With the calendar year 2017 serving as one filled with numerous milestones for the women’s game, it simultaneously served as the extension of a growing legacy. The ISBHF World Championships in Pardubice was defined by an event filled with historic firsts, consisting of dramatic excitement and a sense of attainment for all countries involved.

While host country Czech Republic emerged with a gold medal, the third country to gain gold on home soil, their opponent featured an ambitious group of American competitors reaching the championship game for the first time in program history. The road to the plateau of the finals also involved the US defeating Canada, another tournament first.

Pardubice was part of an eventful series of achievements, definitely signifying a paradigm shift. Of note, Alicia Furletti-Blomberg from the Italian team, plus goaltender Rachel Jackson with Great Britain, became the first players from these respective countries to place players on the All-Tournament Team. In addition, the bronze medal game featured Canada and Slovakia renewing rivalries. The result for the losing team would be finishing out of the medals for the first time ever.

Perhaps no other country embodied this sense of history like the US, attaining its first-ever podium finish. Establishing herself in tournament lore with the victory against Canada was Becky Dobson. Scoring the game-winning goal in the semi-finals against a confident Canadian squad that captured gold in 2013 and 2015, it stood as a concrete memory in the history of American ball hockey.

Although it was a moment that established Dobson as an integral part of international ball hockey lore, her drive for success would have reached even greater fulfillment had Pardubice culminated with the gold medal. With mixed feelings about the final score of the gold medal game, which saw the American team hoping to reach even greater heights with a golden outcome, the feeling of achievement may represent the birth of a new dynasty for international ball hockey.

Undoubtedly, the US has a gem in Dobson, who balances her hockey endeavors while working towards a doctorate in Physical Therapy. Having captured ACHA First Team All-America honors in ice hockey, along with an ACHA national championship, Dobson certainly brings a solid pedigree to the court. A building block for the future, she reflects on what transpired in a career-defining tournament with a tremendous optimism for even greater successes,

“Yes I am proud, but I would be lying if I said the loss still does not hurt. I keep thinking back to what I could have done differently to change the outcome. However, then I remind myself that we made history, we took a USA women’s team further than ever before, and we can only build off of that in future tournaments. I cannot wait to represent my country again and have a shot at that gold.”

Gaining the start between the pipes against the Czechs in this landmark game was goaltender Carli Bekkering, who also studies medicine at the University of Calgary. In just her second year with the US program, the 2017 edition of the ISBHF Worlds marked her international debut.

Facing 26 shots against the host Czech Republic in the gold medal game, Bekkering played valiantly, as the US forced overtime. With goals from Kelly Foley, Danielle Strohmeier and Tiffany Pfundt, the US proved that their run to the final was not attributed to luck.

Statistically, Bekkering would rank eighth overall in save percentage, while she was one of only six goaltenders with a goals against average lower than 2.00. Seeing action in five games, her 226 minutes played ranked second behind only Czech backstop Katerina Zechovska.

In addition, Bekkering was among five goaltenders that logged more than 100 saves. As a side note, her husband Ross also possesses significant international sporting experience, having captained a club team from Donar to the Dutch Basketball League championship.

“It was an unforgettable experience to represent the US on that stage and I was very thankful to my coaches for handing me that opportunity, and my teammates for having my back.

As a goalie, I could not have asked for a better crew in front of me. Although the outcome stung, it was a special moment to reach the final for the first time in the program’s history, and I feel incredibly honored to have done it with such an amazing group of women.”

For the proud US program, the dream of building on such an unprecedented achievement fuels the goals of its talented competitors. Part of the process also involves putting an essential structure in place for more competitive showcases stateside. A significant factor in this evolution involves the highly crucial presence of the United Women’s Ball Hockey Foundation (UWBHF).

