Category: Europe (page 1 of 10)

How one Georgian family built a national ice hockey league

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By Bradley Jardine, Neil Hauer – Eurasianet

Despite material disadvantages, Georgia’s hockey team is moving up the charts.

“That’s where we broke the window,” says Mikheil Davitashvili, a defenseman and general manager of Georgia’s national ice hockey team, pointing to a puck-shaped hole 7 meters above. “As you can probably tell, this isn’t a convenient place to train professionally.”

The team currently practices at an old Soviet figure-skating school. The rink is smaller than a standard hockey rink, with no boards along the side – so limited checking – and the team has to bring its own net, a self-assembly version normally reserved for pond hockey matches. Hockey rinks should have safety barriers on the side, but this facility doesn’t, so during one slap-shot practice an errant puck flew out of the rink.

Despite these material disadvantages, Georgia’s hockey team is on the rise.

This past April, at the 2018 International Ice-hockey Federation (IIHF) Division III World Championship in South Africa, Georgia delivered convincing victories over Turkey, Bulgaria, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei, falling only to the hosts. The performance won Georgia gold and earned the team a promotion to Division II for the next season – an impressive result for a team that played its first IIHF match only five years ago.

“We’ve achieved so much with so little,” Davitashvili says. “And now the government is finally starting to take notice.” The authorities have promised a new professional-standard ice hockey stadium in Tbilisi this year, he says – a change he thinks will revolutionize the sport. “At the moment we’re stuck with this place.” 

Much of Georgia’s hockey success is due to Davitashvili and his uncle, Denis Davidov, an amateur ice hockey player in Soviet Georgia who introduced his nephew to the sport at an early age. Now, at just 26, Davitashvili is unusually young to be the team’s general manager – a role usually reserved for people twice his age.

The substandard rink is only one of the obstacles the team is overcoming. Attracting sponsors has also proved difficult, with the players often working unpaid.

“We have returned from the World Cup as champions, but still, unfortunately, I have not paid any money to the boys yet,” says Ilia Davidov (no relation to Denis), president of the Georgian Ice Hockey Federation. “I am very ashamed.”

Ice hockey stadiums were relatively widespread in the USSR, and though it was never a major sport in Georgia, Tbilisi at least had a stadium and a local league. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, Tbilisi’s stadium fell into disrepair and was eventually torn down.

Despite this, Denis Davidov and Lasha Tsagareishvili, two amateur enthusiasts, started playing hockey again in the late ‘90s. In 2004, they founded the Georgian Ice Hockey Federation – the governing body of ice hockey in the country – laying the groundwork for Georgia’s accession to the IIHF five years later.

“My interest in the sport began because of my uncle,” Davitashvili says. “He was so passionate about it and got me started back in 2004. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.”

But disaster struck. Weeks after getting Georgia accepted into the IIHF, Tsagareishvili and Denis Davidov were killed in a road accident. The sport would have to wait.

It wasn’t until 2014 that Davitashvili would take his uncle’s mantle and Georgia’s national team would mark its international debut in the third division. Their first opponent: North Korea.

They didn’t expect victory, but the scale of the beat-down was disheartening. Pyongyang scored six times in the first period en route to a 22-1 victory. It was an inauspicious start.

That same year, Georgia was defeated by three of the four lowest-rated teams in the world rankings, but Davitashvili puts this down to growing pains.

“We had barely practiced as we were all working full-time jobs,” he recalls. “Obviously, we lost all the matches.”

But Georgian hockey is growing. Today, there are over 500 players registered in the country, although all are amateurs and they include chefs, accountants and CEOs. The national league now includes four teams across the country: Fiery Crusaders, Grey Wolves, Ice Knights and Mimino.

The country also will send its first player abroad to train this fall: 18-year-old Temuri Vedyapin recently signed with the Maniwaki Mustangs of the Canadian Premier Junior Hockey League (CPJHL). While the CPJHL is a new and untested junior league, it aims to train players for collegiate programs in the United States, from where professional players are regularly drafted, and so represents a significant milestone for Georgian hockey.

Funding is still an issue. In 2015, the Georgian league began receiving its first government financial support – it had been supporting itself for nearly 11 years. But players complain that their team gets only 80,000 Georgian lari ($32,720) a year, compared to the national volleyball federation’s 500,000 lari ($204,500). (Georgia’s Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs declined to comment.)

That money doesn’t go far. “We paid 63,000 lari on flights alone for the championships in South Africa,” Ilia Davidov, the president, says.

The lack of training venues also presents difficulties, with professional training only possible in Batumi, Kutaisi and the ski resort town of Bakuriani.

“The stadium in Bakuriani is standard size, but as an outdoor stadium it’s only active for a few months a year,” Davitashvili explains. “Batumi has the best rink, but it’s 400 kilometers away.” Some members of the team practice abroad, in Finland, Germany and other countries, but this isn’t financially viable for everyone.

Although ice hockey is beginning to reach Georgian youth, the price to enter the sport is still prohibitively high for a country with an average monthly income of about $400.

