After nine thrilling days, the 2019 IIHF World Championship are down to the final moments.
Canada, whofell to the host nation in the semifinal, will meet Russia at 9 a.m. EST on the bronze medal game. Canada has never won anything less than a silver medal while Russia has won three bronze medals.
It’s a curious time for the Canadian National Team. They haven’t won an international tournament since the 2014 Sochi Olympics. They’ll still be missing star and captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who suffered a lower-body injury in her final regular-season CWHL game.
Despite needlessly dressing for the Clarkson Cup Final, Poulin did not play in the CWHL playoffs. She came to Finland with numerous questions regarding her fitness only to play one game and appeared to reinjure her knee in the process. In the semifinal, forward Blayre Turnbull left the game with the injury.
In preliminary play, Canada beat Russia, 5-1.
In the gold medal game, Finland will meet the US at 1 p.m. EST. This marks the first time in Worlds history that the final will not feature both the US and Canada. The US is in pursuit of their fifth-straight and ninth total gold medal while Finland is looking for their first placement higher than bronze.
The US’s path to the gold medal game hasn’t seen many roadblocks. They have yet to lose a game, including two steamrollings of Russia in both the preliminaries and the semifinal. Their only real test was Canada in the preliminaries, thought Japan put up a much better fight in the quarterfinals than many expected. They’ve been relatively healthy, at least compared to other teams.
Finland could possibly be without legendary defender Jenni Hiirikoski, who left the semifinal after appearing to take a stick to her head. Losing her would be a huge blow to the team, putting even more pressure on goaltender Noora Räty.
In the preliminaries, the United States best Finland, 2-6.
The Netherlands were flying high at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B in the Chinese capital of Beijing. As last-seeded team they beat all five opponents with a clean record to earn the second promotion in two years and play at Division I Group A level. It’s the first time ever the Netherlands earned promotion to the second-highest level in women’s senior hockey.
With the win the Dutch finish 17th overall in the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Program and close to the highest ranking position ever, 16th (in 1999, 2013 and 2015), a place they could improve next year.
The Netherlands have played among the third-tier nations for most of the 2000s but suffered relegation in 2016. Last year they won the Division II Group A with a 5-0 record and now continued their streak with five more wins and as one of very few teams to win an IIHF championship as lowest-seeded team.
A 5-2 win against top-seeded Korea on the opening day was followed by a 3-1 victory against Kazakhstan. In front of 1,570 spectators at the new Shougang Ice Rink in a former factory the Dutch also blanked host country China, 4-0, before beating second-seeded Latvia 3-1.
On the last day only Poland had a chance to take over the Dutch with a regulation time win. The Poles, one of the newer women’s teams in their third year at this level, won all games except the one against Korea before the last day. Although the Dutch outshot the Poles 46-13 it indeed became the tightest game for the orange-and-white team. After a scoreless opening frame captain Savine Wielenga opened the scoring 30 seconds into the second period. The game remained open for a while until at 8:52 Zoe Barbier sealed the win with the second goal.
It was already the second shutout for Nadia Zijlstra, who had an excellent tournament with a 95.89% save percentage that was only beaten by Latvia’s Kristiana Apsite (96.26%), the busiest goaltender with 206 saves and 214 shots on goal who was awarded the Best Goaltender award. Chaelin Park of Korea was named best defender while Wielenga was voted best forward by the directorate. The 30-year-old Dutch forward led the tournament in points (10) and goals (8). Korea’s Jongah Park also had 10 points (6+4) while Poland’s Karolina Pozniewska finished third with nine points (5+4).
Top-seeded Korea with many players from last year’s Unified Korean team at the Olympics couldn’t weather the Dutch storm on the first day and also lost to China on the second day. Wins over Poland (4-3), Kazakhstan (5-1) and Latvia (4-1) propelled the team to a silver-medal finish with 9 points, same as Poland, which won bronze.
For host China the tournament went the other way than Korea’s. The host nation of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games started with two wins against Latvia and Korea but then lost the other three and fell to fourth place. Kazakhstan saved its place in the group on the last day while Latvia has been relegated as last-ranked team with only four goals in five games.
