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Local stars win silver at the ISBHF World Championships

One of the fastest growing team sports in the world is hockey. Not ice hockey, although the popularity of that sport isincreasing, but the various off ice versions. Ball hockey, street hockey, floor hockey, rink hockey, bandy, and inline roller hockey continue their extreme popularity in Europe, and have really taken off in North America. This was illustrated last month in Kosice, Slovakia where the top two spots in the Women’s International Street And Ball Hockey Federation World Championships (ISBHF) were taken by Canada and the United States.

We recently caught up with some of the Silver Medal winning members the Team USA Ball Hockey squad. Several of them have local roots or affiliations, and a few are familiar names: Forward Sarah Hughson had just completed her rookie season for the Connecticut Whale in the NWHL, and scored the first goal for a Team USA and earned a Player of the Game Award. Defender Colleen Murphy was a teammate of Sarah’s on the Whale last season and will play for the Metropolitan Riveters next season. Colleen had a pair of assists, one of which was highlight reel worthy.Becky Dobson was a high scoring forward for West Chester University, and is a Cross-fit competitor as well. She was selected as a Best Forward in the Tournament, and was the leading US scorer. Witley Nichols who also skates for the Carolina Lady Hurricanes, picked. Up a pair of goals. And defender Pam Bilger, a former field hockey star at St. Joe’s, chipped  in an assist from the blue line as well. They all offered some great insights into the sport of organized ball hockey and their tournament preparation and experience in Kosice as well. Here’s what we asked. And what they said.

So how did you get started in the sport of ball hockey.

Colleen:

“What is ball hockey? That was the first question I asked my Lady Canes teammate, Denise, when she asked me if I wanted to play ball hockey in Russia last June. I thought it was a joke. Long story short, ball hockey is an organized version of street hockey and very competitive. Everything is the same except you play with a ball and run instead of skate…um ew? Skating is the best part about hockey and to replace it with running sounded terrible. I was completely wrong. I told Denise I never played, she hadn’t either, but a few girls on Team USA dropped out last minute and they needed replacements for the World Tournament in Moscow, Russia. I thought this would be an amazing experience, so Denise, Witley, Leeny, and myself from the Lady Canes joined Team USA to play in Russia. Witley and I also joined the Raleigh ball hockey league which has been nothing short of awesome and I’ve fallen in love with it ever since. We also made Team USA for 2019 and will be going to Slovakia for the next World’s tournament in June. Pretty exciting. Luckily, I don’t even notice how much I’m running because I’m thinking the game while doing so. I actually think it’s helped with my conditioning. Huge relief.”

Sarah:

That’s a tough question for me because I feel like I’ve played “unorganized” ball hockey for so long! With two younger brothers and my dad we used to play street hockey every day growing up whether in the driveway, while camping, or at the park it was an every day event. But officially I played in my first tournament last month and I loved it so I plan on participating in official ball hockey events a lot more.”

Becky:,

I was involved with ice hockey since I was 5 years old. My older brother (a year and half older) played and I was a “rink rat” dragged to all of his games/practices, so I told my parents I was sick of watching and wanted to play.

As for ball hockey, my friend Liz from West Chester Univ actually introduced me to the sport. She told me about it and then brought me to the North Americans Tournament to play and I instantly fell in love with it!”

Witley:

“I never even knew that ball hockey existed until my friend, Denise Rohlik, invited me to play with Team USA in the 2018 WBHF World Championships. I knew that I would be playing with Denise, Colleen Murphy, and Leeny Adelsberger (all teammates from the Carolina Lady Hurricanes) so I was excited to travel to Russia with them. I never expected to love this sport and community as much as I do.” Witley continued “ So far we have had 3 team practices in the States. We’ll have a couple more over in Slovakia before the tournament starts. It’s definitely a short amount of time to get to know your teammates but I feel like we’ve all gelled together really well”

Pam:

I never played ice hockey, only field hockey.   When I graduated from college there were limited opportunities to play competitive sports.   Going to the gym was boring and I really needed game-like situations. Philly Sports Leagues and Manayunk Sport and Social offered Coed Ball Hockey leagues.   I joined a team as an independent player and fell in love with the game. The Ball Hockey community quickly became part of my family and I was introduced to some of the women that played in the inaugural world championships in 2007.  They convinced me to try out for the 2009 team and the rest is history. “

Playing ball hockey at an elite level is quite different from just knocking the ball around un the driveway, so what specific equipment preferences do you have?

