By Martin Merk – IIHF.com
In 2008 women’s hockey was on its climax in Estonia when the smallest of the three Baltic countries participated in the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship program for the second consecutive time. Then came the financial crisis that hit the Baltic countries hard and the fourth-place finish of the Estonian team in the fifth tier, and 31st overall in the program, became a farewell event for the players.
“We had the national team compete in 2008 the last time but then the financial crisis came basically all women’s hockey teams were struggling and were stopped. We haven’t had female teams for several years, which is really sad,” says Katrin Talvak.
The 38-year-old was a player on the women’s national team’s last appearance in Miercurea Ciuc. It finished in fourth place behind Iceland, New Zealand and host Romania, but before South Africa and Turkey.
Today she’s the Marketing Coordinator of the Estonian Ice Hockey Association and advisor for women’s hockey, and in her new role at the office she wants to bring new life to women’s hockey in Estonia. The World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend was the starting point for it. It was a weekend she has planned for a while.
Talvak was one of the participants of the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend educational program at the 2016 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp last summer at the Sport Institute of Finland in Vierumaki. There the women and men in attendance learned a lot about how to run such an event, how to promote it, recruit participants and tell the world. There they realized such an event with local kids. And last weekend they did it in real back home.
For Talvak home means Tallinn, the Estonian capital of 440,000 people with its picturesque medieval old town. The city’s new primary ice rink Tondiraba became the venue for a two-day festival for women’s hockey. Two extra-busy days on and off the ice as Talvak says.
On Saturday the actual World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend took place where kids could try out hockey.
“Since Estonian hockey is not that big we thought to invite all kids, also boys. We used the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend logo with the message and commercials that hockey is for everybody. It shows that it’s for girls as well,” she says.
Six clubs were involved in organizing the event with their coaches including a new women’s team of HC Panter Tallinn. “We got the ice full of kids. I was so happy to see it. We had about 50 kids and half of them were girls,” Talvak says.
“The kids went bananas. Although some got tired, most didn’t want to leave the ice. The parents of a four-year-old girl told me she hadn’t ever skated before but after half an hour she skated pretty well and was so happy and asked her father when she can practise the next time.”
“We will send all participants’ contacts to the youth clubs in the Tallinn region and in the future we hope to have it next year in other cities as well, like in the eastern part of the country which is famous for its hockey. We definitely consider other cities as well. We don’t want to just focus on the capital,” she says.
It was a good kick-off to recruit a new generation of female players after many lost years. And there’s hope. Panter Tallinn started a new women’s program last spring with five players who had to play with men.
“In our best days we now have 27. Many of them are brand-new players,” she says, being one of them after her old team, the Dreamland Queens, folded many years ago.
On Sunday the Estonian Ice Hockey Association organized an international women’s hockey tournament to continue a weekend full of women’s hockey. For many of the ladies it was the first time to play games among women, for others like Talvak it was a return.
Kohtla-Jarve Viru Sputnik from the east part of the country is the second club with female players and sent a team to the tournament, although due to a lack of players the eight women were joined by a male goalie and a male defenceman.
These two teams competed in the round-robin mini-tournament – each game took 30 minutes – with teams from two neighbouring countries, OKK Mamas from Finland and HK Saga from Latvia, which won the event.
“It was the first women’s hockey tournament after eight years in Estonia. For some of our girls it was the first game ever. We are trying to build up Estonian women’s hockey again,” Talvak says.
When thinking of the future, she’s also thinking about the past and when women’s hockey suddenly stopped in Estonia, which is surrounded by hockey countries including Finland, Latvia, Russia and Sweden.
“It was good times. It was the peak of Estonian women’s hockey,” she remembers the time around 2008. “We had five female hockey teams in the whole country – three teams in Tallinn, one in Kohtla-Jarve and one in Tartu and the national team was competing twice in the Women’s World Championship.”
When Talvak came to Vierumaki for the program last summer, she was caught by surprise when her roommate was a Turkish lady who she played against at the 2008 event in Romania. There were nice memories to be shared.
“It is one of my dreams that these young girls who come to hockey today have the opportunity to put on an Estonian national team jersey because that feeling is so different than just playing for a club team. I hope this will be an extra motivation,” she says.