After bagging the silver medal at the 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Challenge Cup of Asia held from Mar. 1 to 9 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Philippine Hockey team diverts its focus on the upcoming SEA Games.
According to team captain and tournament Most Valuable Player Steven Fuglister, they will be playing in a couple of tournaments aside from holding their regular team practices.
“We will play in two amateur tournaments as preparation for the 2019 SEA Games. One will be in June here in Manila, the Philippine Ice Hockey Tournament and in October we will go to Bangkok to compete in the Land of Smiles Tournament,” said Fuglister in an exclusive interview with Manila Bulletin Sports.
“Those will be our two major preparation events that we have for the SEA Games in November besides our regular team practices,” he added.
Falling short of winning it all, Fuglister bared how he told the team to charge their performance to experience.
“After the game, I think everyone was devastated in the locker room. We certainly aspired for more but I told the team that we should write this off as a learning experience, especially that we brought in a lot of players for the first time. I am confident that our players will learn from this game and come out stronger moving forward,” said Fuglister.
Prior to the unfortunate ending, the team captain revealed their game plan and how the Philippines had what it takes to take down the defending champion.
“We went undefeated during the preliminary round and went into the gold medal match confident and with a positive feeling especially after beating Mongolia in our first matchup (We also beat them in the 2018 CCOA in Manila). Our game plan was to score first and control the game from there on out, Fuglister said.
Unfortunately, Mongolia had other plans. They were able to figure out the Filipino puzzle and costly mistakes did the PH Hockey team in.
“Those plans got thrown out as Mongolia went ahead 3:0 in the first period. That might have thrown us off a bit but we believed in our strength, regrouped and came back to tie the game 3:3 later in the game. Then some individual mistakes happened and the experienced players from Mongolia took advantage of that,” Fuglister shared.
As to being adjudged the MVP of the tournament, Fuglister admits he is honored by the recognition but would trade it for the gold medal anytime.
“Personal awards, in general, are a nice recognition for all the work put in as an individual. But there’s a reason why I play a team sport. I want to succeed with my team and I would have traded the MVP Award any time of the day for the gold medal. Since the MVP gets chosen by representatives of the other teams, of course, it’s an honor being recognized for your efforts,” he said.
USA, Canada, Russia, and Finland are moving on to the semifinals!
United States beat Japan, 4-0
United States – Hilary Knight, Dani Cameranesi, Cayla Barnes, Kendall Coyne Schofield
Japan – n/a
This one ended up being pretty close, much closer than many expected for the quarterfinal round. After one period, Team USA led by just one goal, and after two periods, it was a 2-0 game. Japan couldn’t get much offense going in front of Nana Fujimoto, though, who had 49 saves.
We saw another outstanding goaltending performance from the Group B side, with Jennifer Harß making 56 saves for the Germans, but the Canadians rolled on to the semifinals. Shots on goal were 66-9 in favor of Canada.
Russia beat Switzerland, 3-0
Russia – Anna Shokhina, Yelena Dergachyova, Alevtina Shtaryova
Switzerland – n/a
Russia came out swinging in this one, outshooting the Swiss 18-1 through the first period and 44-14 for the game. Andrea Brändli was excellent in net for Switzerland to keep them in it, but this was a good statement win for the Russians heading into the semifinals.
Finland vs. Czech Republic, 3-1
Finland – Michelle Karvinen, Susanna Tapani, Jenni Hiirikoski
Czech Republic – Natálie Mlýnková
The Czech Republic struck first after a scoreless first period with a goal 1:31 into the second, but the Finns notched three straight goals to advance to the semifinals. The game-tying goal and Jenni Hiirikoski’s insurance goal that put Finland up 3-1 in the third period were both scored on the power play. Michelle Karvinen and Hiirikoski both finished with three-point nights and Noora Räty stopped 16 of the 17 shots she faced; Klára Peslarová made 40 saves for the Czech Republic.
