The Ice Hockey League that’s more then a game. Female ice hockey players in the Ukraine are trying to revive a national league against all odds
Clad in a purple jersey with an orange crown emblazoned across the front, the Dnipro Queens forward whizzes across the ice at lightning speed and slams the puck past Kyiv Ukrainochka’s goalie. The crowd goes wild. Horns blare. Players embrace.
With just minutes left on the clock Elena Tkahuk has netted the goal that will win her team Ukraine’s first ever women’s ice hockey league title.
In a symbolic gesture, these historic finals were played on March 8 to coincide with International Women’s Day — an event usually celebrated in Ukraine by men giving flowers to the significant ladies in their lives, not by women donning shin pads, face guards and skates to battle it out on the ice.
But there’s still a long way for these women to go before they are recognized as sporting equals in a country where the United Nations rates female participation in decision-making as “extremely low” and perhaps the best-known sports coverage of women has centered on fears over prostitution and sex trafficking during the Euro 2012 football tournament that was co-hosted by Poland.
“In Ukraine the men, when they see me with my equipment, they ask me: ‘Why are you playing ice hockey? You’re a girl — it’s better you’re in the kitchen,'” says Valery Manchak, one of the star forwards of the Dnipro Queens team.
The scorer of 18 goals this season, the 20-year-old learned to skate as a child and, against her mother’s wishes, took up playing ice hockey with a boys’ team.
A sports fanatic, she dreamed of one day representing Ukraine at international level, but was forced to give up playing at 13 — the age where men’s hockey becomes a contact sport — because there were no girls’ teams to play with in the former Soviet state.
The Kyiv Ukrainochka team played in the first Ukraine’s women’s final
Fighting for acceptance
Disappointed but undeterred, Manchak took up boxing instead, and was soon competing at international level.
Ice hockey, however, remained her “one true love.” So when two years ago she heard a team had been set up in Dnipropetrovsk — a city some three hours’ drive from her hometown Kharkiv — she knew straight away that she would join.
“People have prejudices about women playing ice hockey, but when they see we’re good they get interested, they start to respect us,” she says. “So just getting out there and playing, that’s a powerful thing.”
Among Manchak’s first converts to women’s ice hockey was her mother who — although initially disapproving of her daughter playing a “man’s game rather than sitting home and studying” — quickly became her biggest fan, attending all her games and loudly berating the male referee from the sidelines if he missed a penalty.
Years of hockey experience, however, makes Manchak the exception rather than the rule.
Registered in September 2016, Ukraine’s women’s hockey league has only five teams, just passing the four-team threshold required to gain official recognition by the International Ice Hockey Federation. The Russian women’s league has eight teams.
Finding enough players to cobble together teams was among the biggest challenges in getting the league up and running. Aside from the half-dozen or so who lived or were born outside of Ukraine, most of the league’s 166 registered players had never played ice hockey before they signed up for a team.
To make up their numbers, like all the teams in the league, the Kharkiv Panthers — who wear a striking pink-and-black kit with their growling namesake on the front — have drawn players from a host of different sporting disciplines and professions: figure skating, soccer, yoga and fitness instruction.
Players from the Dnipro Queens prepare for the league finals
Depending on women from such varied backgrounds has brought a whole of host of challenges.
Halfway through the season, the Panthers’ goalie quit after too many training sessions clashed with her work as a veterinarian, and the team was dealt another blow when one of its best players was unable to attend the final because she had a football tournament to play in Iran.
With several of the women either mothers to young children or employed in full-time jobs ranging from gaming app development to working for local government, just organizing three weekly practices can be a logistical nightmare.
Starting from scratch
Perhaps the biggest hurdle, however, was that at the beginning of the season many of the players didn’t even know how to skate.
To teach them, the Panthers’ coach Andrey Zemlyansky — a retired professional hockey player — took the new recruits to an ice rink in a local shopping mall and gave them exercises to do.
Even those with figure skating experience had to learn how to use the more cumbersome ice hockey blades, which require a totally different style.
“People were slipping and falling over all the place, families and kids on the rink were crashing into our players because there wasn’t enough space,” recalls Kate Bobyn, a Canadian citizen living in Kharkiv who plays for the Panthers.
“At first it was a total crazy mess, but now you seriously couldn’t tell that just a few months ago these women couldn’t skate! It’s a real achievement.”
Until recently, Julia Artemieva — one of the league’s co-founders — was among those with no experience playing hockey. That changed three years ago, when a friend called by chance to invite her to play in a women vs. men friendly.
That day on the bench at the ice rink, Artemieva first met Nadia Boboshko. The women, who both have a background in figure skating, borrowed oversized equipment from the men.
“It was terrifying. I could fit my hand inside the gloves twice over,” laughs Artemieva, who captains the Kyiv Ukrainochka team but is sidelined after breaking her leg during a match.
“After that first game I said, ‘Never again, never again,’ but that was then, and here we are now … I guess I was hooked!”
Although they first played hockey together as “total strangers,” Artemieva and Boboshko quickly became best friends. United by a shared love for the sport, they started the Kyiv Ukrainochka team.
