Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Turkish Delight: Positive hopes for women's hockey in Turkey

Turkey vs Canada at the 25th Winter Universidae in 2011

 Happy hockey season everyone! Here’s wishing all of you a safe and successful season that is filled with big wins, great team mates, and only limited stenches from smelly equipment. Every new season brings with it new opportunities to grow the sport both here in North America and worldwide and to promote it so that it reaches places that are farther and wider than ever before. At first I thought that the concept of growing women’s hockey internationally was pretty simple – get some equipment and some willing volunteers, send them to various countries to introduce and promote the sport, and work with the participants who show the most skill and enthusiasm to form a team or perhaps even a league. My recent family vacation to Turkey was amazing and educational in many ways, none more so than the way it changed my perspective on what it means to be a woman in sport.

Let me start by saying that Turkey is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to. The people, the places, the weather, the lifestyle, and the food (pigging out for 3 weeks right before the start of hockey season wasn’t my finest decision!) are all second to none. The city of Istanbul alone is home to over 13 million people. And judging by the traffic and concentration of pedestrians, I think all 13 million plus are out enjoying life every night! The mosques are breathtaking, the museums are historic, and there is nothing more humbling and calming than listening to the Azan (Muslim call of prayer) while swimming in the Mediterranean.

Prior to leaving for Turkey I did some digging on the caliber of women’s hockey that was being played there. I was surprised to discover that Turkey has a national women’s ice hockey team that is currently ranked 35th by the IIHF. Their players play on teams at Turkish Universities or on club teams based in the northern part of the country. They finished the 2011 Women’s World Hockey Champhionships in 4th place in Division V – ahead of Ireland, and behind Poland, Spain, and Bulgaria. Though they have never qualified for the Olympics and have never played any higher than Div.V at the Worlds, the city of Erzurum did host the 25th Winter Universidae in 2011, and they did submit a women’s hockey team for the competition. The team was unable to score a goal throughout the tournament and they were defeated by large margins (15-0 to USA and 32-0 to Finland) but they were still supported strongly by the home fans.

“I am proud to play for Turkey,” said 22-year old forward Çağla Baktıroğlu. “We are learning a lot. We won’t be number one but we will improve. When you play with a good team you become better.”

Baktıroğlu’s team mate Çağla Sevgili went on to make an astute observation that plagues many of the lower-tiered nations in women’s hockey. “The US has 45,000 players,” she says. “In contrast, Turkey has 150. They pick the best among them, while we have limited options.” To an outsider the Turkish national team’s prospects may look bleak. And they did to me too until I went to Turkey, saw their culture first hand, and realized A) How far their women have come in society, B) How empowered they are, and C) What an accomplishment it is for them to have a women’s hockey team in the first place.

Over the years, much has been publicized in the media about the role of women in Muslim countries but, at the risk of being wrongfully influenced by possible biases, I chose to approach Turkey with an open mind. There were some surprises both ways. One thing that stuck out right away to me was the respect that the women had for themselves. There was about a 50-50 split of women who wore a headscarf and women who did not. Even those who did not, however, were still dressed respectfully. They were well-covered and did not showcase their bodies in an overt way, they spoke well, were trendy, educated, and independent-minded. Certain aspects about their culture certainly made me realize and appreciate the challenges their hockey players must encounter as they attempt to pursue and grow their sport. A shopping trip to a large Adidas store in the heart of Istanbul, for example, revealed that they don’t sell too many styles of shorts. They prefer for the women to work out in long pants. The majority of posters of professional athletes endorsing different clothing brands featured males only. There were no notable female athletes such as Serena Williams or Abby Wambach featured on any of the Nike ads. Though more and more girls are pursuing educations and careers there is still a large emphasis on getting married young and starting families. The traditional life path of women leaves little time for pursuing a career as an athlete. In general, there isn’t a culture for ice hockey in Turkey. As we all know, being an ice hockey player requires a certain aggressiveness and vocality that isn’t exactly part of the blueprint of Turkish women.

Witnessing this is when I realized that for current members of the national team, growing the sport is not simply about coaching and exposure. They literally have to shift an entire set of cultural practices that have been in place for centuries. It will take time. Improving a team’s passing, shooting, and skating are simple enough to do. Opening them up to a new way of thinking and getting them to discover and embrace this passion that they never knew they had might be harder. It will happen, as it always does, through the trailblazing done by their own current players. Çağla Sevgili of the national team is a student at Turkey’s Kocaeli University and is a great ambassador for the sport. She makes sure to recommend skating to everyone she meets and describes it as being “free despite the fact that you skate within a limited area.” Sending a Canadian or American to Turkey is not the answer to growing the game. The face of the sport must be a local. Anyone else will be seen as an outsider who doesn’t recognize the values and traditions of Turkey. It must be the local girls and women, through their modern ways of thinking and their vibrant and youthful personalities, who must appeal to those around them and inspire them to give hockey a try. Similar stories exist in soccer. It was the Canadian women’s national team’s coach John Herdman from England who changed the program and led it to its historic bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. But the face of the team and the one who inspires young girls to lace up the cleats is a local – Christine Sinclair. Same goes for the US team. Pia Sundhage of Sweden was the mastermind coach behind their gold medal. But Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and Alex Morgan are the heroes in the eyes of young girls.

Congratulations are in order to all members of the Turkish women’s national hockey team for getting this far already. Passion is like a flame. It just needs to catch fire and, before we know it, it’ll spread beyond anything we ever imagined. And nothing can torch that fire. In return for their amazing hospitality, I give to the people of Turkey my best wishes for continued growth in all areas, and I truly hope that some day soon, the red and white of Canada will join forces with the red and white of Turkey to produce a prosperous women’s hockey program that will change lives, inspire growth, and create history.