Meet Nela
by Erin Brown|15 JAN 2023
Slovakia's Nela Lopusanova finished with 12 points (nine goals, three assists) in her IIHF U18 Women's World Championship debut.
photo: Chris Tanouye / IIHF
Nela Lopusanova has rightfully captured the attention of the hockey world with her highlight-reel goals and skill.

But get her away from the ice and you will find she is your typical cheerful, fun-loving 14-year-old.

She loves spending time with her family. “Outerbanks” is her go-to show when it is time to Netflix and chill. She loves listening all kinds of music. Her favourite pre-game song is "HandClap" by indie band Fitz and the Tantrums.

"We listen to it before every game and she loves it so much,” teammate Lily Stern said.

“Yeah, that’s true!” Lopusanova excitedly added in measured, but clear English.

Lopusanova also happens to be exceptionally skilled at hockey, a sport she developed a deep love for from an even younger age.

“I started figure skating on an outdoor pond when I was 2,” Lopusanova said with Stern serving as a translator. “When I was 4 or 5, I started playing hockey competitively. I have no words to explain (my love of hockey). I just love playing it and the excitement of hockey is enough to keep me going. I play all sports, but this is better than anything else.”

In her hometown of Zilina she was also in the first group of players to attend the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend in 2012, a global recruitment event for female players.

Lopusanova said she learned a lot about hockey from her father, a former football player. He picked up many nuances of the sport by watching her older brother, 20-year-old Simon, and passed along the knowledge to her as well.

“(My father) was watching all his games and he knows about hockey more than some coaches,” Lopusanova said. “He really helped me with this because he knows me really well.”

Now the rest of the world knows her as well. Lopusanova will forever be etched in the sport’s history as the first female player to accomplish a lacrosse-style goal at a top-level IIHF women’s competition.

When informed of the fact, her eyes widened and she craned her neck in disbelief toward Stern.

“It’s a great honour to be the first one,” she said.

Lopusanova scored the historic goal in a 6-1 loss to Sweden in the quarter-finals at 16:20, which meant North America’s hockey fan base was well into the school or work day.

Those who were logged on to social media saw and praised on the feat including Olympic gold medalists like Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel and Sami Jo Small, North American men’s and women’s professional leagues such as the NHL, PHF, PWHPA and their players.

By the end of the day, she trended above stars Connor McDavid and Connor Bedard on Elite Prospects, a popular hockey statistics web site. ESPN’s SportsCenter closed out its nightly broadcast in the United States with her goal as the No. 1 highlight of its Top-10 plays of the day.
Why it has taken so long to see a lacrosse-style goal in the women's game is not a surprise to others who have played at this level.

“In women’s hockey, especially at the national team level, the defence is a little bit tighter and it’s a little bit harder, I think, to pull off that move,” said Team USA’s Brianna Decker said. “We play a five, six game tournament, so it’s just a little bit different, but that was an incredible move. It shows how much skill is coming up within the youth.”

As the clip went viral, Lopusanova remained unaware. She was too busy hanging out with teammates, exactly what one would expect from a teenager soaking in a trip away from home. The morning after she was back at practice, unaffected by the attention and doing what she loves most, playing hockey with her friends.

“It’s amazing,” Lopusanova said. “I saw (the reaction) and it was just ... wow! At this time I have no idea. I’m just super lucky. I don’t even realize what it did. It still hasn’t hit me yet.”

The native of Zilina calls the move “Michigan,” but acknowledges the it was really more like a “Svechnikov,” after Andrei, the Carolina Hurricanes forward.

The act of picking up a puck on a stick blade and flinging it into the net is generally regarded as “lacrosse-style.” It earned its nickname because University of Michigan player Mike Legg first scored with the shot in 1996. Svechnikov became the first NHL player to score similarly in 2019.

But there are differences between the Michigan and the Svechnikov. Legg stopped behind the net, turned his blade down and relied on physics to collect the puck before scoring. Svechnikov — and Lopusanova — picked the puck up with the blade turned up to collect it in one smooth motion while in stride.

She has accomplished the move multiple times in her youth league and once against Japan during a four-nations tournament in December 2022. At practice on Friday her own teammates were trying to attempt the shot.

“They were like, 'wow!' They looked at me like, 'who are you?'” Lopusanova said. “But for me, it’s a normal goal. For people who know me, it’s a normal goal. I do it at training day after day.

“(The confidence) is hidden somewhere inside of me. I don’t really have to push myself, it just comes out.”

It is not that she intends to show up the competition or hog the spotlight from her teammates. She just loves trying fun moves she watches on the Internet.

Lopusanova says the lacrosse-style strike is her favourite – “the Michigan is (at the) top.” She’s also a fan of toe drags, behind-the-back or between-the-legs moves all of which she has successfully executed in this tournament.

She equally loves the well-executed pass as well to set up her teammates to score.

“I really like to pass, and when we score and win, it’s really good,” she said.

Lately she finds herself looking to Bedard, as well as NHL forwards Elias Pettersson and Patrick Kane for inspiration, but her list can change depending on the latest trend.

Instead of breaking down a move and mastering it in steps, she practises it all in one go, over and over until it is as instinctual as a fundamental skill like a wrist shot or saucer pass. Once she has figured out a move, she says it feels “natural.” When playing, Lopusanova explained, she does not think about anything, instead relying on the instinct she’s spent so long developing.

In a placement game against rival Czechia, she showed off a few more highlight-worthy moves. With her team trailing 5-0 in the second period, the forward displayed her agility and finesse on the same play.

Lopusanova first slid the puck around the outside and behind Czechia defender Anna Vanickova, then cut inside and regained the puck on a breakaway. When her initial shot was stopped and popped into the air, she knocked it past Barbora Dalecka with a gentle tap with the heel of her stick.

In the third period, she scored on a between-the-legs shot, putting the puck in the top, far corner.

"I knew what I wanted to do, so I am really happy it worked out. I'm happy I could try what Pavol Demitra did," Lopusanova said, referring to the Slovak superstar who scored similar goals in his career. Demitra perished in the  Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash in 2011, when she had yet to pick up a hockey stick.

Czechia coach Dusan Andrasovsky, who is Slovakian, is in awe of her talent.

"At this age, 14 years? She is unbelievable." he said. "I wish her a great future in hockey. She is a great player. She has confidence. She knows how to protect the puck. She sees situations like a good men's player."

Players, coaches, officials and the like hope Lopusanova’s spectacular breakout gives the women’s game — especially the U18 event — the recognition is deserves.

"It only helps our game." Finland general manager and former Olympian Tuula Pupputi said. "This skill is what we want to perform in our game and for the audience, get them watching women's hockey. It's a big thing, to come to this tournament as  an '08' (birth year), first time ever, pulling that trick — and clean."

Like many teenagers, she is already starting to think about college.

“I want to go to university and play in the NCAA," she said. "It’s my big dream.”

What she would like to study is undecided, but asked which schools she would consider attending in the United States, she had a single answer: "Wisconsin. It's a really good team, I think."

With 12 points (nine goals, three assists) in five games – four of which were multi-point efforts – Lopusanova stands to finish among the tournament leaders in scoring. Heading into the medal round, Canada's Caitlin Kraemer and United States' Margaret Scannell rank second with seven.

And Lopusanova still has three more years of eligibility at the U18 level.

"We're going to be having fun watching her for many years from now," Pupputi said.