Sweden beat France, 3-2
Sweden – Sofie Lundin, Emma Nordin, Isabell Palm
France – Clara Rozier, Chloé Aurard
There is no relegation round this year, with both France and Sweden moving down a tier next year, but they battled out to decide ninth place in the tournament. Sweden outshot France, 34-26, but the French kept it a pretty close game. Goaltender Caroline Baldin made 31 saves, and Aurard scored another big goal to pull France within one at the end of the third. Sweden ended up prevailing, thanks in large part to good performances from Winberg and Nordin, who each posted a goal and an assist.
Fortunately for the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team called KalPa in the Finnish hockey league completed its season last month well below the line to make the playoffs.
Alexandre Texier, a 19-year-old centre, scored in overtime to win KalPa’s finale on March 14 . Then he packed up and headed to North America, making his continental debut with the Blue Jackets’ top farm team two days after he stepped off the ice in Finland. The stay in the minors would be brief.
Last Friday, Texier, who is from Grenoble, France, made his NHL debut in a playoff-clinching win by Columbus at Madison Square Garden in New York with his parents in attendance. A day later in Ottawa, he scored his first goal , collecting a pass from Oliver Bjorkstrand in full stride and ripping it in like an NHL veteran.
Texier has impressed everyone who matters. He insisted he is not nervous even the slightest bit, even though the spotlight will get much hotter when Columbus opens the playoffs on Wednesday night at Tampa against the league’s best team.
It’s been a whirlwind for the kid who was a Blue Jackets’ second-round draft pick (45th overall) two years ago .
“No, to be honest, never,” Texier said when asked if he thought he’d be in the NHL right now. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so just enjoy the time here.”
Texier did not come out of nowhere. Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has been watching him and talking about him since Texier came under the team’s umbrella two years ago. He was one of three prospects the GM deemed untouchable at the trade deadline.
The Blue Jackets couldn’t get him here fast enough. After leading KalPa in assists, points and shots, he tore it up in Cleveland with the Monsters, collecting five goals and two assists in seven games. Then came his high-pressure NHL debut Friday in which he handled himself admirably.
“He’s not nervous,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. “In fact, he plays with a type of arrogance that for the age of the kid it’s pretty impressive. You can see his intelligence of the game, he’s physical when he needs to be, he’s engaged on pucks. He’s impressive, and he’ll play (in the playoffs).”
Blue Jackets centre Pierre Luc-Dubois knows something about being a hockey prodigy. He debuted in the NHL at 19 last season and turned into one of the team’s stars. He’s also from Quebec, so he can speak French and communicate with “Tex” better than his other teammates.
And talk about a small world: They discovered their fathers played together for a season in Canadian junior hockey years ago.
“He’s really smart, skilled,” Dubois said. “He’s one of those players that you can you just see plays with his instincts, doesn’t think about the game too much, just goes out there and has fun.”
Texier, who seems to have adapted seamlessly to the different rink dimensions in North America, likely will play with Bjorkstrand and Nick Foligno on the fourth line, although Tortorella is known for mixing things up.
“It was a bonus for me (to join the Blue Jackets) because they are a pretty good team and they want to make the playoffs, so I didn’t expect anything,” Texier said.
Tortorella said he’s not hesitant about throwing Texier into the playoffs, regardless of his tender age and lack of experience.
“This kid here, I just think he had an attitude that he’s not afraid of anything,” Tortorella said.
Ask Korea head coach Jim Paek about the upcoming men’s hockey world championship, and he’ll readily admit his team will face an uphill battle.
Yet Paek insisted on Monday that doesn’t mean he or his players should be afraid of the challenge ahead.
Paek, former Stanley Cup-winning defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the National Hockey League (NHL), will lead Korea to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship Division I Group A, starting on April 29 in Astana, Kazakhstan.
It’s the second-highest level of IIHF world championships, and the top two nations after the round robin play will be promoted to the elite division for 2020. Korea was relegated from the top competition last year, losing all seven matches by a combined 48-4.
At No. 16, Korea is the third-highest ranked team in the field of six nations. It will go up against Belarus (No. 14), Slovenia (No. 15), Kazakhstan (No. 18), Hungary (No. 20) and Lithuania (No. 25).
To get past these opponents, Paek said his team will look to rely on its past experience.
