GRANADA, Spain – Imagine you start playing ice hockey and two years later you’re on the ice in Finland’s top league. That’s exactly what Spanish women’s national team goalie Alba Gonzalo experienced.
Of course the 20-year-old had some help on her way to KJT Hockey from Kerava, a town 30 kilometres north of Helsinki where she played in the top women’s league of the currently best European women’s hockey country, the Naisten SM-sarja.
The Barcelona native originally started to play inline hockey at school, a sport that is more common in Spain and has more facilities. But one day in 2014 she decided to move to ice hockey where she saw more opportunities.
“I started to play inline hockey at school and ice hockey three years ago with a women’s team in Barcelona,” Gonzalo said during the 2017 IIHF Women’s Goaltending Development Camp that was hosted in her country in the city of Granada.
“It was difficult to adjust. The first time I hated ice. I told my mum: ‘Please, I don’t want to play anymore on the ice!’ Because I was so bad. She motivated me to do it and to help the team because we didn’t have more goalies. After some time I started to like it and I had more interest.”
She seemed to adjust well after the icy start. Gonzalo went to camps and watched videos she got from the Spanish Ice Sports Federation. Playing for ASME Barcelona, Gonzalo was one of the strongest goalies of the Spanish women’s ice hockey league in her rookie season that ended with being called to the national team. In her second year she played with the FC Barcelona U18 boys’ ice hockey team.
“Then I went to Finland because the Spanish women’s league is not so good. We have two good teams but the other ones are not so competitive. But the boys have good shots. One friend from inline hockey is from Finland and played in Spain as a pro and he told me if I want to go to Finland and play in the top league he could help me,” she said.
Gonzalo accepted the challenge. Two years after her start in Barcelona she became a player in the top Finnish league.
“It went that fast because I was very motivated. I wanted to do something. I know that in inline hockey you don’t have that many doors open, so I wanted to move to ice hockey. My goals is to go to North America and play at a university and study. That’s why I switched,” she said.
KJT is a small-town team. It finished seventh in the eight-team league with just three wins in the regular season and lost some players for the upcoming season that Gonzalo hopes will be replaced. But that gave Gonzalo work to shine. She faced 842 shots in 21 games. Only Finnish national team goalie Eveliina Suonpaa from last-ranked Lukko Rauma had more shots on her net (1,090).
In Finland Gonzalo is the only foreign goalie and one of just a handful of import players. Gonzalo had a 92.63% save percentage in 21 games during the regular season that ranked her sixth in the league.
“I received a lot of shots because we’re not the best team in the league but it was so nice to play in the league. Everything looks so professional – the mentality, the motivation of the players, the staff, everything is so different. It’s so different than Spain when it comes to the level of play. The shots are better. It was difficult at the beginning but I practised so much,” she said.
The schedule was busy for Gonzalo, who worked as an au pair in a family and will to start working in a hotel for the new season. She’s with the women’s team almost every day, except Friday is off, and has two games a week. And sometimes she practises with a boys’ team too. “Two mornings a week I train with the boys, have to wake up at 6am, take my bike and go to the rink, which is seven kilometres away, which can be tricky if it snows a lot, and then to practice. It’s a great opportunity, the boys are so good,” she said.
From the southwest of Europe to the northeast looks like a drastic change in culture and climate. But for Gonzalo it’s no problem. She appreciates what she has 2,600 kilometres northeast of her hometown.
“I like Finland so much. It’s so different than Spain, I think that’s why I like it so much. I like Spain too but I like Finland too,” she said.
Gonzalo learned fast and also got an invitation to participate in the 2017 IIHF Women’s Goaltending Development Camp where she was on the ice with young goaltenders from other countries including some on her team mentored by former Team USA goaltender Brianne McLaughlin who got first top-level experiences such as Switzerland’s Janine Alder, Japan’s Akane Konishi and Czech goalie Blanka Skodova. “I want to learn everything I can,” she said about the camp.
After her experiences in her first ice hockey year, Gonzalo has become the number-one netminder of the Spanish women’s national team during the past two seasons. After a third-place finish at Division II Group B level in her rookie year, Spain had two second-place finishes in the past two seasons.
“We have a good relationship in the team, everything is so nice. I love to play with my national team, I have a lot of friends there,” she said. “We have such a good coach now with Christian Yngve from Sweden. He knows everything. We haven’t been lucky in the last years but I hope next year could be our year and we go up one level. I hope it. We will see.”
Spain has won silver and bronze medals in the Division II Group B for six consecutive years and hopes to make it one level up when the country hosts the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship Division II Group B in Valdemoro in the Madrid region next spring. Coming home from the top Finnish league, Gonzalo will face New Zealand, Iceland, Turkey, Romania and Chinese Taipei as opponents.
Before that she hopes that she will show what she has learned at the IIHF’s first goaltending camp when competing in Finland’s top league.
“Going to North America is my big dream. I hope I can find a team for 2018 but it’s not so easy,” she said. With another good season her dream of playing college hockey could become true and continue her ice hockey life on the fast track.
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