Meet the Russian babushkas playing ice hockey (PHOTOS + VIDEOS)

Alexander Demianchuk/TASS
The captain of the Ustyanochka ice hockey team is 80 years old and at the end of this year, she is hoping to play opposite Vladimir Putin’s team.

“My friends and I were working out, while some school kids were skating on the rink. They were doing it with so much zest that we became envious. Back when we were kids, there were no ice rinks to skate on. Then one of us said: why don’t we skate, too?” That was how, according to a former schoolmistress from the village of Bereznik in Ustyansky District of the Arkhangelsk region, 80-year-old Valentina Fyodorova, the Russia’s first women pensioners’ ice-hockey team was born.

Valentina Fyodorova, captian of the Russia’s first women pensioners’ ice-hockey team

Valentina, who headed the village council, called Vladimir Butorin, the CEO of a local timber company, and asked him if he could provide several pensioners with ice skates. He went a bit further and hired a coach to train the team: Maria Onolbaeva, a former goaltender of the Russian women’s national ice hockey team, who won numerous Russian championships and took part in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

Maria Onolbaeva, the Ustyanochka coach

The team began to train in January 2019. First, they had to learn to skate, which they did with the use of children’s skating frames in the form of penguins and squirrels.

“None of us had ever skated before. But we all were up for it. I sometimes had trouble walking on firm ground, yet here I was, skating for the first time at the age of 79. Thus, we began to skate a little. Then one day Masha, our coach, said cheekily: Ladies, let’s try it with sticks! So we tried skating with sticks, then she threw some pucks on the ice, so we began to play with the pucks and got used to it,” Fyodorova said in an interview with the ‘Nation’ magazine. As the oldest team member, she was chosen to be its captain.

After several training sessions, the team received professional uniforms. Valentina Fyodorova recalls that when they were trying to put on the uniforms for the first time, they had to be helped by all the coaches who were at the rink at the time. Whereas now, it takes them less than 10 minutes to change.

The babushkas played their first match on February 22, 2020. At first, Ustyanochka had no-one to play against. So, the same coach trained a team made up of female employees of the Ustyansky Timber Company (UTC). Ustyanochka players were more than twice their age, but the younger team lacked experience: they had had even less training. In the end, Ustyanochka beat them with a score of 2:1.

“The stands were packed! There were so many people, there wasn’t enough room for everybody. My whole family came: three children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren - from different cities. I also had many pupils, so everyone was rooting for us. When we scored the first goal, the stands just exploded. We thought the ice palace would collapse,” the team captain recalls.

During the match with UTC, there was even a skirmish between the teams, as one of the babushkas did not like it that one of the younger hockey players had tried to trip her, says Maria Onolbaeva, the Ustyanochka coach.

“I told them: Ladies, if you are playing hockey, forget that anybody is going to make allowances for your age. And then one of them replied: Well, then I will hit her with the stick next time,” Onolbaeva recalls an exchange after the match.

All other matches were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the babushkas continue to train: three times a week on the rink and twice a week in the gym. Also, Ustyanochka continues to play small training matches and is getting ready for the next official tournament.

Captain Valentina Fyodorova’s plans for this winter include a pre-New Year friendly match on the Red Square with Vladimir Putin’s participation, which traditionally takes place on December 29, Yelena Vtorygina, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children, said on November 19. Fyodorova is very much looking forward to the match.

“Of course, we all have our ailments. When we go to the rink, there is always something creaking and aching. But we put the skates on, and five minutes later, all those aches and pains are gone. We always leave a training session happy <...>. If we make it to a match in the Kremlin, we will not be playing to lose,” says Fyodorova.

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