“The cost to equip one player is about $1,500, and a goalkeeper costs $3,700,” Davitashvili says. “Bad equipment can be dangerous. When we played in Abu Dhabi our equipment was such bad quality that when a puck hit our goalkeeper’s hand, it broke his fingers.”

Challenges aside, Davitashvili is confident the sport’s popularity in Georgia will only grow from here: “It’s like my uncle used to say: Either you like ice hockey, or you are wrong.”

Bucifalova ready to shine as RDC Queen

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By Danny Rode – Red Deer Advocate

Growing up in the Czech Republic Veronika Bucifalova had a dream of coming to Canada to play hockey, so when she was 15 she made a decision to leave home and join the Ontario Hockey Academy.

Because of that move she’s now a member of the RDC Queens.

“I wanted to improve my hockey as hockey at home isn’t a good level for girls,” explained the 19-year-old forward. “I had a dream of playing in Canada as Canada is the hockey place.

“And I knew how to speak English so that was nice.”

In fact she’s fluent in Czech and English and understands German, French and Russian.

“It’s awesome to speak several languages as you meet so many great people. I have friends all over the world.”

Veronika spent two years in Ontario, working on her game and finishing high school.

Last season she moved to Switzerland and joined the Neuchatal Hockey Academy.

“Mainly I wanted to take a year off and make some money,” she explained.

This year she was ready to return to Canada, although she didn’t know much about Red Deer.

However, her coach in Ontario gave her Queens head coach Kelly Coulter’s contact number and the rest is history.

“A friend of mine, through connections when I was in Grande Prairie, was coaching in Ontario and he helped make contact,” explained Coulter. “I didn’t know much about Veronika, but I’m certainly happy we made the connection.

“She’s very skilled, has a passion for the game, has an excellent attitude and is a great teammate,” said Coulter.

“She has excellent hands, has great vision and can take a pass on her forehand or backhand and make a quick pass. She also protects the puck and plays a gritty game.

“She’s already a great addition and will be for years to come.”

With a quick release Bucifalova has shown she can score, but enjoys passing.

“I love to see my teammates celebrating a goal,” she said. “It’s a great feeling when you play as a team.”

Coming up through minor hockey Veronika played goal, defence and forward.

“I think that helped as I got a complete perspective of the ice and helped me as a player,” she said. “I wanted to be a goalie, but my dad didn’t want me to.”

She does play goal for her inline team. She also plays ball hockey for the Czech national team, finishing third in the open division and second in the U20 world finals.

“It helps prepare me for hockey with the running and ball handling,” she added.

She also has experience at the world level with the Czech U18 team and women’s team. She played three years with the U18 team and the 2014-15 season with the Czech women’s team.

She first got into women’s hockey when she was 12 and even played with a men’s U18 team for a season, scoring 10 goals and 11 assists in 12 games.

“That helped me a lot in my career, but I still have a lot to learn. I’m a rookie here and will work hard to get better.”

Veronika is listed at five-foot-two and is solid on her skates.

“I say I’m fat … make fun of myself,” she said with a laugh. “But I do feel I’m strong on the puck and hard to push off it.”

In only four exhibition games you can see the skill Bucifalova brings to the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference squad.

“We already can see each other and we’re already getting better and better,” she said.

As for the competition, she’s impressed.

“I have a friend who plays at NAIT and she told me about the league. Other than that I didn’t know much about it. But it’s fast with good game plans … I didn’t expect it to be this good.”

Veronika is taking kinesiology as she “wanted to have something to do with sports and to help people.

“I hope to be here for a few years and keep pushing myself every day to get better.”

She’s also impressed with the new Gary W Harris Canada Games Centre.

“I saw pictures, but this is awesome. Much better than the facilities we have at home.”

Clara Rozier: Forging France’s Future in Women’s Hockey

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By Nathaniel Oliver – The Hockey Writers

France’s Women’s National Ice Hockey Team is in the process of creating hockey history. After winning gold at the 2018 Women’s Division IA World Championship – played on their own home soil in the town of Vaujany – the French women have been promoted to the top division in women’s hockey for the first time ever. The 2019 Women’s World Championship will be played from Apr. 4 to Apr. 14, 2019 in  Espoo, Finland. All of the big names will be there – Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and more. When France takes the ice against those countries, one of their young players will be 21-year-old Clara Rozier. She is one of the players who got France there in the first place, and rightfully so.

While France has never really been considered a “hockey hotbed”, Rozier is not only incredibly proud of what she and her teammates accomplished, but also very proud of all hockey players who have come from France and made the spotlight. Appreciating today’s current stars, her fellow countrymen hold a special place in her heart.

“Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Cristobal Huet, Antoine Roussel, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare,” Rozier rattled off some of her favorite names. “Crosby and Ovechkin because they are the best players in the world, for me. They have a lot of qualities. Crosby with his stick is very amazing – he can do everything he wants. And the others because they are French players and they played in NHL. Huet is an example. At the last World Championship (2017), he was very impressive at 40 years old!”

