Olympic dreams in stripes

From Abu Dhabi to Mexico, players try as refs


From national team player to game official: Dana Al Hosani from Abu Dhabi and Maria Fernanda Chavez from Mexico participated in the 2018 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp in stripes and dream of working their way up to the top level. Photo: Toni Saarinen

The 2018 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp at the Sport Institute of Finland in Vierumaki also included a program for game officials that focused on former players who aspire a career as an on-ice official.

Most have played at the top national level, many have already started to officiate games. Some even played national team games for their countries such as Ines Confidenti, who was a goaltender for the Slovenian national team for six years, or 19-year-old Kamila Smetkova, who played at two top-level U18 Women’s World Championships with the Czechs.

Being an on-ice official gives them a new opportunity to reach big goals. Especially for women from smaller hockey countries it offers the opportunity to call games of the top nations at the Women’s World Championships or Olympics.

There are strong facts to believe in this dream. The Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in PyeongChang 2018 included several on-ice officials from countries that were not qualified to play including referees Nicole Hertrich (Germany), Aina Hove (Norway) and Nikoleta Celarova (Slovakia) as well as linesmen Zuzana Svobodova (Czech Republic), Charlotte Girad (France), Lisa Linnek (Germany) and Natasa Pagon (Slovenia). Hertrich and Linnek even officiated the gold medal game while in the Sochi 2014 final all officials were from non-participating countries, from the Czech Republic and Great Britain. And the referee of the Vancouver 2010 final was Hove.

This could be a dream for example for Dana Al Hosani from Abu Dhabi or Maria Fernanda Chavez from Mexico, two of the 14 game officials from very different countries at the camp.

Al Hosani works for the military in the United Arab Emirates and was the scoring leader of her national team with nine goals at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia. Last season she also started as an official.

Chavez dreams of being a pilot after finishing her study in public accounting. On the ice, the 23-year-old is at the top of her career. One year ago she was Mexico’s captain and scoring leader when she led her team to promotion at the Women’s World Championship Division II Group B. Chavez left her country to hone her skills in Finland last season where she played in the top league for KJT Hockey in Kerava (alongside Mexican teammate Bertha Gonzalez).

This year Mexico played at the Division IIA level for the first time. The women’s team is ranked 26th in the world, nine places better than the men’s team. But that’s still a long shot from making it to the Olympics. Still, being a game official gives them a new opportunity to make it to the Olympic stage for them and other participants of the officiating program at the 2018 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp. We had a chat with them.

How did you start to play ice hockey in your country?

Al Hosani: I started playing when I was 19 or 20. I always watched the men’s team, they started in the 1990s. I have a friend working at the ice rink and I love skating, I went there each week. She told me there’s a team for girls and whether I wanted to join. I thought “why not?” and joined.

Chavez: I started when I was 10. First I was in figure skating when I was 8, then I decided to join hockey. My brothers played hockey but it used to be no girls in ice hockey in Mexico, so if you were a girl you were supposed to go into figure skating but I didn’t like it that much. I used to watch my brothers how they had a lot of friends in the hockey environment. I told my mum and dad that I want this too, that the figure skating environment is very different from the hockey environment. My mum didn’t allow me in the beginning because there were no girls in hockey in Mexico but I convinced them, I joined hockey and I was the first girl who played ice hockey in Mexico City although there were others who played inline hockey.

In the last years you also played for the national team. What were your experiences?

Al Hosani: One year after we had begun, we travelled as a club team, the Storms, to Hong Kong. Later we decided to start a national team. We had 30 local girls and chose 15 girls and travelled to Thailand. We played there and didn’t have any experience, it was the second year for women’s ice hockey. We just joined the tournament to know more about the rules, about the teams, to know more cultures. After that we came back home, kept training and in our third year we got third place. This year we went to Malaysia and got second place as a national team.

Chavez: Hockey in Mexico has been growing a lot since we started the team. We had to invite girls from inline so we could play hockey and start a league so we can go to the World Championship of the IIHF. We got promoted step by step. We started in the qualifiers and won, then we stayed in the Division IIB three years and won it last year and this year we played in the Division IIA. Unfortunately we lost all the games but it was a great experience. We are still developing hockey in Mexico and have to work hard so we can get as good as the other girls. We need to train hard and keep growing.

What are your first impressions and experiences of being a game official here?

Chavez: It’s hard!

Al Hosani: I tried it before in kids’ hockey but it’s different.

Chavez: Here it’s way different because these girls are really good and they’re so fast. I mean, they are top U18 players in the world.

Al Hosani: We did a lot of mistakes but we are here to learn.

Chavez: It’s good to be here because you can learn from anyone with some girls who have more experience and girls like us who don’t have so much experience yet.

Al Hosani: It’s also good to get more knowledge about the refs. Sometimes in our games they give us penalties and you think “why does she give us a penalty?”. Now I can understand more. We know more about the refs.

Chavez: It’s good that they sent me here so I can go back and teach the others in Mexico that it’s good to be a ref. In Mexico there are no female refs, so I’m the first one becoming a ref. There are three other girls who officiated games but we don’t do it so often, just if they ask us for help because the men are not coming. But we don’t really know how to do it properly. We know the rules because we are players but it’s way different in terms of positioning and how to move. I haven’t noticed before that the refs skate that much. I want to tell them what I have learned here.

What are the biggest things you have learned here on and off the ice?

Chavez: Positioning.

Al Hosani: And the communication skills.

Chavez: Communication is essential. It becomes easier to ref.

Al Hosani: And team work as well, it’s very important.

It must be pretty hot in your countries right now compared to the Finnish summer. How do you like it here?

Al Hosani: For me it’s cold. It’s 50°C now there.

Chavez: For me it’s not that cold, it’s like a rainy day in Mexico.

Al Hosani: I feel comfortable, everything is good, I don’t feel like it’s difficult because I’m wearing a hijab or I’m from a different country. All of them are friendly here, I feel comfortable.

Chavez: Everybody is friendly, we all speak English and can talk to each other and get to understand each other and make new friends. We’re having a great time here.

Did you have any special or funny experiences?

Al Hosani: We had team building and we were on the same team. The cherries. We played games.

Chavez: We ran kilometres! And we went to a sauna and swimming it was really good.

Al Hosani: It was so cold!

Chavez: Just in the beginning, then you get used to it. It’s really relaxing.

Al Hosani: I couldn’t do it, I would get sick! Even if it’s 50°C in our country I take a hot bath.

What are your dreams as a referee?

Al Hosani: Inshallah [if God wills], one day we will reach the top level. Why not? If we keep working.

Chavez: Keep working, keep learning and trying to be the best. And maybe one day we will work at the Olympics or the top division.

Al Hosani: Yesterday we met a Finnish linesman, Jenni Heikkinen, who worked at the Olympics this year. She said she didn’t believe that it would be happening but one day she made it.

Chavez: We have just started and want to learn these things.

Al Hosani: And actually, I’m so proud to be here and represent my country here and that I can teach my teammates and not to judge the refs that much.

Chavez: We will tell them not to be so hard to the refs and be nicer.

Al Hosani: I really want to thank the IIHF for the chance to be here. We learned a lot.

Chavez: And we hope we will be good ambassadors for referees and our countries.

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