“We’ve experienced the top division and the Olympics [in 2018]. We’ve experienced playing against NHL players. That is very valuable,” Paek said before a practice at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong. “The fear of the unknown is not there anymore. We know what to expect. We know it’s going to be hard. We believe that we can do it because we already did it before.”
In 2017, Korea finished in second place in the Division I Group A tournament to earn its first-ever promotion to the elite division. And the following year, Korea made its Olympic debut, playing in the PyeongChang Winter Games as the host country and going up against NHL stars from the likes of Canada, the United States and Finland at the world championship.
Opponents at this year’s worlds may not be in the same league as those countries from the elite division. But Paek said he won’t make any drastic changes to his team’s approach.
“It all has to be the same. We have to execute and we have to play as a team,” he said. “I always say that the speed of reaction, the speed of execution and the precision of execution […] are three very important qualities we have to play against these teams.”
Korea is a team in transition. Some Canadian- or U.S.-born players were fast-tracked to Korean citizenship before PyeongChang, but most of them are not with the team for this year’s worlds. Only goalie Matt Dalton and defensemen Eric Regan and Alex Plante are still in the mix.
Missing forwards Michael Swift and Mike Testwuide will likely leave big holes on the offense, but Paek quipped that lack of scoring has always been a problem.
“It doesn’t matter who we have unless we bring Connor McDavid or Patrick Kane,” Paek said with a smile, referring to former NHL MVPs and high-scoring stars. “We’re working on that. That has been addressed. We’ve been doing analytics, [trying to identify] where we can score goals and where the high percentage chances are. Hopefully, with all this hard work, we can score some goals.”
The last-placed team from Division I Group A will be further relegated to Division I Group B next year.
Paek opened camp here last Monday. The players will go through on- and off-ice training here through today, and travel to Tomakomai, Japan, tomorrow for two exhibition matches against the Japanese national team on the weekend.
Korea will then return home for more training at Jincheon. The team will depart for Kazakhstan on April 23, six days before the start of the tournament.
Paek’s coaching staff received a reinforcement in the form of a former NHL forward Sergei Nemchinov, who will work with Korean players for the world championship.
Like Paek, Nemchinov is a two-time Stanley Cup champion, and he also represented Russia at the 1996 World Cup and 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. He won two world championships with the old Soviet Union in 1989 and 1990.
“He has a wealth of knowledge and experience, and he’s passing it to our players,” Paek said of Nemchinov. “He’s been fantastic.”
For coach Hu Jiang and China’s ice hockey players, the clock is ticking to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
He has often felt the weight of a nation in his selection and training of players for the event.
“Ice hockey is quickly growing in China, especially in terms of the number of players and the scale of tournaments. But it still takes time to close the gap with the superpowers in the game,” said Hu, who is also a deputy representing the Heilongjiang province at the National People’s Congress.
The International Ice Hockey Federation has granted China spots in the men’s and women’s section for 2022. China was ranked 33rd in the 2018 men’s world rankings.
Hu has just returned from a training camp in Finland with his players before attending the annual legislative session in March. “We are trying our best to meet the nation’s expectations for the upcoming Winter Olympics.”
The 43-year-old built his coaching reputation with Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province, where he grew up and received training as an ice hockey player.
He started playing the game when he was 10, and turned professional in 1992. “The training of professional teams has always been rigid, with the inevitable injuries and fatigue. But I never allowed any complacency,” he recalled.
He was first selected by the national team in 1997, and remained part of the national squad before retiring in 2008.
Hu attributed his success as a player to hard work during training and his natural fitness.
After his retirement, Hu became an assistant coach with Qiqihar’s men’s hockey team. He was appointed head coach in 2013.
He went on to guide the team to several national championships and trophies between 2013 and 2018.
His love for the game also empowered him to guide his son, Hu Wenhan, 14, to become an ice hockey player.
“To me, ice hockey is the best way to improve physical fitness and the team spirit of a child,” he said.
However, Hu can barely spare time to coach his son, who has been training under his own coaches.
The youth ice hockey friendly between China and Russia in June last year, a match that was watched by President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, was the first time that Hu Wenhan played under his father as coach.