THW talked one on one with Rozier recently. We learned more about how she got started playing hockey and her story up until now. Perhaps more importantly, we got a sense of her aspirations for the upcoming Women’s Worlds in April 2019.

Learning the Game in France

Too often when North Americans think of France, we typically imagine only places like Paris or maybe the French Riviera locations like Cannes or Nice. We tend to overlook the more mountainous or colder climates of the country. Locations in the French Alps such as Chamonix, Grenoble and Albertville have each played host to a Winter Games. The mountain terrains also happen to be where Rozier is from, and it is where she learned to play hockey.

“I live in Morzine, a ski resort in the French Alps,” Rozier explained. “In this little town most of the children are skiing, playing ice hockey or both. I’m very happy to live in mountains! I started hockey at seven years old. Nobody in my family plays ice hockey. It was my best friend who was playing hockey and gave me the desire to play.”

However, chances to play the game in Morzine were quite sparse. The town itself has a population of not even 3,000 people, and hockey opportunities were slim, particularly for girls. Enough so that as Rozier got into her teenage years it was necessary to move to a more populated portion of the Alps. Rozier’s residence during her formative years had approximately 56,000 more residents.

“There are not a lot of opportunities to play hockey because it is a little city and they don’t have a women’ hockey team,” Rozier stated. “So I played with the boys when I was young, and at 15 years old I left Morzine for Chambéry to play with Pôle France. It is a women’ hockey team which gathers the best girls in France in sports studies. I stayed in Chambéry during five years, and this year I came back to Morzine because I’m ski instructor too. But I still play with the Pôle.”

Playing for Pôle France Féminin

The goal of Pôle France is to bring together the best female players in the country and centralize them in Chambéry. Although Crozier just entered her early 20s, she and a number of players her age have continued to play for Pôle in competitive hockey throughout France. Because France has a limited number of female players, it promotes better overall development and competition by having a team mixed with teenagers and young adults, and having them compete against younger male teams.

Crozier explained a bit more about how Pôle works:
“Like I mentioned before, Pôle regroups women from 15 years old and we play in the U17 French Men’s Championship because the women’s league is too poor to progress, and playing against boys is very good for us. They skate faster, shoot harder so it’s not so bad. We are just 2,408 girls playing hockey in France, whereas in the USA you have 75,832. So it’s difficult for us, but a lot of little girls are coming now and I think we have good players to take over of French hockey in the future.”

Through 75 career games with Pôle France, Rozier has scored 26 goals and 23 assists for 49 points. Her finest season offensively was this past 2017-18 campaign when she scored 16 goals and eight assists in only 20 games to lead the squad in scoring. Rozier is a winger with a right-hand shot. At 5-foot-3 and close to 140 pounds she possesses quickness, but is more of a heady, cerebral player. Rozier is also modest too, and found it difficult to speak about herself when asked what her best attributes are as a hockey player.

“For playing ice hockey, you have to be very strong in your head because it’s a very hard sport!” she stated. “For me I think I have a good vision. It’s difficult for me to speak about myself. I think I’m a complete player, but I have to work hard for becoming stronger everywhere. When you play ice hockey you have to be good in a lot of attributes – it’s a difficult sport.”

Representing Her Country on the International Stage

During Rozier’s teenage years, she represented France in IIHF U18 tournaments for three different World Championships at the Division I level and one qualification tournament. With her on their roster, France won the 2013 Women’s Division I qualification tournament outright, before going on to win the bronze medal at the corresponding World Championship. Rozier ensured that the French followed that up with a silver at the 2014 tournament and then gold in 2015. She served as an alternate captain for the gold medal team, but may have had her finest performance at the U18 level in 2014. There she was a point per game player with three goals and a pair of assists in the five tournament games.

“When I put the jersey on to represent my country I feel very proud,” Rozier shared. “It is real pride to put this jersey on and a dream! I think a lot of people want to represent their country and not all can do it. So it’s a privilege and I’m very proud of this. I feel really excited because I’m going to play an international game.”

Since the U18 level, Rozier has played for France Women’s National Team at three World Championships at the Division IA level and at an Olympic qualifier, beginning in 2016. While she would go goalless for her first two Worlds and the Olympic qualifier, she saved her first goal at a Women’s World Championship for just the right time. Played in Vaujany, France, the 2018 Women’s Division IA World Championships were held and the French were at the top of the podium – winning gold and advancing for the first time ever into the top tournament. Rozier scored the second goal of the game, which held up to be the decisive game-winner in the final game of the tournament, a 7-1 win by France over Slovakia.

“It’s amazing – I have no words to explain it,” Rozier said when asked what advancing to the top division means to her. “It’s one of the best days of my life. I already know this feeling because three years ago we won the World Championship with the U18 French team (at Division I). But my generation (1997), it was our last year with the U18 team so we won but we did not have the opportunity to go to the top division the following year. But today I can go to the top division, so it’s not really the same feeling. I can see what is happening at the top, and I really look forward to being there! It’s just a perfect moment with an amazing team. And we won in France! The ice rink was full, a lot of noise, my family was here, so it was perfect!”

https://i2.wp.com/thehockeywriters.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Clara.Rozier.France.2.jpg?resize=323%2C480&ssl=1At three different IIHF U18 tournaments
Clara Rozier medalled with France each time.