Pam:

“I prefer volleyball shoes.  There are no treads on volleyball shoes so it helps to prevent slipping on the ball hockey surface. And the stick length for ball hockey tends to be shorter than the stick length for ice hockey.   The height of the stick should be about at your chin. I still wear my field hockey shin guards (no knee protection), which is not smart, but I cannot get comfortable playing with the larger plastic shin pads.  I have noticed in the last few years that a few players on Team Canada and Team Czech also started to wear the ‘field hockey’ style shin guards. They are definitely easier to run in, but offer zero knee protection.”

Witley:

I prefer court shoes for ball hockey. The shoes I currently use grip the floor well and have some extra padding around the toes. I quickly found out that your feet attract quite a bit of attention from your opponents – whether it’s a slash or blocking a shot, I am definitely grateful for the extra padding. Ball hockey has a lot less equipment than ice hockey. I typically wear shin guards, elbow pads, gloves, and a helmet. The first game that I played, I felt pretty vulnerable but it didn’t take long for that feeling to go away. The shin guards I use are made specifically for ball hockey so they’re much slimmer and have more straps to hold them in place as I run. I recently started wearing elbow pads because of how banged up I would be after tournaments; my pads are small sleeves that slide right over my elbows. The gloves and helmet that I use are the same ones that I wear for ice hockey. As a forward, I quickly found out that my ice hockey stick was too long for the movements that I wanted to do. I cut down one of my ice hockey sticks about four inches and it has helped me out a lot.”

Sarah:

 “ I will be wearing the shoes I use for training which are just Nike trainers but I might bring something else because it is a long tournament. I use the same length as I would for ice hockey which makes it a little longer in sneakers but it helps with ball control I’ve found and feels the most comfortable staying with what I have done for years.” Prior to the Kosice Tournament Sarah had also told us“Running in shin guards is definitely something to get used to. I ordered a pair of ball hockey specific shin guards that I’m excited to use. It felt very funny to run in my ice hockey ones the first time”. 

Becky:

I used to just wear regular running shoes, but recently I made the switch to volleyball shoes and I really like the traction they provide on the court. I tend to cut my ball hockey sticks down a tad shorter than ice to account for the lack of blades on the bottom of my shoes. Shooting the ball versus a rubber puck and ball handling in general is tricky at first. The spin of the ball can be hard to control and makes it difficult to aim your shot initially; definitely an adjustment from ice hockey. Otherwise, the equipment is pretty similar.”

Colleen:

Controlling and shooting the ball is different than a puck, so you have to train yourself different techniques on how to shoot. I use a shorter, more durable stick. I find it easier to handle the ball. I also don’t use tape on the stick. This allows the ball to move quicker and not get stuck on the blade.. Any running shoe that you can change direction quickly works. The only equipment difference is that I chose to switch from bulky ice shin pads to shin pads made specifically for ball hockey. These shin pads are skinnier, more light-weight and don’t move around as much when running.”

The majority of the players thought that the ball hockey shifts tended to be shorter, and never longer than ice hockey. The running component of the sport is the cause off that. So are specific training regimens for ball hockey vs ice hockey for you?

Becky:

“In ice hockey the main difference is the skating obviously, so you’ll incorporate power skating, edge work, etc into training. Otherwise, it’s pretty similar fot both , a lot of HITT (high intensity interval training) to simulate hockey shifts during a game, and weight/strength training to build overall strength”

Sarah:

“I would say it’s pretty similar, maybe shorter shifts in ball hockey depending on how well of a runner you are. Or how involved in the play,  but that can go the same way for ice hockey. To adjust to the running component of the sport Sarah tweeted her training routine. “I have incorporated a lot more long distance running and sprint work to prepare for ball hockey whereas for hockey I prefer to bike, do agility and sprints. I like to keep up with my hockey specific lift schedule because it is incorporated in both sports.”

