invited to join the Hockey Canada or USA Hockey summer camps.
“Not only are they seeing a little bit of how the Canadians and Americans operate, they get integrated into one of their camps,” said Foley.
The theme of mentorship continued on into the IIHF Ambassador and Mentor Program (AMP), which was also implemented in 2011. Canada, the United States, Sweden and Finland provided athletes to act as ambassadors and coaches to act as coach mentors. All of these athletes and coaches have competed at the world championship and/or Olympic level, and each of the nine participating nations was assigned two athlete ambassadors and two coach mentors. Canada’s Mel Davidson was appointed as the lead for the coach mentors, and Hayley Wickenheiser as the lead for the athlete ambassadors. The program has since progressed into the IIHF Yearly Training Plan.
Foley explained that for the countries who have taken part in the AMP, the support from the ambassadors and mentors is extremely valuable, as for many of these nations the “mentorship side of things … just doesn’t exist” for those involved in women’s hockey.
“For most of the countries out there, the coaches that were coaching the national teams didn’t have anybody to talk to … we tried to create an environment where they had somebody to talk to.”
While all the mentors and ambassadors are from Canada, the United States, Sweden and Finland, the goal was not to travel to struggling nations and implement a North American or a Scandinavian program. Instead, the mentors immersed themselves in the other nations’ hockey culture and worked alongside them to help them develop good players in their own environment. In the words of Steven Spielberg, “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”
The continued need for mentorship for coaches around the world also impacted the creation of the 2011 IIHF women’s coaching symposium. Held during the Women’s World Championships in Switzerland, coaches got a chance to attend seminars and hear from high level coaches. While this specific symposium has not continued, Sweden and Finland have since been running their own coaching symposiums and seminars.
Women’s hockey has grown considerably since it made its first appearance in the 1998 Olympic games. While Canada and the United States remain dominant on the world stage, the programs in other countries are making big steps forward. During her time with the IIHF, Foley saw big improvements in the Finnish, Russian, Hungarian and Danish programs in particular.
Of course there are challenges, like the lack of finances available to most female programs that limits their ability to improve and access resources. However, the love for women’s hockey around the world is strong, and people have and will find creative ways to work around financial limitations.
There are several things that Foley believes will help other countries continue to develop their programs, such as focusing on the under-18 players and supporting the CWHL, NWHL, and female European leagues. But as seen above, one of the key components of international female hockey development is having North American (and Scandinavian) nations continue to be leaders in the women’s game and continue to mentor athletes and coaches from other countries.
“You expose coaches [and players] to the top level of women’s hockey to show them what that level really is, because it’s impossible to know until you see it,” explained Foley. “You can watch it on TV, you can watch video, it’s still not quite the same, so getting them into the rink and being able to see it, giving them a chance to listen to a number of speakers – it’s invaluable.”