Bratislava, Slovakia, August 2013: It was cloudy and muggy when we pulled up to the rink that is the home to HC Petr?alka of Slovakia’s Liga ?ien, or Women’s League. We were greeted with helmet stickers that displayed Petr?alka’s logo, a bear in a white, red and black frame. The rink seemed new, the red paint on the outside matching the red benches and shelves in the dressing rooms.
The coaches of HC Petr?alka explained drills in Slovak, but despite the language barrier we were able to mostly follow along with the practice. The skills of the players ranged from those who were fairly new to skating to those who had played on Slovakia’s 2010 Olympic team. Different players wore different coloured practice jerseys, either red or blue. The goalie and us, the visiting Canadians, wore yellow.
A few days later, we were at another rink, this one in Prešov, which is in Eastern Slovakia. This building was older and less busy, but was painted a bright green colour that made it stand out amongst the surrounding buildings. The dressing room we got ready in here was smaller, but the players of Šarišanka Prešov, the women’s team that plays there, had made it like a second home with team pictures and posters covering the walls.
When we went out onto the ice it was covered with a layer of fog, and light filtered in through the cracked windows of the arena. Around three quarters of the rink was used for the Šarišanka Prešov practice, while young children used the other quarter.
These are some of my memories, in brief, of an amazing opportunity I had in 2013 to travel to Slovakia, meet some female Slovak hockey players, and join in on some team practices. Experiencing hockey in another country was an extremely valuable experience, and it has greatly broadened and influenced my outlook on female hockey and player development.
I left Slovakia with lots of questions though, many relating to the female hockey system there, as it is in several ways different than that of where I live in Canada. Where do female hockey players play as children? How is the national team formed? What opportunities do they have in their country for female hockey players? These are the types of questions that now, two years after my brief, but sweet taste of hockey in Slovakia, I attempt to answer.
Female hockey in Slovakia has experienced a lot of change over the past ten years. In the 90s and early 2000s it was common for girls in Slovakia to not start playing hockey until they were around 16 to 18 years old. This could partly be as a result of the fact that there was not a lot of pressure placed on female hockey players to stand out amongst their peers and there was less competition for roster spots (while for male hockey players there was a higher number of people they would be competing against to get a spot on a team).
Monika Kvakova, who is a goalie playing for Šarišanka Prešov and for the Slovak women’s national team, did not start to officially play ice hockey until she was 12 years old. Prior to that she developed a love for hockey and for goaltending by playing ball hockey outside. The ice hockey team that she joined at 12 years old was a boys team in a Slovak regional league. She fondly remembers their home ice rink, which did not have a roof and so was often a source of amusement in the winters when it began to snow.
Kvakova’s first experience playing on a women’s team came when she was 15 years old, as there was a rule in place that once women reached the age of 15 they could not play with men.
“Maybe it sounds like we are in the stone age with women’s hockey, but there has been great progress these [last few] years,” said Kvakova.
Today in Slovakia it is more common for girls to start playing hockey at the same time as boys, and more young girls are seen playing hockey at rinks.
“Maybe the new wave from [Canada] and USA brought this trend to start playing earlier,” Kvakova suggests.
Until the age of 13, girls still play on boys teams, as there are no minor hockey leagues in Slovakia for girls. Once they reach the age of 13 they can play in the Liga ?ien, where the age range is, as Kvakova states, from 13 “till infinity.”
“I think it is good,” Kvakova says of girls playing hockey with boys at a young age. “They work hard to be as good at hockey as boys or even better.”
HC Petr?alka and Šarišanka Prešov, the teams which I had the honour to meet and practice with, both compete in Slovakia’s Liga ?ien, the only official women’s ice hockey league in Slovakia. There are five teams in the league, which are based in the cities of Bratislava, Prešov, Propad, Zvolen, and Spišská Nová Ves.
There are several other playing opportunities for women in Slovakia as well. Founded in 2012, Diev?enska Hokejová Akadémia is a girls ice hockey academy that focuses on promoting female ice hockey. There is also a female hockey club called SKP Bratislava, which is based out of the capital of Slovakia. The program is for girls ages 15 to 24 and is set up so that players can go to schools and universities in Bratislava while playing with the club in a European league and a boys league.
The majority of the players on the women’s national team play with SKP Bratislava; at their last world championship for example, 16 of the 26 players on the roster were from SKP. The remainder of the national team players play for teams in the Liga ?ien or for North American hockey academies, Canadian colleges, or teams in other European countries such as the Czech Republic.
Kvakova has been a member of the Slovak women’s national team for around 10 years now, and has seen a lot of change and ups and downs in that time. She was in net for Slovakia’s infamous 82-0 win against Bulgaria in 2008, and was a member of the Slovak team that participated in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Most recently, Kvakova played in the 2015 Division 1 Group B Women’s World Championships in Beijing, China. Slovakia won the tournament, promoting them to Division 1 Group A, which is right underneath the top division containing nations such as Canada, the United States, and Finland. In 2016, Slovakia will have a chance at the Division 1 Group A Women’s World Championships in Denmark to be promoted to the top division, as they try to make their way back to the place they were in when they qualified for the 2010 Olympics.
Kvakova played two games for Slovakia at the 2015 Division 1 Group B Women’s World Championships, one being a shootout win against Italy and the other a 9-0 shutout against DPR Korea.
Female hockey in Slovakia has grown considerably over the past few years. Girls are starting hockey at a younger age, and Slovak hockey clubs and academies are being created in order to improve player development and build a stronger national team program. While the Slovak national team has dropped divisions in recent years, they are working hard to rebound and compete against higher ranked teams.
One thing that I will always take away from my experiences in Slovakia is that (cheesy as it may sound), despite living on opposite sides of the world and speaking extremely different languages, there was one language that we could all understand and use as a platform to connect with each other – and that was hockey.