Witley:

I like to keep the weightlifting similar but I do switch the cardio up from bike sprints (for ice hockey) to hill sprints (for ball hockey). Outside of the gym, my training has focused heavily on the ball. A puck and a ball handle incredibly different from each other so I’ve spent a lot of time working on my stickwork and shots.”

Pam:

The training is similar to field hockey.   I try to focus on speed and conditioning training.   I worked with a trainer (Tamara at Optimal Fitness in NJ) to prepare for Worlds.    She developed a challenging circuit training program to improve my explosiveness and speed while also improving my upper body strength.  I am also lucky to live in an area where there are a ton of ball hockey leagues.  I play ball hockey at least three nights a week.”

Colleen: “Off-ice training is the same but instead of doing bike sprints, I’ll throw in actual sprints.”

What stood out to you the most about the Kosice tournament, and were there any surprises or favorite parts?

Becky:

“I love to play physical and never change my game regardless of the level of competition. I think it is an important aspect of the game. At the Worlds tournament the referees were very good at allowing games to be physical, but not letting things get out of control.Nothing surprised me with our team because I knew we had a really strong roster and we were capable of anything. As far as memories, beating the Czech Republic for the first time in USA women’s history was pretty awesome…and of course Karen Levin’s OT winner vs Slovakia was also an awesome memory! Favorite part was just the entire experience, forming awesome bonds/friendships with teammates and making memories for a lifetime. Least favorite would of course be losing in the gold medal game, I hate losing. Honestly, our entire team really stepped up and impressed me, I don’t think I could pinpoint one individual talent because we truly all played collectively as a team and every person mattered and played an important role. Steel Arena was a very nice venue, it’s important to recognize how big the rink surface is, especially in your training leading up to the World tournament, because it requires a lot more running than the size of surface that we typical play on. I hope to continue playing and remain a part of team USA!”

Colleen:  

The experience as a whole was amazing. It’s difficult to pick out a favorite moment because anything we did whether it was playing, exploring the town, or having dinners together was fun and I made a ton of memories. Hockey-wise, the moments that stick out the most were beating the Czechs for the first time in program history and winning in OT against Slovakia. Celebrating moments like that with the team was a blast. Non-hockey related, i really enjoyed exploring Old Town Kosice. It was home to tons of cafes, restaurants, and beautiful cathedrals. I’m surprised on how quickly our team came together and developed chemistry. It was our first time playing together completely as a team, some teammates even meeting others for the first time too. The play was very physical. That level of physicality is a part of the game at an elite level. It’s also very competitive and intense but adding physicality makes it more fun.”

“The main venue was great and a lot of fun to play in. It was definitely different than other ball hockey arenas I’ve played at mostly because it’s an ice sheet turned to sport court and it obviously had a more stage like feel. There was a practice rink we played on as well which was much smaller in surface size, so there was an adjustment we all had to make when we had games there. Slovakia was experiencing higher than average temperatures which made the arena extremely hot. It was difficult to play in heat but we were able to put that aside and play hard.” “Even though we came up short, I’m very thankful and happy to have brought home a silver medal. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I’m excited to see where ball hockey takes me next!”

PAM:

This was my fourth ISBHF World Championship and the first time we won a medal.   In the previous tournaments I played in (2009, 2011 and 2015) we placed fourth. I can’t to describe the feelings I had when we knew we made the gold medal game and were guaranteed a medal.   I definitely would have preferred the gold medal, but I am so proud of this team and all that we accomplished winning the silver. We had a few players that were relatively new to ball hockey and it was impressive to see how quickly they were able to transition from their ice game to the ball hockey game.  The size of the Steek Arena was comparable to the other World Championships I played in (definitely larger than the rinks we play on at home).   It was amazing to see a packed house for the men’s gold medal game. The energy in the building was electric. l am trying out for the 2020 USA Women’s Masters World Championship Team.”

