How Yeliz Yuksel is turning a conservative town in northeastern Turkey into a hub for women's hockey
Some dressed in athletic gear, others in jeans and colorful head scarves, the teenagers wait for the bus on the front steps of the GSIM Ice Arena on the outskirts of Erzurum. All are girls. All play, or aspire to play, for the Narmanspor Womens’ Hockey Club, a powerhouse in the still-rarefied world of organized Turkish female athletics.
As they loiter, their giggles and gossip orbit around one person, Yeliz Yuksel, the squad’s coach and guiding light. Though nearly twice their age, Yuksel’s bleached hair and beaming face reflects the energy and innocence of her team. They feed on her attention. Loll on her shoulders. And like disciples of a sage, hang on her every word.
Narmanspor (Narman for short) competes in Turkey’s only professional hockey league, known as the Super Lig. The ages of the players range from 14 to 21. In some ways it resembles high school or college hockey. Very few if any of the athletes are paid to play. It is more of a developmental league where the best players can qualify for the national team and then earn a monthly salary of roughly $500. More than money, Yuksel is giving women in this traditional and religious corner of eastern Turkey a new identity, inspiring and empowering them with a stick and a puck.
Yuksel discovered hockey in 1996, while a middle school student in the balmy Mediterranean city of Antalya. One afternoon after school she went with some friends to the newly opened Penguin Ice Rink. It was her first time skating. She slipped. She fell. But she kept coming back and quickly learned how to maneuver the ice. A few months later, when a new hockey coach came to town looking for work, Yuksel was eager to test her skills.
A troubled teenager with a drinking problem and a penchant for fighting, Yuksel found in hockey an outlet for her aggression. Her desperate parents immediately saw potential, enough so to let their daughter join the team. In the end, she played six years for the local all-men’s club, unthinkable in a land where tea drinking in mixed company can still be taboo.
After Yeliz finished high school in Antalya, she moved to the capital city of Ankara to study physical education at Gazi University. She continued to play hockey. In 2007, she earned a spot on Turkey’s first-ever women’s national team, and in 2011 was named team captain.
The team faced challenges on and off the ice. Keith McAdams, a Long Islander who coached Yuksel on the national team, says his squad was often treated like garbage by the Hockey Federation of Turkey. The men’s team received new equipment but not the women. If and when the women got gear, it was stolen by the men. He says coaches from the men’s side heckled the girls and claims that members of the federation tried to control the team through threats. On one occasion, McAdams says, someone placed a gun to his head.
In the fallout, Yuksel, who had taken a teaching job at a local school, fell under increased pressure. She was told she would be fired if she ever spoke out. In 2011, Keith lost his job as national coach after the World University Games and moved to Erzurum to develop hockey in the frozen mountain city. About that time, Narmanspor extended an offer to Yuksel.
Yuksel says her time playing with men taught her pluck and tenacity. “Still when I play, I don’t play girly,” Yuksel says. “Some are scared of contact. But the rink is where I feel power.” The experience was transforming. Now, from her perch as coach of the Narmanspor Hockey Club, Yuksel hopes to give her team the same.
McAdams, who coaches a number of boys’ teams and a professional men’s club in Erzurum, continues to work with Yuksel and the girls at Narman. In turn, Yuksel helps around the rink and translates for him. Together they are their own team. Two nights a week their lineups come together—the ladies of Narman scrimmage Keith’s boys’ team.
In his opinion, says McAdams, Yuksel should get a medal for all the things she’s done for women’s hockey in Turkey. After she was thrown off the national team in 2012, the squad performed so poorly in the world championships that the federation was humiliated. So in 2013, they invited her back. Subsequently, she was elected captain by her teammates. And they won the divisional championship.
“Women want to improve themselves in Turkey. They work hard here,” says McAdams. “I saw that after one practice—just one practice. But men are content with the status quo.”
But many conservative Muslim families in Erzurum are not particularly keen on their daughters playing hockey. There are currently four teams in the Turkish Super Lig, all of the which except Narman are in the western, more progressive cities. Convention demands modesty and propriety. When parents express these sentiments, Yuksel shows them a hockey uniform. Upon seeing how the suit covers the body from head to toe, she says, they relax. After all, as Yeliz points out, it beats the alternative of volleyball’s short shorts.
For Narmanspor, overcoming standards of dress is only the first of many cultural barriers. “Generally speaking, women here are expected to not have social life outside the home,” Yuksel explains, “The girls should stay at home. Get married. Cook and clean the house.” For this reason, Erdal Karahan, Narman’s team manager, organizes special picnics and outings for the mothers and fathers every month. He says that they try to create a positive family environment around the team.
The women spend every day together. Cook together. Clean the locker rooms together. During the season, they only have one day off a week, but even then they are constantly on the phone. According to Fulya, a 20-year-old who has been with the team for three years, Yuksel is more than just a coach. “Outside the rink,” she says, “she’s our sister, our friend.”
Like her coach, 17 year old Kubra — Narman’s goalie — has found a new beginning in hockey. Before she started playing for Yuksel, her grades were spiraling. She was involved in an all-girls gang. A trouble-maker in the classroom, Yuksel recruited her for the ice. Kubra says her grades are improving and she is thrilled to be playing a sport that family and friends said she never could.
On a Tuesday night in late December, after months of training, the Narman Eagles await their first game. A few crouch by a small electric space heater on the floor of their locker room at GSIM Ice Arena. Gradually the rest of the team trickles through the door. Once again, they huddle around Yuksel. Her relaxed smile is more focused as she prepares her team for their weekend match, a sixteen-hour bus ride away to Kocaeli, near Istanbul.
The other teams in the league do not like to travel all the way to Erzurum, so Narman only plays on its home ice one weekend a year, meaning they have an average of 30-hour round trip every weekend in the winter for games.
The team has high expectations. Last season, aided by the play of two Canadian imports, Yuksel’s squad finished third in the Super Lig. In the aftermath, the Hockey Federation of Turkey passed a motion prohibiting foreign players from playing for Narman. Mr. Karahan, the club’s representative to the federation, appealed the ruling as wrong and senseless. It was upheld.
Keith McAdams, Yuksel’s former coach, thinks he knows why. He believes that the federation doesn’t like Yuksel, doesn’t want to see her succeed. It goes back to when she was selected as captain of the national squad. “They tried to kick her off the team,” Keith explains in frustration. “She smokes and drinks. And that doesn’t fit their mentality of what a woman should be.”
Yuksel is trying to tap the slight for motivation. On the wall of the locker room she taped a newspaper article about the hosing. “A Blow to the Ferries of Ice” reads the headline.
According to Yuksel, hockey offers the girls of Erzurum inimitable experiences. Instead of sitting at home doing homework and waiting for graduation or marriage, these girls are out doing something. “Sport gives them freedom, opportunities, friendships and,” she adds, “trips to other countries. It’s giving them another life.”
Brian McKanna is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.