They’re Not Done Yet!

The work of Rozier and the French National Women’s Team is not done yet. Yes, they have made history and have reached a distinct pinnacle. However, it is not the pinnacle. Rozier has no intention of falling out of the top division and facing demotion once the 2019 Women’s Worlds take place in April. Furthermore, she and France are focused on Olympic qualification as well.

“With the team, the goal is to try to stay in top division next year and be qualified to the next Olympics Games,” Rozier explained. “Personally, I want to progress in the speed of my skating and my shots. To become stronger, and have more playing time – have a more important role on the team and on the ice.”

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Clara Rozier (bottom center) and Team France celebrate a promotion to the IIHF’s
top division with a bottle of champagne.

There is no question that Rozier will be able to accomplish her personal goals for skill improvement. She has the drive and the motivation to continuously improve. In terms of her role and value to the team, France needs her more than ever right now. This is no easy road that the French are going down. At the 2019 Women’s Worlds they are in Group B, which includes Sweden, Japan, Czech Republic and Germany. In order to avoid relegation Rozier and her teammates will need to finish better than at least two of those teams. Rozier is fully aware that anything can happen – she is embracing it and making the most of her chances.

“The most important thing I’ve learned about life from playing hockey is that anything could happen,” she said. “And it could all go away in an instant. So you have to push yourself up until the end, whatever happens!”

Lithuania’s Bosas upbeat of future

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By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com

“Everything is possible. Just look at what Great Britain did this year winning a place at the top level of the World Championships. Every player in our national team will come back stronger in the new season and you never know what can happen. Hockey is a magical sport,” said Lithuania’s Bosas as a big season looms around the corner.

Having penned a deal with the Bayreuth Tigers of Germany’s DEL2, Bosas hopes to keep up his flying form and scoring touch in a season culminating with Lithuania competing at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A played in Astana, Kazakhstan, starting at the end of April next year.

With his trademark beard and an uncanny eye for a goal, Bosas played an integral role in Lithuania’s recent rise-up in the hockey world. The tall and powerful forward returned to his native Kaunas in April and netted half-a-dozen goals in five matches as Lithuania in emphatic fashion rolled on to win the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B.

While the big attention was on the former NHL stars Dainius Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis, who gave a short comeback for the country’s biggest-ever ice hockey tournament, Bosas had six goals in five games, more than anyone else, and was named Best Forward of the tournament.

Thriving to play in front of boisterous home fans inside the Zalgiris Arena, he formed a prolific first line together with veteran Zubrus and 19-year-old prospect Mark Kaleinikovas as Lithuania thundered upwards to go undefeated and lived up to lofty set expectations.

“Yes, it was a historical win for Lithuania and also for me. We were all very excited but also worried not to win. Everybody called us ‘dream team’ and only expected us to win gold. It was really hard but we did it in the end and I hope it can make our sport more popular,” he said of a tournament where their final-day win against Baltic rival Estonia was played in front of a vociferous crowd of 10,170 carrying their home favourites to a comfortable 4-1 win.

Following the euphoria in Kaunas, the current crop of national team players now hopes competing at a higher level might generate more exposure to foreign suitors. Having played a meandering career which has so far taken him to Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Poland, Great Britain and Germany, Bosas has become well accustomed to being the odd one out thanks to his nationality.

“Most of the time people don’t know anything about Lithuanian hockey and sometimes don’t even know where Lithuania is on the map. So every year it is the same story because of my passport and nationality,” said Bosas, who last season proved his worth in Germany’s third tier at Regensburg. An initial short-term deal was soon extended with the Bavarian team as he finished as top scorer to get his reward and a move to Germany’s second-highest level, DEL2.

Born and brought up in the basketball town of Kaunas, Bosas got hooked on hockey as a first grader after a coach introduced the sport at school. While in his teens, a player agent got him a move to Sparta Prague’s junior set-up, which offered him invaluable years of progress within Czech hockey.

“It is big hockey country and I got a lot of good experience first from junior hockey, but later also from playing for my first men’s team. I remember this being the first step in starting a career abroad and leaving my parents home. It was not a bad start,” he said.

But if a stint in Central Europe helped him bridge the gap from junior to senior level, his most lasting memory from his ongoing hockey odyssey comes from Central Asia. Four seasons in Kazakhstan at the start of his decade playing for Arystan Temirtau, Gornyak Rudny and HK Almaty toughened him up considerably.

“There is a quote I’ve learnt from Kazakhstan, that if you’ve been there you have seen everything in hockey, and I think that is true. For me Kazakhstan was the biggest development for me, but also the hardest hockey life so far,” he recalled.

