International Ice Hockey Federation

City of captains

City of captains

Ukhta builds a hockey tradition

Published 10.01.2018 15:19 GMT+4 | Author Andy Potts
City of captains
DMITROV, RUSSIA - JANUARY 9: Russia's Alina Orlova #23 protects the puck from Sweden's Thea Johansson #28 during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship. (Photo by Francois Laplante/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Russia's captain, Alina Orlova, is the second in recent years from Ukhta's Arktik-Universitet club. She told us a little about hockey in Russia's frozen north

Think of Russia’s hockey heartlands, and you tend to think of provincial cities like Yaroslavl or Chelyabinsk, Magnitogorsk or Kazan, along with the metropolises of Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the little – and little-known – town of Ukhta is staking a claim to become a major centre for the women’s game – as Russia’s u18 captain Alina Orlova knows only too well.

The 17-year-old blue-liner, in her second season with Ukhta’s Arktik-Universitet club, is wearing the ‘C’ at the Women’s U18 World Championship. That puts her in the footsteps of another Universitet graduate, Fanuza Kadirova, who captained Russia in this tournament in 2016 and has since moved up to the senior national team.

Ukhta’s hockey tradition is, perhaps, not the most illustrious. This industrial city of 100,000 people, in Russia’s northern Komi Republic, was the birthplace of 1976 Olympic champion Sergei Kapustin, but his 17-year career was spent entirely in Moscow with CSKA, Krylya Sovietov and Spartak. However, the Arktik-Universitet set-up is out to change all that.

Unusually in Russia, it combines top-level sport with the opportunity to pursue higher education at the city’s Technical University, a part of the prestigious international organisation that comprises the Arctic University. That sport-and-study model is familiar in North America, but far less common in Europe, where college sport is more of a hobby than a career path. As a result, Ukhta is able to attract players from across Russia to play in the Women’s Hockey League, a Russia-wide pro tournament operating under the aegis of the KHL.

“I was actually born in Moscow,” said Orlova, whose playing career also includes junior action with teams in Stupino and the Russian capital. “But I got an invitation to go to Ukhta, went up to have a look at the city and the facilities, and decided to go there. Like everyone on the team I’m also studying. I’m at college just now, specialising in management.”

The chance to play in the so-called ‘Beautiful League’ was an attraction, and after two seasons with Arktik-Universitet, the defender is impressed by the burgeoning hockey scene in her new home town.

“There’s only one professional sports team in the town, which is our Arktik-Universitet,” Orlova said. “I’m not sure if there’s a big hockey tradition, but we are getting good crowds at our games. People like to come along and watch, support us. We’re often close to a full house at the games.”

And what of Ukhta itself, a city little-known to many in Russia, never mind beyond. “It’s a small, quiet, tranquil town in the far north, in the Komi Republic,” Orlova added. “It’s a nice place, but in the winters it can get very cold, even down to -40C!”

The rise of women’s hockey in this Northern outpost mirrors the progress of the game across Russia. On Wednesday, while Russia’s youngsters prepared for their World Championship Quarter-Final against Finland, the top players from the Women’s Hockey League were kicking off the KHL’s Week of Hockey Stars in Astana with an All-Star Game of their own. For Orlova, that kind of recognition alongside the ever-popular men’s game is truly valuable and she speaks passionately about the sport’s importance to her.

“For a long time, I think people were sceptical about the women’s game and didn’t have much faith that girls could play hockey,” she said. “Now that’s starting to change. You can see that from the crowds that are coming to our games here in Dmitrov. It’s just my opinion, but girls absolutely should be playing hockey. It’s clear that we don’t just love the game, we live it!”

 

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