However, Hu insisted that the father-son relationship was not a factor that affected his team selection or tactical decisions on the ice rink during the game. “On the rink, I was the coach and he was only one of the players,” he said.
As a coach to the men’s national team, Hu has long been troubled by the shortage of homegrown talent. During the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan in 2017, he expressed his worries about the lack of top players available for selection after Team China was outscored 32-0 in its three games.
In order to truly catch up with the ice hockey giants in the world, the country should continue to focus on the fundamentals, he said. He noted that the deficiency of top players was not simply because of a lack of young players coming through.
Indeed, young players registering for the game surged to about 20,000 last year compared with a mere 300 players about 10 years ago, he said. In Harbin and Beijing, 200 primary schools have launched ice hockey teams, in which at least 6,000 pupils have participated.
“One problem is that children are giving up the sport as soon as they enter junior high schools as they begin to come under greater academic pressure. Meanwhile, there are barely any middle schools that are running ice hockey teams,” he said.
The lack of channels for young hockey players to progress through the academic system is another important reason, as few colleges in China grant scholarships to children playing the sport, he said.
He noted that a number of players for the Chinese men’s hockey team, such as Ying Rudi, Song Andong and Yan Juncheng, moved to North America for ice hockey training when they were about 10 years old.
Song Andong was the first Chinese-born player drafted into the National Hockey League. He was drafted in the sixth round, 172nd overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders.
“Going abroad was virtually their only choice if they were to continue to seek a career in ice hockey,” Hu said.
Currently, only two colleges in China, Harbin Sport University and Beijing Sport University, run ice hockey teams, even though the Ministry of Education greenlighted at least seven other universities to host ice hockey teams.
Cost is a factor, he said. There is the maintenance of ice hockey rinks, cost of gear, uniforms, equipment and coaching fees. “Many universities cannot afford the yearly investment of up to 3 million yuan ($447,000) each year.”
He called on education authorities to come up with concrete policies and a plan to support the development of ice hockey so that young players can have a way to get through college with ice hockey scholarships.
“The development of college games is the core part for the sustainable development of ice hockey. By having college hockey teams, we can also encourage the growth of teams at primary and middle school levels,” he said.
“That could be the best way for Chinese ice hockey to truly take off.”
When Kuwait’s women’s hockey team makes its IIHF debut this April at the 2019 Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA), it will be with a roster full of family connections. Included on the team are several sets of sisters, as well as a set of triplets.
“Almost all the team, they are sisters,” said captain Rawan Albahouh. “They have two sisters, three sisters, they all play together on the same team.”
In fact, familial connections seems to be a significant factor behind how Kuwait’s women’s program has grown since it was resurrected in 2017.
“Most players are family, sisters, cousins,” said head coach Meshal Alajmi, who has represented Kuwait on its men’s hockey team for over eight years.
Sharing the CCOA experience with family will no doubt be exciting for the women representing Kuwait in Division I of the tournament later this season, especially considering the fairly recent relaunch of the country’s women’s hockey program.
A program for female players was initially created in 2007, but consisted of only around 10 people and, lacking support, quickly ended. However, those players reunited in a second attempt to build a program in August of 2017.
Part of this relaunch involved sending Albahouh and women’s national team supervisor Laila Alkhbaz to the 2018 IIHF Women’s High Performance Camp. Albahouh learned about growing the sport in the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend segment, while Alkhbaz took part in the Leadership Development Program.
This professional development and the efforts of the players in the program seems to be paying off. The IIHF website lists Kuwait as having 203 female players—53 more than the 150 listed male players (also listed are 177 junior players).
However, similarly to other CCOA participants, Kuwait has struggled to find younger female goaltenders. The national team’s two goalies are two of the older members of the team at the ages of 26 and 32.
The country also has just one rink that they use for hockey, which is closed this January and February, meaning that the team is practicing off ice in preparation for the CCOA.
“In our country, it’s not a desert, but it’s hot. So we try to escape to cold places … [the rink] is an escape place,” Albahouh explained of the hockey venue, which the women’s program usually uses at least twice a week.
