Norway’s U18 Women’s National Team recently brought home a silver medal from Dumfries, Scotland. The 2019 IIHF World Women’s U18 Division IB tournament was hosted in the British market town from Jan. 6 through Jan. 12. Of the six countries partaking in the tournament, the Norwegians allowed the second least amount of goals – a mere four tallies against them in five games. Such stingy play stemmed from Norway’s duo of talented young goaltenders – one of whom is 16-year-old Kaja Ekle. At Dumfries, she did not give up a single goal.
THW caught up with Ekle after her return home from Scotland. We wanted to learn more about this up-and-coming goalie and her hockey aspirations. Already those aspirations have taken her to another Scandinavian country other than her own and brought her to the cusp of playing in arguably the best women’s hockey league in the world.
Learning to Be a Goalie in Norway
Ekle was born Jun. 6, 2002 and was one of just a handful of girls to play ice hockey in her hometown while growing up. Athleticism runs in her family, and although she followed in the footsteps of her older brother, it was her parents who gave her the necessary support to play the game which she has come to love.
“I started playing hockey when I was five or six years old on a mixed team with both girls and boys,” Ekle explained. “I was one of three girls among a big group of boys. I started mostly because of my big brother who had started two years earlier. Since I still was too young to stay at home alone, I had to come to all of his games and practices and watch him play. Since he was playing, I wanted to do it too. I also think my dad had some say in it. He played as a kid and I guess he wanted me to play as well. My mom played football (soccer) as a kid and she wanted me on the grass, but that was not for me,” she smiled.
Following in both her father’s and brother’s footsteps, Ekle assumed the duties of goaltender. In addition to the familial factor of netminding, Ekle also felt that the decision gave her a distinct advantage over other players. The way she saw it – goaltenders were able to remain on the ice the entire time instead of having to rotate off like all of the skaters did.
“When we first started playing games, we changed goalies all the time,” Ekle recalled. “After trying (goalie) a few times I found out that it was kind of fun. As a skater, I didn’t like that I had to change every one-and-a-half minutes, but when I was the goaltender I could just stay out there and play more. It was my way to get more time on the ice. My big brother has always been a big inspiration for me. He was also a goalie from a young age. My father was also a goalie, and the fact that both of them were goalies made me want to become one as well. My brother has also inspired me to keep on being a goaltender, keep training and working for my goals because he has always worked hard for what he wanted.”
Limited Opportunities to Play in Her Hometown
Limited local hockey opportunities did not hold Ekle back one bit. Rather, any adversity she encountered only furthered her desire to seek out other avenues for raising her goalie skills to an elite level. Ekle hails from Trondheim – the third largest city in Norway. Situated at the mouth of the Nidelva River, the city is incredibly picturesque. And while Ekle is certainly proud of where she comes from, she understood it fell short in the advancement of her game.
“It is nice and big city, but the opportunities to develop as a good women’s hockey player are not quite the best,” Ekle explained to THW. “Even though it is a big city, there are only two rinks and only one has two ice surfaces. There is also a one hour ride to the next (closest), which is an outdoor rink. Trondheim has a team in the top division for women in Norway. Compared to the levels in Sweden though, Women’s Elite in Norway is not quite the best. Trondheim’s team – Wing – has only two practices a week, and that made it harder for me to develop.”
Like many young female hockey players, Ekle has spent a sizable portion of her youth hockey playing with and against boys. Once more, she did this to her advantage. Recognizing that women’s hockey opportunities were less than ideal for her, she has endeavored to develop her skill set by playing with boys for as long as she is able to. The trouble is that with the way hockey is organized in Trondheim – as it is in numerous municipalities worldwide – there is an age limit as to how long girls are permitted to play alongside boys. This only furthered Ekle’s need to look beyond Norway for receiving tutelage.
“I chose to play and practice with the boys for as long as I could (in Norway),” Ekle stated. “With the boys I practiced two times a day – one hour on the ice and one hour off-ice; four or five days a week. There is no hockey gymnasium for girls in Trondheim, and from when we are around 16 or 17 years old we are no longer allowed to play with the boys at the same age because of physical differences. That is one of the main reasons I chose to move to Sweden. Most of the best players from the boys choose to move to other cities because they have hockey gymnasiums that are more professional. For an example, the hockey gymnasium in Trondheim has no goalie coach.”
Playing for MODO in Sweden
For the current 2018-19 season, Ekle is living in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden where she is playing for MODO in the Swedish Damettan league. Damettan is the second-highest women’s league in Sweden after the SDHL (Svenska damhockeyligan), and functions primarily as a development league for the latter. Ekle and her MODO team also play in a U14 league in order to get additional training and ice time in. She finds both the hockey and the academics to be challenging, but these are certainly challenges that she has actively sought.
“We play in both (leagues) to get more games,” Ekle said, “because we are a big group of players, so not everyone can play every game. We also have four goalies, so some weeks we don’t play at all. But that makes more time to do off-ice practices or something else. We have two morning practices a week where one of them starts at 9:50AM right after math, and the other one starts at 7:00AM. That morning we take the bus at 6:00AM to the rink to have time to warm up and get ready. First I practice with all of the 2002 girls for one hour, and then I practice with the 2002 boys for another hour after. In the evenings we practice usually four times on the ice, have two games and also some off-ice two or three days. Some days we do off-ice all on our own. Sometimes one of the goalies will practice with MODO’s SDHL team to get more practice.”