Only 10 of the 30 women who played that initial game agreed to return, but slowly they recruited more. When teams started in other cities they realized there was enough interest to start a league.
“Sure it seemed crazy at first,” Artemieva says. “But if we’ve achieved this in three years, imagine what we can do in another three.”
Conservative attitudes have not been the only obstacle to women’s ice hockey in Ukraine, however. Historic coincidence has also contributed to the country’s lackluster performance in the sport.
Ice sports have a long history in the post-Soviet world.
While bandy — a sport with similarities to ice hockey but played with a ball rather than a puck — dominated in the Soviet Union as the preferred game for several decades, by the 1950s the bloc had caught the hockey bug and its men’s team quickly came to be considered among the best; winning multiple world championships.
‘Rag-tag’ kits and financial problems
It was not until the late 1980s, exactly around the time the Soviet Union began to crumble, that women’s ice hockey started to gain traction.
Inna and Elena Vansovich were among the athletes caught up in the turmoil surrounding the Soviet collapse. Trained as professional speed skaters when the twins graduated from their sports academy in 1990, they found money for sport had all but run out.
Canadian Kelly Whelan (left) of Kyiv Ukrainochka, vies with Belarussian player Katerina Rudchenko
A year later Ukraine declared independence and, with the encouragement of an academy coach, the sisters joined the newly-fledged country’s national team (although it sometimes still competed as part of a “Unified Team” with players from other post-Soviet countries).
Despite initial skepticism about women playing the sport, both quickly fell in love with it once they were on the ice.
“It was an incredible experience,” says Elena Vansovich, now 43. On a table, she unfolds a yellowed newspaper clipping from a review of a friendly match played against a small Canadian team in 1995.
“They said our kit was rag-tag but our performance was good,” she laughs.
It was one of their last matches. Shortly after, on the way back from competing in a European Cup match, the twins were told for the second time in just a few years that there was no money left for their Sport.
“The situation during the ’90s in Ukraine was very turbulent, the financial situation was very bad,” Elena says. “So that’s just how it was — no more money, no more speed skating, then no more hockey.”
‘I woke up with goosebumps’
For a long time, it seemed the dream of women’s hockey was over before it began for the twins.
That is, until a Kharkiv Panthers player asked them to join the club after finding a photo of them posing with their national team jerseys on Facebook.
“My first reaction was, ‘No way!’ I wasn’t even sure I remembered how to play after all these years,” Inna Vansovich says with a laugh.
But once the idea was in her mind, she found herself dreaming of ice hockey when she fell asleep. “I woke up with goosebumps … I realized that I tried to forget about hockey but it was impossible, so in the end I said yes, I would like to go back.”
Much had changed in the two decades since the twins last played, but at least one thing has remained the same — finances are still tight.
The approximate $50,000 in funding the women’s league receives from Ukraine’s National Hockey Federation covers only the bare basics: three ice sessions per week per team, and the costs of holding games, including accommodation and food.
Extra practice time, kit and other expenses must either be funded by private sponsors or paid out of the players’ own pockets.
That’s no small ask in a country where the average wage is around $200 per month, but hockey kit costs can easily run up to $1,000.
The Ice Arena in Kiev, where this season’s finals were held, is testimony to the over-stretched budget the league is working with: The floors creak worryingly under the feet around the ice rink, the changing areas are little more than rooms with a few wooden benches, and each team shares just one shower.
Ukrainian politics: ‘Difficult and uncertain’
As in the Vansovichs’ skating heyday, political instability has also made it hard to find money for the league, organizers say.
The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the ongoing war in the east have dealt heavy blows to Ukraine’s economy.
Although there have been some tentative signs of recovery in recent months, finding sponsors in such “difficult and uncertain times” is not easy, Artemieva says.
Despite the odds being stacked against them, the sport is slowly garnering attention in Ukraine, and beyond.
This season’s finals attracted hundreds of fans, many of whom had traveled hours across the country to be there — a more than decent showing in a country where ice hockey is still very much seen as a “man’s sport,” says Georgii Zubko, vice president of the Ukrainian Ice Hockey Federation and an ardent supporter of the women’s league.
Hundreds of supporters tuned in to live streams of matches throughout the season, from a host of countries including: Canada, Russia — ice hockey is akin to a religion in those nations — Belarus and Britain.
“Next year there will be thousands (of fans),” Zubko says. “I can tell you, these ladies, never do anything once — especially if it’s already been successful.”
The league is only just concluded, but there is already talk of forming teams in Odessa and Kryvyi Rih to join next season, and organizers also hope to put together an official national team following a trial run of the best players at February’s Global Girls’ Games.
If they are successful, it will be the first time Ukrainian women have competed at international level in ice hockey since the Vansovich twins represented their country more than two decades ago.
“It’s my hope that my daughter will watch me play and want to play too,” Elena Vansovich says, having posed on the ice for a photo with her children and bronze medal after the Panthers finished third.
“That for her there will be the possibility to play hockey.”