Bosas will be able to reacquaint himself with his former stomping ground as Lithuania will travel east to face a string of stern challenges at the World Championship Division I Group A. Contested inside the magnificent 12,000-seater Astana Arena in Kazakhstan’s capital between 29 April to 5 May 2019, they will take on Belarus, Korea, Hungary, Slovenia and hosts Kazakhstan.

Seemingly a gargantuan task, Lithuania can be greatly inspired by the recent upward ascent of Great Britain. While the Brits enjoyed two consecutive promotions, they were beaten twice at the tail end of last season by Lithuania during exhibition matches on British soil. One player able to share his experiences of taking Lithuania to the brink of top division is Mindaugas Kieras, who played 20 senior World Championships for his country between 1999 to 2018.

At the end of April 2006 and with Kieras on the blueline for his country, Lithuania narrowly lost out a chance to compete against the top nations courtesy of a 5-3 reversal against Austria at the 2006 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I event in Tallinn, Estonia. Despite having been in front three times against the Austrians, Lithuania succumbed to three straight power-play goals and in the end finished second of the group, which meant missing out a place at the 2007 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship played in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“It would be very hard to reach that level again and it would also depend on what kind of players we would have. But if we would have played in Division IA this year, we would have been close, very close to stepping up the top,” said Kieras, who announced his retirement from the national team duty in the direct aftermath of winning gold in Kaunas.

With Kieras having hung up his skates, Lithuania lost not only one of its natural leaders out on the ice but gone is now also one of the best moustaches in the hockey world. Thankfully Bosas is well-suited to step in and continue the legacy, both in terms of leading the way out on the ice, but also by holding on to his trademark facial hair despite disapproval from close quarters.

“My mum hates it and my wife-to-be loves it, so I will keep it,” said Bosas.

GB Women To Take Part In EIHA U20 Cup Competition

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By IHUK Media

Great Britain Women will participate in a new EIHA Under-20s cup competition next season.

The games – against six men’s U20s sides – will form part of the national side’s preparations for the 2018 Women’s World Championship Division II Group A, being held in Dumfries in April 2019.

GB Women will be joined by Billingham Stars, Coventry Blaze, Deeside Dragons, Kingston, Nottingham and Whitley Bay in the cup competition and a full list of fixtures will be announced shortly.

Cheryl Smith, Great Britain Women head coach, said: “Playing games across the season ahead of the World Championship will be of massive benefit for us.

“Camps are always useful and we will still have those at times throughout the year, but getting game-time is invaluable.

“I would like to thank the EIHA – and in particular Geoff Hemmerman and Jackie Pye – for making this possible.

“It will really help our preparations for the World Championship in Dumfries and give us a great opportunity to see players in game situations throughout the season.”

EIHA JLMC (Junior League Management Committee) chair, Jackie Pye, added: “We are pleased to be able to help GB Women in the upcoming season.

“It is an important year for GB with a World Championship on home ice and we are glad to be able to provide the national side with games by playing in the cup competition.”

All matches in the U20 cup competition will be played under women’s non-checking rules.

Jeglic suspended 8 months

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By IIHF.com

Slovenian national team player Ziga Jeglic receives an eight-month suspension due to his anti-doping violation at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games following the final decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport Anti-doping Division (CAS ADD).

Jeglic was initially suspended on 20th February 2018 during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games by the CAS ADD. He was tested positive after a game with fenoterol, a beta-2 agonist and specified substance prohibited under section S3 of the 2018 WADA Prohibited List.

The athlete accepted an anti-doping rule violation and left the Olympic Winter Games. At a hearing he stated that he ingested the prohibited substance during the warm-up leading to the game against the Olympic Athletes from Russia on 16 February, after which he was tested positive and that it was an ingredient in an asthma inhaler prescribed to him by the team doctor. However, no Therapeutic Use Exemption had been requested, which would have avoided the doping case, and the use of the inhalator was not indicated on the doping control form.

The athlete voluntarily accepted a provisional suspension as of 20th February 2018 up to the date of the final decision on his sanction and has not played and practiced since.

The IIHF filed its request to the CAS ADD seeking a period of ineligibility of eight months. It cannot be established that the athlete intentionally committed the anti-doping rule violation and the IIHF follows the opinion expressed by the IOC during the procedure that there was no significant fault or negligence. The athlete requested a period of ineligibility of no more than four months.

According to the so-called Cilic guidelines established by the CAS in earlier cases, the degree of fault on the athlete’s part falls into the light degree of fault.

In the final award the Sole Arbitrator of the CAS ADD agrees that it was a case of light degree of fault or negligence but that it is to note that athletes may not “hide” behind mistakes of their doctors or other members of their entourage and that the medical staff must have known that the asthma inhaler contained a prohibited substance and should have sought a Therapeutic Use Exemption.

The Sole Arbitrator accepts that the period of eight month is reasonable and therefore a period ineligibility of eight months is imposed upon the athlete served since 20th February 2018.

Valentine Maka: Growing Women’s Hockey in Belgium

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Valentine Maka plays for the Belgium National Team and endeavors
to grow the game of women’s hockey in her homeland

By Nathaniel Oliver – The Hockey Writers

Belgium has never been known as a hockey hotbed. For women and girls especially, it is incredibly difficult to even obtain opportunities to play the game. Great strides have certainly been made in the North American leagues, the NWHL and CWHL – we still have a ways to go, but “Grow the Game” is as strong as it has ever been.