Co-founded by a group of competitors involved with Team USA, including goaltender Alessandra Glista, forward Karen Levin, plus Sarah Wilson, a participant at three ISBHF Worlds (2011, 2013, 2015), and a former ice hockey competitor at Harvard University, this tremendous triptych stands proudly among the game’s luminaries stateside. Along with the input from co-founder Jason Glista, who has served in numerous coaching capacities, the raison d’etre for UWBHF involves many unique facets.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, the UWBHF hosts its signature event, an annual tournament dubbed Oktoberfest, definitely a highlight on the American ball hockey calendar. Taking place in the municipality of Dracut, Massachusetts, located 32 miles north of Boston, the configuration for this event consists of a handful of competitions at varying skill levels, along with an exhibition game where younger players can participate with members of Team USA.

Among the skill levels, the A Division features the most experienced of players, highlighted by each competing team having at least two members from Team USA on its roster. As well, the 2017 edition also involved a B and C Division, plus co-ed play. Worth noting, the Group B winner (known by the sobriquet Red Foxes) captured the title in a dramatic quadruple overtime victory.

Discussing the talent pool on-hand, Karen Levin is proud of the growth that has taken place. Having competed in varsity ice hockey with the Panthers of Middlebury College in Vermont, reaching the century mark in career points (on the strength of more than 70 assists), the transition to ball hockey is one that has allowed Levin to eagerly take on a strong leadership role, helping to shape the game’s destiny in America, while championing its progress.

Back in 2015, there were a total of eight participating teams, four each in the A and B Divisions. This year alone, the A, B and C Divisions featured a combined fifteen teams. Sandwiched in between, 2016 consisted of 11 participating teams. With the number of participants having nearly doubled in a two-year span, Levin is ecstatic at the tournament’s rapid expansion.

“Compared to 2016, Oktoberfest this year saw solid growth in the women’s divisions.  We had seven Women’s A teams and eight Women’s B/C teams.  It was incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to split into a Women’s B and Women’s C championships.

The ultimate goal is to grow the women’s game and it has been a real pleasure seeing this tournament grow in such a short period of time. I am looking forward to seeing what excitement Oktoberfest 2018 brings.”

With such stature, Oktoberfest also holds dual purpose. From the outset, this year’s edition was an opportunity for members of the American Street Hockey Institute (ASHI) to evaluate talent for the upcoming Masters competition, while providing numerous U20 players invaluable experience. In addition, it provided the members of the jubilant Team USA a chance to reunite.

As the most experienced player on the US roster, Alessandra Glista relishes the opportunity to take to the courts of Oktoberfest. Having also competed with the US in the Masters, where she helped the red, white and blue capture a silver medal, it was another footnote to an incomparable legacy.

As said legacy continues to glow brighter, the chance to be surrounded by teammates and familiar faces at an event such as Oktoberfest provides Glista with a more profound appreciation of the women that participate in this growing game.

Discussing the chance to share in a memorable weekend of events alongside her teammates, rekindling fond memories of the podium finish, along with a chance to inspire a new generation of younger players, it was among the most endearing qualities of an exciting Oktoberfest for Glista,

“It is always a great time seeing our USA teammates. For this event, we were spread across a few different teams and so it was great playing with and against my teammates. The talent level of these girls is off the charts and the passion they have for the game is contagious.”

Sharing goaltending duties with Glista during her tenure with Team USA, Bekkering admires her legacy as a builder for the game. Regardless of which goaltender starts, the other is there with encouragement, embodying the essence of teamwork, one of Oktoberfest’s cornerstones.

For Bekkering to see her fellow goaltender work tirelessly with the UWBHF, simultaneously fostering an important sense of friendship and belonging, it serves as motivation. Definitely, such values encompass what makes competing for Team USA so important for this accomplished backstop.

“It is fantastic to see. The UWBHF has so much to offer…we all know firsthand the amazing opportunities that are possible through ball hockey, so it is great to see the sport reaching new people and the team giving back to help grow the community. Very proud of my girls!”

That feeling of pride may only be outmatched by admiration. While Oktoberfest is open to players of various skill levels, along with the incredible accessibility of the members of Team USA, there was a feeling of increased relevance this year. As the impact of the podium finish in Pardubice placed the US among the world’s finest, there was certainly a revered admiration for these players in Dracut, resulting in an almost rock-star status.

