Coach brings Latvian National Team and referee experience to varsity hockey

Addie Welch, Staff Writer

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Head coach Sarma Özmen stopped on her skates and blew a whistle to call her team across the ice. The Minneapolis varsity girls hockey team crowded around Özmen as she sketched on a whiteboard attached to the wall of the hockey rink, mapping out the next drill. After a short minute, the girls were back on their skates, passing the puck with a loud pop.

Head varsity girls hockey coach Sarma Özmen (middle) explains a drill to her team. Özmen is a player for the Latvian National Hockey Team and aspires to be a referee in the Olympics. “I think she raises the bar for us, but I think that’s a good thing, because it really helps us get better,” said sophomore Lilah Schulz.

With experience on the Latvian National Team and a desire to be a referee in the Olympics, Özmen brings intensity to a sport that requires quick thinking and solid technique. Özmen, in her third season coaching for Minneapolis, grew up in Minneapolis to Latvian immigrants.

“I think she raises the bar for us, but I think that’s a good thing, because it really helps us get better,” said sophomore Lilah Schulz, referencing her coach. Freshman Julia Offerdahl agreed that Özmen pushes the team but is “very positive at the same time.”

“I do not know where my love for hockey came from,” Özmen admitted. “I was always into sports growing up, but mostly played soccer, as there were no girls hockey teams at that time nor was it generally accepted for girls to play hockey.”

After spending winters skating at Lake of the Isles and observing hockey games as a child, Özmen’s mother heard about a girls team in Bloomington and signed her up in late middle school. Özmen hasn’t looked back since.

“I love the game, everything about it,” Özmen stated. “The speed and finesse, a great passing play, the [camaraderie] of playing with friends, the emotions of competition. Hockey has been good to me,” she continued.

Because of her skill and dedication, Özmen has traveled across the globe, often times for free. “Hockey has provided me with jobs and unforgettable experiences,” Özmen remarked. She has coached for city teams as well as Hamline University.

Özmen has been playing for the Latvian National Team since 2006, and loves representing her country for which she has dual citizenship. In 2007, the team took the silver medal in their World Championship group. If the medal had been gold, the Latvian team would have been promoted to play in the same group that the United States and Canada play in. Since then, Özmen’s team has participated in several Olympic qualifying tournaments, with a close loss to Slovakia in the qualifying tourney in 2008 or 2009.

“[E]ven playing in the qualifying tournaments was an honor,” Özmen said. “Since that year, our team has not done as well and we haven’t made it past the first round of qualifications.  Now there is a glimmer of hope for me to make that level as a referee,” she stated.

“That’s so cool to think that my coach could go to Olympic ref-ing,” Offerdahl commented. “She leaves practice early sometimes to go ref games for college.”

Özmen holds a license from the International Ice Hockey Federation and currently referees D1 college women’s games in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. She hopes to referee international games next. “I also think it is important for younger girls to see other females on the ice doing a good job, so I want to show by example,” Özmen commented.

Özmen has been training hard to achieve her goal of refereeing in the Olympics. “This past summer I spent a week in Lake Placid, NY officiating the USA Women’s National Team camp which was the highest level and a great experience,” Özmen said. Since then, she earned a license from the International Ice Hockey Federation to officiate international games. Currently, Özmen referees D1 college women’s games as a linesman in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. According to Özmen, there is a “world of opportunities” that comes from ref-ing hockey. “I also think it is important for younger girls to see other females on the ice doing a good job, so I want to show by example,” she commented.

Özmen must be selected by the IIHF to referee in the Olympics, and is hoping to gain international experience beforehand in a World Championship tournament. “The best thing I can do to have a chance is to do the best job I can do each time I step on the ice and make the most of the opportunities given to me and hope the right people see me work and are impressed,” she explained.

“I’m excited for [Özmen] because I know she works really hard to be a ref,” Schulz expressed. “She really knows very in depth about the game. She knows how to coach well from that.”

“How she practices is how she would expect us to practice for a National Team,” Offerdahl said. “If she gives us that experience then we can look up to her and then we can do that, and repeat it.”

“[Coaching] is a great way for me to tie together my love of sports and my enjoyment of teaching,” Özmen stated. “Its great walking into a hockey rink and seeing the excitement from the players about the game … Hanging out with kids is pretty fun too and I learn from them as much as they may from me!” she continued.

“It is hard to adjust to so many different situations and so many different personalities and skill levels on a team,” said Özmen, addressing the challenges of coaching. “Some days [the players] hate me and some days they love me- and it’s an ongoing process of figuring out how to teach the game and get the best out of each player while also being consistent myself … I’ve spent many sleepless nights pondering something that happened at the rink and how to make the situation better.”

Özmen brings her experience on the Latvian team and passion for refereeing daily to the Minneapolis girls team. “She expects a lot out of us and that makes us good players and people at the same time,” Offerdahl said.

The Minneapolis girls varsity hockey team does a cheer at the end of practice. “[Coaching] is a great way for me to tie together my love of sports and my enjoyment of teaching,” Özmen stated.

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