But, with the possible exceptions of Sweden, Finland and Russia, you have to recognize too that there is a level of disparity between those aforementioned leagues and countries, when compared to a smaller nation such as Belgium. An immense passion – one that is often encompassed by some hardship as well – needs to be had in order to play the sport regularly and to stick with it. For the Belgian players who love the game, they make due. Thanks to a young player – Valentine (Val) Maka – there is at least a strong flame to keep the passion burning for players in her country.

“It’s gonna sound really cliché,” Maka told THW, “but on a school night the movie The Mighty Ducks was on TV and it held my attention. Furthermore, my mom used to play hockey, so she took me to watch some games. And right after the first game that I saw I told her, ‘That’s it mom – I wanna do it too!’ And that’s pretty much how my hockey journey all started.”

THW spoke with Maka at length so that we could get a better sense of what women’s hockey in Belgium is all about, and so that we could spotlight a player who is certainly turning some heads in her own region. Perhaps she may even catch the attention of one of the professional leagues.

Starting the Game Later Than Most

What is rather impressive to note is that Maka has not be playing hockey for very long. At the time of this interview, she is all of 23 years old and has many years left to play. In most instances though, perhaps especially in North America, a hockey player might start skating before they are even in kindergarten, and then eventually begin playing organized hockey once they reach grade school ages. In the case of Maka though, she did not begin playing until much later.

“I actually wanted to start playing when I was seven,” she explained, “but I couldn’t.  So, I started to play hockey around the age of 15. I guess it’s never too late to start when you really wanna do something.”

Since that time hockey has carried her quite far. Consider if you will that even though she began playing at 15, Maka has already played for the Belgian national team in six different IIHF Women’s World Championship tournaments. Not only is that a testament to how she has progressed as a player, but it confirms her aforementioned statement of how badly she wanted to play. It is rather profound to go from being a novice teenager to representing your country.

Like many hockey lovers, Maka finds inspiration from today’s contemporary stars from both the men’s and the women’s sides. Particularly in women’s hockey, she recognizes that the premier faces in the game are able to cross borders and encourage young players from a wide variety of nations.

Asked which players she admires, Maka responded with the following:

“Ovi for sure. Ovechkin will always be my favorite player because of how talented he is but also because he brings so much to his team as a teammate. But also, I would want to talk about Hilary Knight. This woman is incredible! First, I like the way she spreads her love for hockey. Then, for the fact that she is the first female skater practicing with NHL players – wow! What inspires me the most is how she sees women in sport, in general. She fights for the equality of women in hockey. And I think this is amazing. I wish I could have as much impact on the hockey world here in Belgium than she does in the hockey world in general. She is just amazing!”

From Belgium to Canada and Back Again

Belgium is a nation with a population of over 11 million people. Many will know the names of the larger cities in the country, such as Brussels or Antwerp. Outside of the larger cities though, other areas of Belgium are not well known in North America. Maka hails from one of those smaller parts of her country. For any hockey players who may have grown up in small towns among the Canadian plains, you might be able to feel some common ground with her.

“I lived in a small village called Fraire all of my childhood,” Maka recalled. “Not much to do around there. But as it’s a small town, people are close to each other and caring. I used to just go to school, hang with my friends from school, play in the backyard with them. It was a quiet and nice childhood. I used to see my friends a lot. It was the childhood where kids still went and played outside, and didn’t go on their smartphone or on their tablets. It used to be the ‘we are going to take our bike to go to the farm and pet the cows’ sort of childhood. It was just great. I also used to do karate, ballet and horseback riding. So I had never been involved in any team sport before hockey.”

Shortly after Maka began playing hockey, she had the opportunity to travel and play the game in one of the most hockey-passionate cities in Canada. If nothing else, it only fueled her love for hockey even more. Her commitment to the game in her own country was accentuated tenfold.

“After graduating from high school in Belgium,” Maka recalled, “I went to Winnipeg, Manitoba for a year where I was in an exchange program. I went to high school there and graduated again. I had the opportunity to play hockey there. I played for the school, Oak Park High School. I was a member of the Oak Park Raiders for an entire season. Then when I came back to Belgium, my mom moved to another city, where I still live, called Liège .”

Playing the Game in Belgium

Follow closely to what Maka says about the rather limited opportunities she has to play the sport she loves in her homeland. Her own commitment to a sport with very limited opportunities at home seems to echo her own sentiments about what Knight has been able to achieve. It may also make you feel thankful for your own hockey opportunities.

“It’s actually not that easy to play hockey in Belgium when you are a girl because you don’t have too many options,” Maka explained. “Back when I was 15, to be able to play hockey I had to go to Charleroi. This is the closest city from the town, which is maybe a 30-minute drive. I had to play with guys because there weren’t any girls hockey teams. When I joined the team there were four girls, including me. Two years later I was the only one left.”