Albahouh is aware of the challenges she faces with trying to grow and play hockey in her country, but regardless is looking forward to representing Kuwait with her hockey family at the 2019 CCOA in Abu Dhabi.
“We hope to win something,” she said of playing against the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Mongolia. “We are furious to win or bring something for our country.”
Albahouh, who took up hockey after seeing another Kuwaiti girl playing it, is eager to share the game she loves with other girls and women, and hopes that participating in the CCOA will help open more doors.
“Once you [start playing], you cannot stop playing this sport.”
In just under five months, Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Ice Rink will play host to the 2019 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA), the first IIHF women’s competition to be hosted in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
While Abu Dhabi has hosted the Men’s CCOA three times before, this will be a a momentous event for the country’s women’s program.
“It means the world honestly, having the CCOA in Abu Dhabi is really a big deal for us,” said UAE women’s team captain Fatema Al Qubaisi. “All the past years we’ve been hoping for this to happen.”
For Al Qubaisi, this will be an especially important event; she waited over a decade and a half before there was an opportunity for her to play hockey.
“My parents used to take us to the ice rink once a week as a weekend activity,” said Al Qubaisi. “All I really wanted was a hockey team, but it took another 16 years of patience [before] they finally had one for ladies.”
As Al Qubaisi explained, the past few years have seen an increase in women’s hockey programs in the Middle East. Kuwait will be making their IIHF women’s debut at the 2019 CCOA and two non-IIHF members, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have recently started women’s programs.
“I’m very proud of my team to have achieved so much to reach to a point that we are hosting something so big, something serious like the CCOA in our country,” said defender Mariam Al Mazrouei. “This is our chance to prove that this sport means so much to us as girls of the UAE, the first women’s ice hockey team in the Middle East.”
While the UAE became a IIHF member in 2001, the country did not have a women’s program until 2010. They made their first IIHF competition appearance in the 2014 Women’s CCOA Division I tournament, finishing in last place.
The team did not play in the CCOA for a few years following their debut, but returned to the competition in 2017. They improved on their inaugural performance, finishing second to last and notching their first ever IIHF win, a 6-4 victory over India.
In the 2018 Women’s CCOA Division I tournament, they rose to second place, beating India and the Philippines and losing to eventual champion Malaysia. The UAE team will be competing in the Division I tournament again in 2019, and look to continue to improve upon their previous results.
“[In 2018] we got second place in Malaysia, that was an honour, to have our team play as one … [Our goals in 2019 are] to put on the ice what we’ve practiced during the past years in the game, play as one unit,” said Al Qubaisi. “And of course we hope to win.”
Al Qubaisi and Al Mazrouei, along with other players such as Fatima Al Ali, have been with the national team program since its first CCOA appearance in 2014 or even earlier. Before joining the program, most of them knew about hockey from films such as Mighty Ducks or from their parents’ previous experiences with the sport.
The country’s 78 registered female hockey players, as well as the majority of the national team, mostly play on teams in the UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi. However, with the recent formation of a new team in Al Ain, Al Qubaisi anticipates that they will see more players coming from other parts of the country to join the national team.
The national team has received a lot of attention over the last few years with the rising popularity of forward Al Ali and the team’s trip to North America for the NHL’s Hockey is For Everyone month this past February.
However, for Al Qubaisi, who has dropped a ceremonial puck in front of 18,000 fans at a Washington Capitals game and travelled around the world to play a sport she loves, the experience that she names as her favourite hockey experience is a reminder of the joy these players have just being able to play a sport they love.
“The best [experience] of course was the time I first ever put gear on after so many years of waiting.”
Al Qubaisi may or may not realize it, but her and her teammates are the pioneers of women’s hockey in their country, and the 2019 CCOA will no doubt play an important role in the growth of the sport in the Middle East.
At the 2018 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA) Division I tournament in Malaysia, there was one player who lit up the scoreboard at a rate of 2.67 goals per game. Bianca Cuevas scored eight goals (and notched one assist) in three games for the Philippines’ national women’s hockey team. Her eight goals were more than any other female player in both of 2018’s CCOA and CCOA Division I tournaments.
