Keeping women on the ice

Canada is helping to ensure the future of women’s hockey in the winter Olympics.

International play: Team BC plays a team from Kazakhstan in a series of exciting and tough contests held over the weekend at the Shaw Centre.

International play: Team BC plays a team from Kazakhstan in a series of exciting and tough contests held over the weekend at the Shaw Centre.

Canada is helping to ensure the future of women’s hockey in the winter Olympics.

Players and coaches of Kazakhstan’s women’s Olympic hockey team arrived in Salmon Arm on July 23 to begin a historic program that is set to extend over a two-and-a-half -year period.

The program was formed by the top four teams in Women’s hockey – USA, Finland, Sweden and Canada this time last year, in response to Jacques Rooge threatening to eliminate women’s hockey from the winter Olympics.

“At the Olympics it is always the same four teams in the top – Canada, Sweden, U.S. and Finland,” says Nancy Wilson, senior mentor for Kazakhstan. “So last year the Worlds saw Switzerland knock out Finland, which was horrible for Finland but great for women’s hockey.”

She explains: “They don’t see much development in the bottom nine countries and, as a result, Rooge, the president of the International Olympic Committee came on and said that if the bottom end countries didn’t improve, they were thinking seriously about removing women’s hockey from the Olympics.”

As a result of this threat, the International Ice Hockey Federation has come together and invested money, time, coaches and players to mentor the bottom nine countries. Wilson says it is all being done voluntarily and, to her knowledge, this is the first time an initiative like this has been taken in not only hockey, but any sport in general.

“By assigning the same team of mentors and ambassadors to a country for a period of 2.5 years, the teams that will qualify for Sochi will have a resource that no team entering an Olympic Games has previously had,” said Tanya Foley, manager of the IIHF program. “We believe this will help teams be prepared for Olympic-level competition in a very positive way.”

The Kazakhstan team and their coaches were in Salmon Arm throughout the Team BC Summer Camp which ran from July 25 to 29.

The team practised hard daily, working closely with Wilson, before taking on Team BC in three games over the weekend.

The team is now returning to Summerland to relax for a bit before heading to Calgary for the  Women’s U18 Team Selection Camp, which runs from Aug. 2 to 14. There they will be taking on the Team Canada prospects.

Canada’s women have consistently had a strong ranking at an international level of hockey.

“I think it has been because there are many thousands of girls, young girls, playing the game and there is a lot of money that goes into the game. We have phenomenal support in the community to develop young girls and we also have Hockey Canada and the WHL.

Alexander Maltsev, Team Kazakhstan’s coach, agrees that hockey in Canada is much different than it is in Kazakhstan.

“In Canada hockey is sport number one,” says  Maltsev. “In Kazakhstan, hockey has some priorities, but it is not as popular as it is here in Canada.”

Maltsev is thankful for Hockey Canada, stating he believes that it has taken on a leadership role in helping other countries for years.

He believes that teams like his have seen substantial benefits simply because Hockey Canada pays great attention to women’s hockey globally.

“Hockey Canada has definitely taken initiative,” says  Maltsev

Both Wilson and  Maltsev agree that the main goal they hope to see come out of this program is development.

The mentors are working closely with the team. Wilson meets with  Maltsev before each practice to discuss what should be covered, what is improving and what needs more attention.

According to Wilson the greatest focus so far has been systems work.

During the practice on July 26, the coaches placed the nets on the blue lines, forcing the players to make plays in a very tight area. Players worked together, passing lots, and were very enthusiastic about what they were learning.

Coming off the ice, team members admitted that they were exhausted but were enjoying what they were learning, and very grateful for the chance.

“We are here to improve our skills and we are working with great people,” says  Maltsev. “We are working with great professionals and have learned a great deal of knowledge in a very short amount of time.”

Wilson believes that this experience is benefiting more than just the Kazakhstan team.

“It is good for our young players to, first off, play against any competition in July, but to have a team from another country come from the other side of the world to play against us is tremendous for our own development.”

Team Kazakhstan will be heading back home on Aug. 12 from Calgary, but will be keeping in touch with their mentoring team. The program is set up to have the team communicate with their mentors and ambassadors every two to three weeks.

Salmon Arm Observer