2021-22 Games 1 and 2 – EV Bolzano Eagles Vs Aisulu Almaty
(Approximately 6 minute read)
After only three weeks and nine practices, I can’t believe it’s already game time. My start in the European Women’s Hockey League (EWHL) began with a two game series against a team from Kazakhstan called Aisulu Almaty. This was a strange off-season: transitioning to a new country, trying to catch up with friends and family that covid kept me away from (I didn’t see my mom for two years!), and not very much ice time. In fact, these two games were my first games, scrimmages, or even 5-on-5 play, since our playoff elimination loss in Sweden last spring.
As many hockey players will I think agree, no amount of time in the gym can prepare you fully. Just like any other muscle, the mental aspects of hockey require practice and I certainly felt the rust in these first two games.
Before game 1, a few of the girls and I substituted the Swedish tradition of pre-game Fika with Italian cappuccinos and brioches in the historic center of Bolzano. But any similarities to the Swedish Women’s Hockey League (SDHL) ended there.
The game started with an announcement that the rink wifi was down. Because the wifi is need to keep the league updated, it resulted in a 15 minute puck-drop delay. We were already lined up along the blue-line for the anthems and we scrambled to stay warm on the ice with stretching and skating around. Needless to say, it gave the start a really unusual vibe.
As one could expect, that affected the pace of the start of the game. We went onto the kill for a slash only 1:14 after puck-drop. We had very little time to practice our penalty kill as a group and about halfway through that penalty, we lapsed. Aisulu moved the puck from the right corner to the slot and there was confusion about who was responsible to defend her. I was locked up with another player near the crease and my reaction time wasn’t quick enough to move her out of the screen or to block the shot. My first goal-against as an Eagle came way too early.
From then, I was battling on the ice and in my own mind. I felt the rust of having not played in any battles or game-situations for months. On top of that, the pace of the game felt entirely different from the SDHL and CWHL. It took longer than I hoped to adjust. I found myself cheating to the outside and taking careless risks like one might in summer hockey.
A few minutes after the first goal, we were sent on to the power play but weren’t able to generate any quality scoring chances. Only 40 seconds into the pp, we were called for delay of game and the advantage was diminished to four on four. A few minutes later, we were on the kill again. An Aisulu player walked out of the corner and took a high shot using our D as a screen. The score became a disappointing 2-0 early. It was 3-0 before we headed into the locker room to regroup at intermission.
Amid my intermission frustrations and unhelpful internal self-chastising, Coach told me I was moving up to left wing, with linemates Sara “Fungo” Magnanini and Eleonora Bonafini, for the second period. Not only was my game-sense rusty, but also my composure and mid-game mindset we’re suffering from the lack of practice. I did what I could to quiet the negative self-talk and mentally reset. I told myself: at least on forward, when your hands feel like stones, you can give a team hell with a hard skate on the forecheck and backcheck.
In fact, the second did go much better. We managed to say out of the box and to hold them to 0-0. Despite few quality good scoring chances, the momentum felt a lot more positive. However, a turn over in the neutral-zone and sudden transition resulted in their d-man stepping up on me knee first. Like two cars colliding head-on, her knee drove squarely into the center of my left thigh. My leg was rendered essentially useless and while I tried to push through, my stride felt slow and effortful for the rest of the game. When they scored in the third, to make it 4-0, the game felt over. Mentally it seemed the team had shifted to just trying to get on the board to build some momentum for the next.
After the game, as my adrenaline wound down, my thigh injury started to feel worse, with pain radiating up through my hip and down across my calf. Of course, we have no team doctor or athletic therapist so I iced it and powered home. The bike-ride and walk up to my third floor apartment was an adventure, but my dominant focus was disappointment in the game and my own play. It was no surprise I couldn’t sleep – a regular occurrence for me after games.
The next day, I tried to watch the game back. Game tape is an invaluable tool that I heavily rely on for self-improvement, but that also turned out to be a frustrating impossibility. Perhaps the camera-operator had a screen showing them a different angle because the camera missed nearly every goal and the majority of the play.
For the second game of this series against Almaty, we were not sure where we were even playing until days before the game. There was talk of playing another match at our home rink and I personally was hoping for the opportunity to visit Kazhakstan. Instead, we climbed onto a bus for a six-hour trip to Zeltweg, Austria.
Before we even left for the trip, I discovered we were missing four-key players. Injuries, work conflicts, and the last minute notice of travel were all to blame, but it was a foreboding sign for our chance to redeem ourselves.
One saving grace was that the drive was absolutely breath taking. Picturesque mountains and cow grazed grasslands with quaint Austrian architecture of flower laden wooden balconies. Once we arrived, an eagle circled above us as we did our off-ice warm up.
Minutes before the game, I was told I would be starting out on right wing. The unfamiliar position, both offense and my off-side, had me thinking hard positionally in ways that have become very automatic and intuitive on defense. I found myself hesitating on transition and making silly mistakes, but things were already feeling better than the first game and my young linemates, Marta Mazzocchi and Anna Callovini, were very encouraging.
Any momentum we started with was, unfortunately, short-lived. Early in the first, a rebound dropped in our crease and was wrestled in by Almaty. We responded with a solid-push, but a miscommunication below the offensive-zone-goal-line left us with an exposing turn-over on the very next shift. Not even thirty seconds after the first goal-against, on the resulting rush of that turn-over, a shot from the dot flew past our screened goalie. We were down 2-0 early, once again.
The team rallied well and stayed motivated. I was called for a slash on a stick-on-stick play on the back-check, but the team was able to kill it off. Contact rules have been quite different in each league I’ve played in. So far, it seems that less contact of any kind is allowed here and I will have to factor that into my play for the games to come. In the second period, we again held strong, and kept them to 0-0. However, about two minutes into the third, Almaty came back with another goal. Ultimately we lost 5-0.
Probably out of sympathy for my adjustment to playing forward, a teammate awarded me the plastic shield and sword for the team Warrior of the Game, but I’d much rather be headed back for the long bus ride with a win.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve had a 0-2 start. We don’t yet have access to a gym and we haven’t played any scrimmages. In fact, we haven’t even had a single practice with the entire squad present. But, I’m hopeful for the season. The team has a great attitude and work ethic and we have a lot of potential for growth. We are now mid-way through a two week break for the Olympic pre-qualification tournament, but will return to our home ice for our next game against the KSV Neuberg Highlanders on October 16th.
I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.