The Philippines’ national women’s team made its IIHF debut at the 2017 CCOA, where Cuevas also demonstrated her scoring prowess, leading her team in points with five goals and four assists through six games.
The journey that Cuevas took to representing her country on the international stage and becoming a leading goal scorer took her from the Philippines to Canada.
Cuevas first started her career on ice as a figure skater. As a young child, her and her older brother were enticed by a skating rink that they saw in a mall in Manila, leading her mother to sign her brother up for hockey and Cuevas up for figure skating.
“Later on, watching my brother, it made me curious and interested in what he was doing, so I wanted to try hockey,” said Cuevas.
Cuevas’ first few years of hockey were spent honing her skills in the co-ed Manila Ice Hockey League (MIHL) and with a youth team that competed in the annual Mega Ice Hockey 5’s tournament in Hong Kong. However, it was in Canada where Cuevas would become the player that she is now.
In 2016, a new rink was opened in the Philippines’ Cebu City, and an NGO called Pandoo Foundation held a hockey camp to celebrate its opening. The three day camp was run by NCAA Division I Niagara University alumni Sarah Zacharias, Sam Goodwin and Robert Martini.
“[Zacharias] approached me [at the end of the camp] and she invited me to train with her team in Winnipeg,” said Cuevas. Zacharias helps coach the Balmoral Hall Blazers of the Junior Women’s Hockey League (JWHL).
After deferring her university admission in the Philippines, Cuevas made the move to Winnipeg to repeat grade 12 in order to play with Balmoral Hall and experience the sport she loves in what Cuevas affectionately calls “the land of hockey.”
“When I first trained with [the Balmoral Hall Blazers]—wow. I still remember my very first training,” said Cuevas of her introduction to hockey in Canada. “After that my body hurt so much … When I first got on the ice, I was also really nervous, and I was messing up all the drills because I was so shocked by how fast and strong they were. I’d never experienced that before.”
The Balmoral Hall roster was full by the time Cuevas arrived in Winnipeg, but Zacharias found her a team that she could play games with in the Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League (MWJHL), the Western Predators.
“I remember the head coach told me that when he first saw me, he was pretty iffy about me, he didn’t think that I would be able to handle it and my skill level was just not there,” Cuevas said of an end of season interview she had with her team’s coaching staff. “But I dealt with it by working hard and persevering … and he said that I greatly improved.”
Cuevas noticed this improvement when playing in the 2017 CCOA. She felt faster and stronger, and was able to score a significant number of goals. Her teammates and coaches from the national team told her that they also noticed a difference in the way she played.
After the 2017 CCOA, Cuevas returned to Canada, where she was accepted into the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Cuevas wanted to be able to keep playing hockey, and so tried out for the Richmond Rebels of the South Coast Women’s Hockey League (SCWHL), a Senior AA league with teams in BC’s Lower Mainland as well as on Vancouver Island and in Kamloops and Prince George.
While Cuevas didn’t make the cut for the Richmond team, she was referred to the North Shore Rebels, who made their SCWHL debut in the 2017-18 season. The Rebels missed out of the playoffs in their first season, but are looking stronger after their first five games of the 2018-19 season, and already just one win away from matching their total number of wins from last season.
Besides playing in the SCWHL, Cuevas hopes to be able to continue to play for the Philippines’ national women’s team, which will compete in the 2019 Women’s CCOA Division I tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in April.
While in the past, any Filipino woman who played hockey could make the national team, Cuevas is anticipating that the coaching staff will need to make cuts for the 2019 CCOA. The Philippines currently has 33 registered female hockey players, a significant increase from when Cuevas first started playing in 2009. When she first started, representing her country on the international stage was far from her mind.
“If you asked my 10 year old self or 12 year old self, I probably would say that that would never happen, because we didn’t even have enough girls for a line.
“When I started playing there were only two, three girls, so I would never have imagined being able to represent my country playing hockey … It’s actually quite cool and quite amazing how far we’ve gone and how much we’ve grown.”
Growing up in Canada I was a huge hockey fan, but it wasn't until the 1972 summit series and the 1976 Canada Cup that I became a big fan of international hockey. The best players in world all playing on a sheet of ice.
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