In addition to having a very regimented day-to-day routine, Ekle has somewhat of a different lifestyle as opposed to what she would have at home in Norway. To be only 16 and living mostly on her own is quite commendable. Ekle is responsible and upbeat about sticking to her routine for the betterment of her hockey. It takes work, but she is serious about managing her independence properly.
“I share an apartment with a Swedish girl,” Ekle told us. “It is a 15-minute bus ride from the rink and just 5-minutes from school. We eat warm lunch and dinner at school every day. We can bring other food if we have early practices and have no time to eat at school. They wash our training clothes at the rink every day after practice as well. Compared to Norway, food and other things are cheap for us here.”
Goaltending Style, Goaltending Heroes
Ekle has played two games with Damettan’s MODO this current 2018-19 season. Through that pair of games she has compiled a 4.50 goals-against average and .786 save-percentage. While those numbers are certainly not ideal, keep in mind that Ekle is only 16 years old and that this is the purpose of this league – to develop her play and help her grow. At 5-foot-7 and nearly 130 pounds, she possesses good size for a goalie. More than anything, Ekle is a perfectionist when it comes to her craft. Her commitment to excellence within herself is quite incredible.
“I would describe myself as a controlled goalie,” she said. “From early in my career as a goaltender I’ve worked a lot on my technique and I have always wanted it to be perfect. Because of all the hours spent on precision and repetition, I think my technique has become one of my strengths on the ice. I like to have control over chaotic situations, and I try to keep a good position at all times. I keep calm during games and I keep the right positions. I rarely end up on my back or far out of the net where I’m unable to move or make a save.”
We have already mentioned that two of Ekle’s biggest goaltending motivators have been both her father and older brother. Though she does not necessarily have a hockey hero that is a professional, there are some that have indeed inspired her as a fellow netminder.
“I’ve never been a big fan of only one special goalie,” Ekle shared, “but there are some goalies who catch my attention more than others. Henrik Lundqvist was for some time a big inspiration for me, and I’ve always thought he was a very talented goalie. But now I am more into Tuukka Rask – the way he plays and his style.”
The Success in Dumfries
Dumfries wasn’t just about Norway taking home a silver medal at tournament. Ekle’s first international competition gave her the chance to show her Norwegian pride, and to do so at a pinnacle hockey tournament for women’s hockey. Furthermore, the memories and the bonding she was able to do with her fellow countrywomen will last her a lifetime. Ekle suited up late in net for Norway’s 3-0 win over China where she turned aside all shots that came her way.
“For me it’s a great honor to be able to represent my country,” Ekle expressed rather emotionally. “To be able to carry the Norwegian flag and sing the national song at the games makes me proud, and I see it as a sort of reward for all of the hard work that has been laid down to get there. Although Norway is a very small hockey nation – and I might not have as many goalies to compete against as do goalies from other countries to get a spot on the national team – it’s still very nice to be a part of it.”
Currently three U18 Women's World Championship tournaments are on including the Division I Group B in Dumfries in Great Britain, where France, Norway and Poland are undefeated after two days. Tournament page: https://t.co/iRjt2dkRE8
Photo: Karl Denham pic.twitter.com/T9kuZFqO2j
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) January 9, 2019
The Norwegians – in addition to Ekle – assembled a formidable, talented team for this particular tournament. Ekle’s counterpart in net Mia Isdahl recorded two shutouts in five games and posted a .955 SV%. Defender Thea Jørgensen finished third in tournament scoring for skaters among all countries and was the top scoring defender with four goals and an assist in five games as well. Though only allowing four goals, Norway as a whole scored 14 of their own within the same five games.
“Our team is an extremely nice group of people that has given me many funny and educational moments, and many unforgettable memories,” Ekle said warmly about her teammates. “It’s a group of people that makes every tournament motivating and unique, and to be a part of it has given me the opportunity to experience both new places and new people. This year’s tournament has given me mostly more routine, and I am hoping that next year I will get more time on the ice. What I have enjoyed most about this tournament must be the time I spent with my teammates. During the time between the games and practices I spent most of the time with the other girls from my hometown because we don’t meet that often.”
Seeing Where the Path Leads Her
Some young hockey players oftentimes have specific goals in mind when it comes to their careers. Playing NCAA hockey, playing professional, representing their country in a Winter Olympics or a World Championship. For Ekle, no matter where she ends up in her hockey career she simply wants to continue learning and bettering herself – whether that is in Norway, Sweden, or anywhere else that her path in hockey may lead.
“My dream has always been to become the best I can be,” Ekle told THW. “I have always wanted to see how far I can reach, and that is still my dream. I want to keep playing for as long as I know there is more to improve. For now, my goal is to finish the two-and-a-half years that I have left at school in Örnsköldsvik and with MODO. After that, who knows where I will go? For now I have no specific plan, but as I mentioned earlier I want to become my best, so I guess I’ll go somewhere that I can develop as a goalie.”
Some could wrongfully construe that as wanderlust when in reality it is a matter of Kaja Ekle having faith in herself and trusting that life has a plan for her – both as a goalie and as a person. Taking nothing for granted, she earnestly intends to keep putting her best skate forward. Ekle’s confidence is rather contagious when you speak to her, and she knows that hockey will continue to bring her some great adventures and entwine her with some remarkable people along the way.
“Hockey has taught me that you have to take the chances you get,” Ekle said firmly “because you never know how long it will be until you get a new one. As long as you believe in yourself you can do whatever you want, and it’s important to follow your dreams. Everyone has the chance to become or get what they want – you just have to work for it. (Hockey) has taught me that you don’t always have to better than everybody else – as long as you see results for yourself, then you should be proud. And as long as you are happy and having fun there is no reason to stop playing.”