Sarah:

”Honestly the girls on my team were all awesome. What I liked learning the most was everyone’s path to this tournament. We had a bunch of field hockey players, a bunch of ice hockey players, and a bunch of legit ball hockey players of a range of ages. People who live all over the country, played in college, professionally, just picked it up recently and others who have played their whole lives. Our team had a lot of talent and a really deep bench. We ran four lines of forwards and 4 sets of D and 2 goalies and I trusted and respected all of them. So talented and knowledgeable and all in it for the same goal, we really clicked throughout the tourney and I’m excited about this new group of friends and ball hockey world.” With it being my first time competing at that high of a level for ball hockey I was so surprised with how physical it was. I absolutely loved it though because the refs would really let us play the game and battle other players and earn the ball at the level of physicality that comes from ice hockey. On top of that the only padding we wear is helmets, shin guards, and gloves really so I came home with a lot of bruises. The girls on the team who have played before said that it is always that physical.”

”I loved every aspect of being on that trip and competing in the world championships. Being able to have enough free time to explore the area was really nice especially being my first time in Europe. The food was unbelievable I don’t think there was one meal I didn’t like. Being at the rink wearing USA colors and apparel was very cool, something I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a little kid. I think the biggest surprise was how intense the men’s games were. When Slovakia played the rink was packed and when you watch the men run it looks like they are skating it’s that fast. It really is an amazing sport and I hope the word about it gets out. Steel Arena was a really cool rink! It was huge and very hard to run in haha. I was surprised the old fashion city of Kosice had such an upscale rink but it was an experience on its own just being there. I am definitely going to play more ball hockey! I am a firm believer in playing multiple sports as a kid and that doesn’t change now. I actually stepped back on the ice the day after I got home for a summer league game so that will never change. I will be looking into local ball hockey rinks and leagues in CT for the summer and will probably convince my Choate (where she coaches) girls to play.”

Witley:

I was extremely impressed by the talented players that I had the privilege to play with and against. If I was to pick just one… I would have to go with Hughie (Sarah Hughson). Hughie has been playing ball hockey for about two months now and this was her first World Tournament. She absolutely crushed it. It’s a tough adjustment to go from ice hockey to ball hockey but I was extremely impressed by her natural talent and her ability to compete at the top level. To be honest, every moment of this trip was a surprise for me. I traveled to an unfamiliar country to compete with a new team. Going into this, I had vague expectations but the reality of it all completely shattered those – in the best way possible. My least favorite part of the experience was the lack of air conditioning. Kosice was experiencing an unusual heat wave while we were there so we were all definitely missing the comforts that we had back home. Our hotel was very nice but it didn’t have air conditioning and Steel Arena was fantastic but they didn’t turn the air conditioning on for us during round robin games.”

”My favorite part of the experience was the relationships that I built with my teammates. They made this trip so much fun and through it all, they became my family. Steel Arena is by far the largest venue that I’ve ever played in and it was absolutely beautiful. The stadium rink, the practice rink, the stands, the locker rooms… it was fantastic.“I do have more ball hockey this summer! In July I will be playing in Raleigh Street Hockey’s Summer Shootout 3v3 tournament and in August I will be at Cool Hockey Event’s Beach Bash tournament. As for ice hockey, my focus this summer will be on finalizing the rosters and schedules for the Carolina Lady Hurricanes teams.”

And Sarah Highson, #24 of the Connecticut Whale, left us with this heartfelt comment. “Ball hockey is an amazing sport! Watching it is so cool and playing is just unlike any other sport I’ve played. As someone who grew up playing street hockey with my dad and brothers it was amazing to be able to do that on a world center stage repping the United States. I think the biggest take away from my experience that id love to share with fans is that you should never be afraid to try something new! I would have easily regretted not taking this opportunity and now am excited for what is to come with me and this sport. Thanks again for following our journey! The support I received from old teammates and friends was surreal.”

And sincere thanks to these amazing women of Team USA Ball Hockey tor taking the time to open this window for us into their sport.

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