Swapping skates and winning bronze
by Liz Montroy|19 OCT 2022
Karolina Erbanova competes for Czechia at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images

Karolina Erbanova is used to going fast – so fast that she was awarded a bronze medal for her 500-metre speed skate time at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

After 12 years of speed skating, Erbanova traded her clap skates in for hockey skates, and is now a bronze medallist with Czechia at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. 

“It’s a team sport, so you just accept your role and be in that role and support the team,” Erbanova said of the differences between her two podium finishes. “To be in that team energy before the game, that’s really something I have been working on. It’s really a team, and when I was in speed skating, you’re on a line all alone, always. If you lose, you lose alone. If you win, you win alone. But to experience this, it has always been my dream.”

While her two sports share some similarities – ice, skates, and moving fast – Erbanova said that transitioning between the two can be challenging.

“The [speed skating] boots are lower, they’re actually not higher than above your ankles, so that was hard. Also the blades are just way longer in speed skating,” said Erbanova. “Turning right was hard. It’s not anymore, but all the changes in direction is pretty much tough. Also I cannot use my arms, they are always down, looking for the puck. And way too many people around me, like way too many. In speed skating if you have body contact it means someone is falling and it’s going to get ugly, because we go very fast. Here it’s pretty much normal every shift.”

Czechia’s Karolina Erbanova skated to a bronze medal at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
photo: Jason Evans / Comité International Olympique (CIO)
Erbanova announced her retirement from speed skating the summer after the PyeongChang Olympics, and made her debut with Czechia’s national hockey team this season, returning to the first ice sport she participated in as a child.

“I was playing hockey for three years, until I was 14, and at that time let’s say the Czech women’s ice hockey, I didn’t think it would hit the Olympics any time soon,” said Erbanova. “I really really wanted to go to the big event and of course the Olympics. The chance to go to the camp with the speed skating team came and I just took it.”

Erbanova skated at three Olympics, making her first appearance in 2010 at 17 years old and competing in the 500-metre, 1000-metre and 1500-metre events. The opportunity to return to ice hockey came when a club from her hometown of Vrchlabi asked her to help coach. 

“I didn’t really quite look for the hockey, but hockey really called me back,” said Erbanova. “A hockey coach and manager asked if I could maybe help a few players with skating so I thought okay, let’s do that. Of course I had to get the skates, the gloves, the stick, and from then it was just downhill. I was in love all over again.”
Erbanova is one of a few hockey players to compete at an elite level in more than one sport. Hayley Wickenheiser, for example, was on Canada’s softball team at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Swiss players Kathrin Lehmann and Camille Balanche transitioned to other sports during and after their hockey careers respectively, with Lehmann being both a hockey forward and a football goalie, and Balanche winning World Championship mountain bike gold. Ester Ledecka, while not a hockey player, is also from Czechia, and won gold medals in both alpine skiing and snowboard at the 2018 Olympics.

“In sport, in life, anything you want to achieve – in anything, it doesn’t have to be sport – it’s going to be hard,” said Erbanova. “If you want to be the best in something, there are going to be obstacles. But you just cannot lose the passion for the sport and belief in your path. That has helped me in speed skating and also in hockey.”

In 2019/20, her first full season back in hockey, Erbanova played for HC Manki Jicin in the third Czech women’s league, scoring 43 goals and 18 assists through 13 games. In 2021/22 she made the jump to Sweden’s Division I league, playing for Almtuna IS. She was first named to the national team for the Olympic Qualification tournament, and while she rose to the national level quickly, it wasn’t easy. 

“I was like, this is not going to work, probably,” Erbanova said of how she was feeling during her first national team camp. “This is too much, I don’t have time to really jump into the other sport.” But the legacy she knew she could leave kept her in it.

“When I was 14, I really didn’t know any girl who played hockey. Now I can see in Czechia, we have camps for the girls. We see the community is building. That is for me also one of the reasons why I came back. I don’t want that girl who is now 13 to feel same way that I felt when I was 13, because I truly felt like I’m alone.”

Erbanova was not on Czechia’s debut Olympic roster, but was at the top of the list of substitutes for if the team produced any positive Covid tests. The Czechs did not need to call upon her for help, but she did make the roster for the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, where she lined up on Czechia’s fourth line with Agata Sarnovska and Kristyna Patkova. Erbanova isn’t concerned that her line didn’t produce goals the way the line of Adela Sapovalivova, Katerina Mrazova and Natalie Mlynkova did. She understands her role and is focused on doing whatever she needs to do to help her team.

“Just playing my role, really,” Erbanova said of what her goal was for herself at the World Championship. “If I’m put in a game, I just want to do what my position is. I really want to help the team.”
Czechia's Karolina Erbanova receives her bronze medal from IIHF Council member Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
In June, Erbanova signed with HPK Hameenlinna, a team in Finland’s Naisten Liiga. She’s hoping that this will help her continue to improve her game. 

“I’m using [my speed] as my biggest strength, so forecheck, backcheck, that’s my thing, and I would like to add the puck to it very soon so I can also create something,” said Erbanova. “I’m trying to combine my speed with actual gameplay. I’m really excited because the league is a little higher [than Sweden's Division 1]. As with here, I’m just growing every day with these girls, training-wise, game-wise, because you get a team.”  

With her love of hockey at an all time high, Erbanova thinks she’ll be involved in this ice sport for a long time yet.

“I see now the women players becoming coaches, for me that is amazing. When I see in the NHL, the women in hockey are getting important positions in the team. For [Czechia], we have a first time female head coach. That has been a truly amazing experience to see someone like that working with the team. So I think we need to also stay in the sport after the career. That has helped me so much and I believe it can also help the other kids and other generations.”

“I hope my story is going to leave something behind, truly.”