For decades, female ice hockey was virtually nonexistent in the landlocked Eastern European country of Serbia, as similarly to many other countries, the sport has traditionally been played by men. However, this started to change about seven years ago, and recently there has been a significant increase in the growth and development of female hockey in Serbia.
“People in Serbia are not used to there being female hockey,” explained Uros Brestovac, a coach from Serbia who works closely with the Canadian non-profit organization Hockey Without Borders/Hockey Sans Frontières (HSF), “Even myself and other coaches in Serbia didn’t know what to expect, because there was zero female hockey in Serbia when we played 10, 20, 30 years ago."
According to the IIHF, Serbia has 63 registered female hockey players, a number comparable to other countries such as Bulgaria (51), Croatia (68), and Slovenia (66). Unlike these other countries however, Serbia has yet to compete in an official IIHF women’s event. Because female ice hockey is still a relatively new phenomenon in Serbia, the oldest female players are around the age of 16, with many female players being between the ages of eight and 12.
The goal is to eventually put together a women’s national team to compete in official IIHF events, but for the time being, the Serbian Ice Hockey Association (SIHA) is working on recruiting more female players and further developing the skills of those already playing.
Many of the girls who first started playing ice hockey in Serbia did so because their brothers play and their parents are familiar with the sport. Now, many girls are recruited out of skating schools, and hockey schools are strategically scheduled to take place after the skating schools.
“[At the skating schools] we have a huge base of both boys and girls who want to learn how to skate,” explained Brestovac. “When kids finish school of skating and when they are leaving the ice rink, they see kids their age playing hockey and having fun on the ice … and most of them say that they want to try it also.”
Milica Velcek is one player who was introduced to ice hockey through skating lessons. Her mother was approached by her skating coach and asked if Velcek could try out ice hockey. Velcek has now been playing hockey for five years.
As most girls play with boys teams, the SIHA launched the ‘Girls Serbia’ project three years ago to promote the growth of female ice hockey. Through this project, girls-only hockey camps have been organized and various girls teams have been put together to compete in tournaments in countries such as Hungary and Croatia. Serbia also hosted a World Girls Ice Hockey Weekend event in 2016, which was a big success. The two-day event, which was held in Belgrade, attracted 45 girls between the ages of five and 15.
“We have opportunities to play with girls,” said Emilija Zikic, a player from HK Partizan who is one of two or three girls on her team. “There’s one time a month when we get together and play. It’s usually in Belgrade, but sometimes it’s in Novi Sad or Subotica.”
Zikic’s team competed in a Hungarian league in September, but has been struggling to get enough players. Serbian hockey players appear to have many connections with Hungary, a nearby country with significantly more ice rinks and hockey resources. For example, Lilla Rac Szabo plays for HK Spartak in Subotica. Her team uses an outdoor rink, so their season lasts just three months. During the rest of the year, they travel to Hungary to play at an indoor rink.
“The two clubs [HK Spartak and a club in Hungary] reached an agreement so that kids from our club can go there for practice,” explained Rac Szabo. “Our biggest wish is to get an indoor ice rink so that we could practice throughout the whole year.”
Velcek also travels to play. When she first took up the sport she played in her hometown of Novi Sad, but now she regularly travels 100km to Belgrade to play with KHK Red Star.
“I have practice two times a day, five days a week,” said Velcek, who gets opportunities to train both on and off ice. “During summer, since there is no ice rink in Belgrade, I visit numerous hockey camps both in Europe and Canada. For example, last year I went to Toronto since I was invited to go there by a Hockey Training Institute coach. After that camp I had the pleasure to play at one of the biggest girls hockey tournaments in the world, in Boston.”
The distance players like Velcek travel for hockey in Serbia can be difficult, but worth it. “I don’t want to lie and say ‘it’s easy’,” said Velcek, “but I love hockey.”
Rac Szabo has a similar love for the sport; she has always enjoyed skating, and while she felt shy and introverted when she was younger, she states: “this sport has shaped my personality in a positive way.”
While female hockey in Serbia is growing, challenges remain: “Recruiting girls is one of them, due to ‘tradition’ in this part of the world that ice hockey is not a sport for girls,” said Brestovac. He also listed other challenges, such as “infrastructure (not enough ice rinks in Serbia), educated and quality coaches and staff who can work with girls, [and] more activities for girls like hockey camps during summer.”
There are few opportunities for girls to continue to play ice hockey as they get older. Players such as Zikic are looking to countries such as Hungary as places they could move to in order to play hockey year round and with other girls.
Brestovac remains hopeful for the future of female ice hockey in his country: “The position of girls hockey in Serbia is getting better, and I hope in the near future we will have even more activities and support for female programs.”
Photos courtesy of Milica Velcek and Lilla Rac Szabo.