CERGY-PONTOISE, France – After two days in the Women’s Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 3 Group E, host France remains the only undefeated team. Second-seeded Latvia came back from an opening-day loss against Italy and beat China to remain in the race for first place when it faces France tonight at Aren’Ice at 19:30.
The two countries have been close contenders in women’s hockey for many years but recently the French have taken the upper hand also due to different developments.
Ten years ago Latvia was 13th in the IIHF Women’s World Ranking and France 14th. In the most recent edition Latvia fell down to 15th and France improved to 12th. The big difference is the size of women’s hockey in these countries with 2,206 registered female hockey players in France and 101 in Latvia although in both cases the number has gone up in recent years.
France has pushed on developing the elite women’s senior and women’s U18 players with their project Pole France in Chambery, a team that plays in the U17 boys’ league.
“I have been playing for eight years for Pole France. You can start when you’re 16 and you can stay and we play in a junior league. We have two games a week so we don’t play in the women’s league as well,” says Soline Fohrer, one of the offensive leaders in the French’s Olympic Qualification campaign. “Women’s hockey is growing in France and maybe Pole France will move here to Cergy.”
The project started in 2008 and the 24-year-old Colmar native has been there since then except for two seasons where she additionally competed in the Swiss Women’s Hockey League during weekends.
With this project and the league most female French players can stay at home although five players from the current national team compete in North America – four of them in French-speaking Montreal – three in Sweden and two in Switzerland.
Fohrer decided to stay at home and works on her education as a paediatric nurse.
In Latvia the situation looks different. Hockey generally plays a bigger role than in France. Like in Canada or Finland it’s considered the most popular sport of the country. But while in France 10.3 per cent of the hockey players are female, it’s just 1.5 per cent in Latvia.
“It’s a men’s hockey country,” relativizes Iveta Koka, one of the veteran players on the Latvian roster. She reacted and left to develop abroad, played five years in Russia, two years in Switzerland and for the last few years in Leksand, Sweden, where she’s the scoring leader of her team.
“If you compare with Sweden, where women’s hockey is growing every day and they do a lot of work, and back home it’s even not close to the same level. It’s only a few girls who play hockey. There are not many teams and there’s not much focus on women’s hockey in general.”
The national women’s team plays in the boy’s U16 league and there’s a three-team women’s league for the other players.
In Leksand Koka also works for the club filming for the web TV and the Latvian contingent in the hockey town has grown to three in the meantime.
“It’s my fifth season, the fourth for Ilze [Bicevska] and Liga [Miljone] joined us from another Swedish team, MODO,” Koka says. The adjustment hasn’t been difficult in Sweden but it was a different story when she left Latvia for the first time. “It was a huge difference. In my first practice I fell down on the ice a lot because everybody was playing tough.”
For Bicevska it was more difficult going straight from Latvia to Sweden due to the different level of play but in the meantime she has adjusted, learned the language, works in graphic design and in a restaurant.
“Even though it’s very professional and hockey is more than a hobby, you cannot make a living. You go to work and to practice in the evening,” she says.
Due to the lack of players and competition, the team is kept alive by the older players staying longer with the national team than in other countries and by the younger ones joining early. And many who quit playing don’t quit the team like Anna Verhoustinska as the team manager, Lolita Andrisevska and Inese Geca-Miljone, whose daughter is on the team, as coaching tandem.
“You can see that we are one of the most experienced teams,” says Bicevska. With an average age of 26 the team is four to five years older than the others here in Cergy-Pontoise.
Two generations of players compete with the national team. Aija Apsite, 42, is the oldest player. Her daughter, 16-year-old Kristiana Apsite, is the youngest player on the team and is joined by her sister Agnese.
Last time the teams played each other was two years ago when the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A took place in Rouen. Host France blanked Latvia 6-0 and the Baltic country was relegated.
“It’s some time ago but we saw them here and we know they’re a good team. We have to be very focused. It’s definitely not going to be an easy game,” says Bicevska.
“It was a good game and we want to make the same. They’re a good team but I think we are better,” says Fohrer about the French win that happened not too far away from here in 2015.
“The Olympic Qualification went well for my team and for myself. It’s a pleasure for us to play in France in this new arena and we hope that the spectators will come and support us. We want to go to the next round to Japan,” she adds.
Earlier today China and Italy play for the ranking. France just needs a point against Latvia to reach first place for sure.
If both Italy in the earlier and Latvia in the later game against France win in regulation time and cause a three-team tie with six points, then Latvia will need to win with a two-goal margin to reach first place as the head-to-head records between the teams will be taken into consideration, otherwise France will win the tournament.