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Valentine Maka cherishes every opportunity she has had to
represent her country on the international hockey stage

While she still plays on boys teams from time to time, Maka has been playing with a women’s team – Grizzlys Liège – since she returned from Canada. For many years it was the lone Belgian women’s team, and the squad competes in a German women’s league in order to participate in league play and compete for a championship. You make do with what opportunities you have.

Maka explained, “The thing is now in 2018 we have two girls hockey teams in Belgium. Only two. And those two teams have to play in a German league to be able to have a championship. That’s the reality. Otherwise you have to play with the boys – something I’ve done all my hockey career, and that I’m still doing. So no, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to play in Belgium for girls. Because you need to know that ice hockey is not famous here. Just a few people know about ice hockey in Belgium.”

A Look at Grizzly Liège

For the 2017-18 season, Maka led the Grizzlys Liège in goal scoring, and finished second on the team in points. Her 24 goals in 15 games were the second most in the entire league behind the Hannover Indians’ Bettina Evers’ 26 tallies. Maka’s 37 points tied her for the fourth highest total across the league. The compositions of both the Grizzly Liège team and this lower-tiered German league as a whole are rather interesting.

“We’re a team with a lot of new girls who recently started to play hockey, mixed with some girls who have played for more than 10 or 15 years now. We have two girls from the Belgium national team, and one girl who used to play for France’s national U18 team. So you can either have a high school girl or a woman who works and has kids. I think the fact that all the girls are so much different makes the team even stronger. This team is actually a family – a family that I’m proud being a member of.”

The Grizzly Liège has played in the Germany-3 League for two years straight. In each of those years, Maka and her teammates were runners up for the championship. Likewise, The Grizzly Liège is the only non-German team in their division, named the Landesliga NRW division. The level that Maka and her team are presently playing at is something that she hopes to see improve as time goes on.

“It’s not the worst, but not the best,” she said when asked about the Germany-3 League. “To be honest, I would want to play in a higher division. To be more challenging and to use more hockey sense in order to ask more of everything you currently know. I want the team to be better, to push harder. But as we all grow together, it will demand time and passion.”

Playing for the Belgian National Team

Separate from Grizzly Liège, Maka has represented Belgium on the women’s national team at six different IIHF tournaments. Her first four were at the Women’s Worlds Division IIB championships from 2012 through 2015. While Maka would go scoreless playing in all five games at each tournament, Belgium would stave off relegation until the 2015 tournament. Having the opportunity to play for her country is something Maka is understandably quite proud of:

“First of all, it’s an honor! But really, there are no words. It is just the best feeling. It is incredible to be able to wear the Belgium colors. It is something that I am proud of, and that I will always be proud of.”

Since those first tournaments, Maka has since competed in two Division II qualification tournaments. Individually she has played quite well too. At the 2017 qualification tournament in Chinese Tapei (Taiwan), she scored her first two goals in international play. Belgium would finish in second place at the tournament, while Maka was one of six players to score at least two goals for Belgium in their four qualifying games. In the most recent 2018 qualification tournament, she scored three goals in four games and finished as a plus-5. Two of Maka’s goals came during a 9-0 shellacking of Bulgaria in their first game of the tournament.

The only unfortunate aspect is that in neither instance did Belgium win the qualification tournaments and advance back into the Division IIB tourney. They narrowly missed out by finishing in second place in both 2017 and 2018. Outcomes aside, her international experiences are something Maka places the utmost value upon.

“I have two favorite moments that I will always cherish,” she said. “The first one was the first time I got to sing the national anthem at Worlds with my teammates and all of us lined up. What a great memory! And the second, is the feeling I had when I scored my very first goal at Worlds.”

That first international goal of Maka’s came during an 8-1 victory over the Republic of South Africa at the 2017 qualifiers.

Possibility of Playing Professionally

Along with her ability to score and generate offense, Maka’s best attributes are her work ethic and her character. She plays at her best while under pressure and when confronted with adversity. This has a lot to do with how she has stuck with the sport she loves, despite any difficulties that could have potentially dissuaded her.

“I am hard worker who loves challenges,” Maka shared. “I will never give up – no matter what. And I think that’s what makes me a strong player. Because when it gets hard, that’s when you need to keep on trying, pushing and believing!”

Perhaps there is a CWHL team or an NWHL team who would be willing to give Maka a shot? She is in her early-20s and has completed her studies. What better way to grow and support the women’s game than by providing opportunities to players overseas. Heading into the 2018-19 NWHL season, there have already been a couple European signings with the first Czech (Katerina Mrázová, Connecticut Whale) and first Swedish player (Michelle Löwenhielm, Connecticut Whale) to join the league. Given the right set of circumstances, perhaps an offer should be extended to Maka. It’s certainly something that she has thought about.

“I have,” she said when asked about the possibility of playing pro hockey. “The thing is that I’ve never had the opportunity to do so… yet. I was always focused on my studies, but I have a psychology degree now. I guess being able to play pro would be my biggest goal and also my biggest dream.”