Although this admired group remains humble, testament to what makes them such great role models; perhaps the most uplifting aspect is the sense of mutual respect. An enriching example involves the dedicated Dobson. While her journey in Pardubice also culminated in a place among the tournament’s top 20 scorers, such superstar status cannot cloud her focus, which remains on the bigger picture, aiming for a collaborative success.

In awe of the efforts made by some of the game’s more venerated players, such as Glista, Dobson definitely enjoyed the opportunity to contribute towards Oktoberfest’s unprecedented success through participation. Also in wonderment of the game’s growth at the grass roots level, possibly propelling the program to even greater heights, Dobson reflects on the aftermath of Oktoberfest with satisfaction.

“Of course I am proud. What Sandra has done to grow women’s ball hockey is absolutely amazing and unprecedented in the sport. I enjoyed seeing SO many girls and young women participate, many who were playing in a tournament for the first time; and also veteran leaders who were helping out and teaching, it was very cool to be a part of.”

As the silver medal from Pardubice succeeded in raising awareness about Oktoberfest, Levin showed admirable humility, not bringing said medal for display. Instead, the alum of Middlebury College focused on the event itself, proud of the fact that competitors from throughout the Northeastern United States, along with a group from Chicago, made the trek to Massachusetts to participate, testament to the sense of family that is one of the event’s hallmarks.

“Most of the conversations around the excitement of our silver medal win have happened over the past four months, prior to Oktoberfest.  People have been incredibly excited about the results and often talk about watching the games on the live stream.

The game versus Canada was extremely exciting as we scored with just over 30 seconds left to take the lead in the semi-finals.  The gold medal game encompassed back and forth action and a game-tying goal in the last minute of regulation.

There was an outpouring of support from our fans while we were over in Pardubice as they were following the action live the whole week.  Upon our return people talked about feeling like they were there and a part of our journey following along on the internet or social media.

During Oktoberfest, most of the conversations I had centered around the quality of play going on during the event.  There were some hard fought games on Saturday and Sunday, including a quadruple overtime nail-biter for the Women’s B Division.

It was an impressive show of grit and heart by all the ladies that played hard until the final goal.  Both goaltenders stood on their heads and turned down shot after shot in multiple overtimes.  It was extremely exciting to see the high quality of play all weekend long.”

Having been involved with Oktoberfest since its inception, Glista has seen the program from its grass roots, blossoming into landmark relevance this year, taking on both a tortoise and hare persona. Realizing that the greater victory is the way such an event helps to shape the self-esteem of its younger participants, providing them with the sense of what it means to be part of a team and support their teammates; it is also part of a much more profound narrative.

As the UWBHF also works towards establishing clinics, developing and advancing the game locally and nationally, while aiming towards increasing female participation, its core values are the embodiment of sportsmanship. With a growing number of sponsors and top-tier coaches, the passion for the sport and the remarkable events and tournaments organized by the UWBHF (the next shall be Springfest, from April 27-29, 2018 in Dracut), shall be fueled with great enthusiasm, helping establish another relevant chapter for women’s sports in the US.

“One of the most enjoyable elements of Oktoberfest is being able to provide a premier Women’s Ball Hockey event for so many players. We had new players, new teams, and of course our loyal returning teams and players’ teams and the feedback from everyone at the event was so positive. We put a lot of thought and time into our events and everyone is so grateful.

The UWBHF was created to help foster the growth of women’s ball hockey and to see how it has grown two years later is so encouraging. We have an amazing group of volunteers who work hard and think of how we can contribute to the sport.

We have created a women’s league, run tournaments, offered team clinics, skills clinics and youth clinics in the US. We have collaborated with Bauer and Mylec who help contribute to these events.

We also have the top coaches in the US helping pass their knowledge down to players who have embraced the game and continually want to get better. I am so proud of how far we have come in this short time and I am so excited to see how far we can take this.”

  • Mark Staffieri – ISBHF Contributing Writer: North America

     “All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”