VANCOUVER – For once, Natalie Babonyova had a short trip to the camp of the Slovak women’s national team. Born and raised in Canada as the daughter of Slovak immigrants, the 26-year-old forward will make her Olympic debut for Slovakia against Canada.
“It’s kind of a unique situation, and I’ve been flying back and forth to play with the team,” said Babonyova, who plays several tournaments a year with the Slovak team. “We sometimes went to Slovakia as a family because our relatives are there, and I started to play with the Slovak national team when I was 16.”
Normally that means a lot of travel to the Old World. Most recently, Babonyova suited up at a Four Nations Tournament in December in Romanshorn, Switzerland. She scored two goals as Slovakia finished second behind the Swiss.
“I’m collecting points to get a free trip around the world,” she said with a smile.
Babonyova also played in the 2009 IIHF World Women’s Championship Division I in Graz, Austria, where Slovakia qualified for the top division of the next World Women’s Championship in 2011.
Slovakia's great results were due in large part to goalie Zuzana Tomcikova, who shone in the Olympic qualification tournament and the Worlds. In both cases, a game against former top-division nation Germany decided first place. Tomcikova made 36 and 46 saves respectively en route to 2-0 and 2-1 victories.
Because the Slovak men’s goalies haven’t arrived yet, Tomcikova even got the chance to practice with the men’s national team at Canada Hockey Place. Meanwhile, Babonyova and the rest of the women’s team were preparing for the Olympics at UBC Thunderbird Arena, where most of the women’s games will be held.
Babonyova, who normally plays for the Toronto Crush in a women’s league in the Greater Toronto Area, did a lot to get ready for the Olympics.
“It’s more appropriate to ask what I didn’t do than what I did,” she said. “I practiced with the university team in Ontario, I’ve played with women’s teams, I’ve played with men’s teams. I also made sure, as I live here, to get in enough ice and dryland training. It’s so amazing that we’re all here.”
For the Slovak women’s national team, this will not only be the first Olympics and the first tournament with the top nations. It will be the first time that the team has competed outside of Europe.
However, the challenge is enormous. The team lost both its pre-Olympic exhibition games against Russia (4-0) and Finland (6-1). For the Slovaks, it was exciting to play in front of a bigger crowd, as 4,397 fans took in their game against Russia in Langley.
“It was a great experience, and it will be even more exciting to play the opening game in front of 19,000 spectators,” Babonyova said.
The schedule gave the Slovaks their toughest game first. They will play Canada at Canada Hockey Place on Saturday to open the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament.
So it’s the reigning Olympic champions against the rookies. Most Canadian fans are only wondering how lopsided their team’s victory will be. But Babonyova remains determined to give it her best in a game that she’ll always remember as the only Canadian-trained Slovak on the team.
“It’s a unique situation because I grew up here, and it’s an honour to play for a national team,” Babonyova said. “It’s an amazing experience. It’s going to be a great game; it’s going to be pretty exciting. I think we must play the simplest game we can play, and just be patient, waiting for them to hopefully make a mistake. We must play smart hockey.”
At the very least, the record high score in an international women’s hockey game will likely still remain Slovak property when the Olympic opener is over. Amazing but true fact: on their road to Vancouver, the Slovaks beat Bulgaria 82-0 in September 2008 in the Olympic Pre-Qualification tournament in Latvia.