Going for glory: The state of women’s ice hockey in Czechia

In Czechia, ice hockey is one of the most popular and celebrated sports. But while men enjoy the privilege of being able to play in different leagues based on their age and skill level, women struggle to finance and find clubs to play in.

While some might think of countries like Canada when ice hockey comes to mind, it is one of Czechia’s most popular sports, and the world has seen Czech ice hockey legends take on international stardom in the North American National Hockey League, from Jaromír Jágr, to Jakub Voráček. There is no doubt that Czechs are proud of their legendary ice hockey players.

Illustrative photo: Tony Schnagl,  Pexels,  CC0 1.0 DEED

But as the world has seen, hockey is not just a men’s sport, and has gotten increasingly popular amongst women in the last few decades. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the number of registered female hockey players has grown globally by 33% between the years of 2007-2018. Of course, many of the women accounting for this growth reside in the United States and Canada, but European women also account for the number of women lacing up their skates and getting on the ice.

In Czechia, there are 85,000 men playing hockey, nearly 1% of the country's population, but when it comes to women, the number is less significant, just over 4,000 women are registered as players. With this small number, a significant problem has arisen for women in the sport; fewer players means less leagues, and few leagues means minimal opportunity for women who want to play the sport. Milan Cvrkal is the head coach of the HC Kobra Praha women's team. He’s been with the team for nearly 10 years, and has observed how difficult it is for women to play the sport in Czechia compared to men.

Coach Michal Cvrkal in practice | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

“That’s basically incomparable to men, for example, if you compare the men's league and the women's league, the men’s league in general has about 5 or 6 levels, so they players who aren’t playing on the top national levels, still have many options to play based on their skills and age. But in the women’s league it’s different, there are only 25 organized teams in the Czech Republic, there is Extra League, the top level, and it only has four teams, but there is a plan to extend it to six teams. On the next level, where we are playing this year, it’s the first league with seven teams in the east division and seven teams in the west division. So if you aren’t playing on one of these levels, there is actually no chance to play with other women.”

The Kobra’s are a unique team. Given the lack of availability in different leagues for women across ages and skill levels, the team is composed of women aged 16-30 years old, some are even mothers who took maternity leave and came back to play after. Many of the younger girls, like 19 year old Sofie Brodakova who plays for the Kobra’s, grew up playing hockey next to boys because there were no leagues for girls her age.

“With the boys it’s complicated, because it has to do a lot with which team you catch. They [the boys] can be really bad because they’re teenagers and you don’t exactly fit in as a girl, especially if you’re the only girl there. So it can be really hard.”

Players head out to match | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

Not only are the women given less options to play competitively amongst their own gender here in Czechia, but the Kobra’s here must finance themselves to play the game, a task that is no easy feat for working women with other expenses, coach Milan explained. The season costs about 400,000 Czech crowns, which is split between the women on the team. The cost covers paying referees, securing ice time, and transportation to and from games. Each game, Milan estimates, costs about 400 Euros.

So what is the reason that women’s hockey is getting less attention on the non-national level? 21 year old HC Kobra player Adela Nebeska has some ideas as to why.

“It’s probably the gender inequality, they [the women] don’t get a lot of ice time. They would rather give the ice time to younger boys, who will in the future make money for them.”

This idea of women getting less attention because of the potential to make money off future male players is not something only Adela has thought about. Coach Milan echoes the same thoughts.

“You know, that’s maybe the public attention, there is some interest but most of the people are supporting the men. If you have some money to invest into the sport, they invest in the men because it’s based on return of investment, so if you focus on how many people can see your advertisement then you choose the men's ice hockey, and there is not some kind of good support to change this.”

Player ties her skates before game | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

This past year, the women’s league was further condensed. Instead of three divisions where women can play competitively, the second was removed. The removal of this second tier division caused five other teams that the Kobra’s played alongside, to fold. The Kobra’s were faced with a decision: to either step up and play against the top teams in the first division above them, or drop a level below. For team captain Eliska Cvrkalová, keeping spirits high is a critical part of her job as leader of the team.