Teams ought to take note and consider contacting this young lady. She would not disappoint.

Rebrand for Czech Ice Hockey reflects national identity

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By Dariya Subkhanberdina – Transform Magazine

 

Ice hockey, the Czech Republic’s national sport, has been embedded in Czech culture for over 100 years. In preparation for the upcoming season, the governing body of ice hockey in the Czech Republic and one of the founding members of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Czech Ice Hockey, has partnered with Prague-based design agency Go4Gold to unveil a new name as well as introduce a dynamic visual identity.

As a hallmark of Czech modern national identity, Czech Ice Hockey, formerly known as the Czech Ice Hockey Association, represents and regulates both the men’s and women’s national ice hockey teams. After 110 years of representing the Czech Republic in international competitions, the redesign has been long overdue.

The former logo employed the flag of the Czech Republic as the focal point of its design, but the new logo, designed by Czech logo designer Tomas Vachuda, uses the country’s official symbol – the lion – for inspiration. Based on the colours of the Czech national flag, the logo sports red, white and blue and features grey shading to resemble the colour of ice. Mirroring the Czech coat of arms, the lion wears a crown, and the six tips in the lion’s mane embody the six hockey players on the ice. The lion’s mouth hides a tiny hockey puck, while the shape of its eye pays tribute to the Štvanice Island in Prague, where Czechoslovakia won its first world title in 1947.

In contrast to the former logo, an image of a hockey stick reflecting a Czech flag on the ice, the redesign is a more distinct and straightforward visual as well as conceptual expression of the Czech Republic’s relationship with ice hockey. As the Americanization of European sports logos grows more popular, European organizations are following suit and testing what works and what doesn’t. By redesigning its brand, Czech Ice Hockey triumphs in maintaining a sense of national heritage while adopting a bright and modern visual identity.

As a self-contained unit, the lion head functions as an adaptable icon that can be featured across a variety of mediums. The new logo has already been unveiled through marketing tools  such as merchandise that hockey fans can wear in support of the team and eye-catching advertisements that feature duotone gradient action photos.

New Format for Women’s Euro Hockey Tour

By Svenska Ishockeyforbundet

WOMEN’S EURO HOCKEY TOUR

Six countries will play in Euro Hockey Tour season 2018/2019: Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland.

Euro Hockey Tour season 2018/2019 will be played in four tournaments:
A 4 Nations Tournament in Hodonin, Czech Republic, in August 23-25 2018. Countries: Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden.

A 4 Nations Tournament in Switzerland in November 2018. Countries: Czech Republic, Germany, Russia, Switzerland.

A 4 Nations Tournament in Vierumäki, Finland, in December 13-15 2018. Countries: Finland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland.

Additional games between Finland-Sweden, Czech Republic-Russia and Germany-Switzerland will also be counted in Euro Hockey Tour 2018/2019.

The final tournament will be a 6 Nations Tournament in Dmitrov, Moscow Region, Russia, in February 7-10 2019. Countries: Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland. These six teams will play in two groups followed by placement games.

Read more about Euro Hockey Tour

Key meeting for new-look Racers

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By Nigel Duncan – The Edinburgh Reporter

Murrayfield Racers legend Tony Hand MBE has invited coaches and players of ice hockey teams based at the Edinburgh rink to a key meeting on Friday.

The much-decorated player, who is in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Hall of Fame, plans to outline his vision for the future of the world’s fastest team sport at the Capital rink.

Underpinning the move is Hand’s desire to develop young, British talent and open trials will be available for anybody to attend. They will be held on dates to be confirmed.

And the former Racers, Ayr Scottish Eagles, Sheffield Steelers, Edinburgh Racers and Dundee Stars player has pledged to be totally transparent in his move to take ice hockey forward in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh-born Hand, who will be director of hockey for Murrayfield Racers, said: “Murrayfield Racers were once Britain’s most decorated team and I was privileged to play for the club.

“They have now been reborn and this is a new era for ice hockey at the rink.

“And we’ve pledged to showcase the highest level of hockey possible next season. The recruitment process begins now.”

Racers have the ice contract at Murrayfield next season and have been entered into the Scottish National League (SNL) and the highly-competitive National Ice Hockey League (NIHL) Cup which, according to Hand, is a big step-up from the SNL.

Billingham Stars, Blackburn Hawks, Hull Pirates, Sheffield Steeldogs and Telford Tigers join the Sharks and Racers in the NIHL cup competition.

The Edinburgh side will play one home game and one away fixture against each other before two leg semi-finals and a final later in the year.

Hand said: “We’ve invited coaches and players from the SNL and under-20 teams as well as other teams playing out of Murrayfield.

“We want to discuss with them the best way forward for the sport in the Capital.”

He added: “Time is short and we have a lot of work to do, but we have been working hard behind-the-scenes over the past few months.

“We’re happy to take any questions at the meeting as we plan to move forward in a totally transparent way.

“This is a key meeting but we feel it is vital that we give ambitious, young British players a pathway to the top of the sport in this country.”

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