“For me having a responsibility for the team means mostly having good energy and being in a good mood for quite a long time. Especially this season because we are not really winning because of the cancellation of our league, so we are the outsiders of the league, so it’s pretty hard for us to keep being motivated, and that’s probably my job as a captain.”

But even though the team is faced with more difficult games against more skilled players, their spirits are still high Eliska says.

“Because the league wrote off some teams, or some teams didn’t have the finances to be in this first league, I don’t think the spirit changed on our team because we got to go one step higher in the league. But, it’s really tough playing teams that are so much better than us, they have girls that have played for their whole lives pretty much, and they’re really good. So that is hard for us, and we still have to be happy about losing every game.”

On the bench during the game | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

But it’s not only the playing conditions that Milan and the Kobra players think are lacking compared to men’s, but also the training conditions. The team trains every Thursday at 10 o’clock at night, the final timeslot they could get at the arena. This makes it difficult for many players to come out and train, as most have full time jobs, and some even have families. The result is less practice time for the women to keep developing their skills, Milan says.

“We are one of the last teams to get a slot, that’s why we have training at 10pm working days, so it’s very limited.”

When it comes to the support the women get from the Czech Ice Hockey Federation, Milan indicates that much of the focus on female development in the sport has been put solely on the women’s national team, and not on lower levels.

“Every activity is only for the national team, every support is for the national team and the girls who are candidates to play for the national team, but the girls who are playing in the lower level, zero.”

While attempts have been made to connect with the Federation for assistance, those calls have largely gone unanswered, as Milan describes.

“We have been asking, since I’ve been involved in this team since 2014, since then we have been trying to get some attention and support, but honestly we have not received one puck, everything is on us. We organize, we pay, and we try to get everything.”

I asked the Federation for comment, but did not receive a response.

Lined up before game against Pardubice | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

Blanka Skodova is on the women's national team in the Czech Republic. She also plays NCAA ice hockey for the University of Vermont and has been playing in the United States since she was 18. We caught up with her on Zoom to talk about the state of ice hockey on the national level, and what she hopes will change for Czech women in the sport.

“Many girls, especially in the Czech Republic right now are battling for a spot even on a men’s team, and I think they really just want to get better.”

“I wish there was a better way to develop the girls and have them all together when they are younger, because they would get accustomed to the environment and what it’s like to play on a girls team and to get that vibe of what it feels like to be on an NCAA hockey team.”

Blanka describes how the inability to play super competitively as a woman here in Czechia has forced many to leave the country to pursue a career in countries like Finland or the United States, where a path to further success and more competition is viable. To develop women’s hockey to a higher level, is something she thinks will take a lot of time here in Czechia.

“On our senior team roster, we have 95 girls who have played or are playing outside of the Czech Republic, and for the U18 roster, 50% of the girls are already outside the country, and either went to the US or Finland or Sweden. So how girls can develop better while trying to keep them here in Czechia is a question, probably for the Czech Ice Hockey Association, but it is also tied to whatever budget they might have. It’s going to be a really long stretch to even get an estimate of when Czech hockey can get better enough and get enough support for girls.”

Coaches Vladimír Václavík and Jíří Fojt | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

While the inequality in women’s sport is prevalent, movements in North America where women are beginning to see higher salary caps are giving Blanka hope about the progress that she hopes will come to women in Czechia.

As for the Kobra’s, the women are well aware of what needs to change in the sport, Sofie put it this way for how she sees how societal attitudes must change around women’s ice hockey in Czechia.

“Definitely the sport, men see it as a male sport, and that women shouldn’t play it because they’re not as strong or fast, and the hockey is slower. So the support isn’t that big.”

In terms of what male hockey players and others can do to support women’s hockey in Czechia is easy - get out there and support the women. The Kobra’s captain Eliska puts it like this.

“Definitely male hockey players could support us, in a way by just coming to our games and staying active with us. We have a few guys who train with us and we get to learn from them a lot. Sometimes the guys stay after their own games and watch us, and even that changes our spirit and motivation, so if they would just come watch us, that would definitely be an improvement.”

While the road to equality may be a long one ahead, the Kobra’s still show up to every game with a smile on their face and a passion to play the game that they love, with laughter filling up their dressing room, and teamwork and comradery on the ice.