MEQUON, Wis. – This past January, Concordia Wisconsin women's hockey alumnus Veronika Metanova had the opportunity of a lifetime to represent her home country of Bulgaria in the 2019 IIHF Women's World Championship Division II Tournament. As part of the Bulgarian team, she competed against Ukraine, Belgium, host-country South Africa, and Hong Kong while carving her name into the all-time Bulgarian women's hockey record book. CUWFalcons.com previously interviewed Metanova in the video linked below on how she got connected with the Bulgarian team, and she was kind enough to tell us all about her experience preparing and playing for them in the tournament.
Metanova left the United States on January 4th to fly to Sofia, Bulgaria. She landed on the fifth, with her first practice with the national team the following day.
"I met my coach, Dido Lilov, a few hours before practice," Metanova said. "My first impression was that he was very personable and willing to help out. He knew that even though I was born in Bulgaria, it is a foreign country to me because I grew up in the states. He was very helpful and supportive on and off the ice."
"My teammates were very supportive and embraced me as part of the team immediately. They welcomed me by banging their sticks on the ice and clapped their hands. They then introduced themselves to me and we started practicing shortly after. It was nice knowing that they were just as excited to have me on the team as I was to be playing with them."
After getting in a week of practice with her new teammates, the time came for the team to make the trip to South Africa. The team manager, Plamen Vasilev, served as the team escort and tour guide.
"He traveled with the Bulgarian men's team to South Africa for their tournament, so he had some insight knowledge on where to go."
The Bulgarian team had their first practice in the host country on the 13th, one day before their opener against Ukraine.
"We knew Ukraine and Belgium were going to be the toughest teams we would face. I was excited to be back on the ice and competing for something. After graduating from college, it is hard to find an environment that provides you with the excitement and atmosphere that you had when you were playing competitively."
Metanova played on the second line in Bulgaria's tournament opener against Ukraine on the 14th. While it would be understandable for anyone to be nervous in their first game playing for their home country's national team, Metanova instead felt comfortable on her new stage.
"When the first puck dropped, I felt right at home. It was like riding a bike. I had been practicing and training for this tournament, so I knew I was prepared, and I think the adrenaline of playing competitive hockey at an international level provided me with the extra energy that first game."
When Metanova got her first chance to play, she hit the ice running.
"My first shot and penalty were on my first shift of my first game, following one another. After I took a shot, my momentum carried me towards the net and one of Ukraine's defensemen stepped in front of me, so I pushed her away. I guess I pushed her quite hard because she ended up falling and the referee gave me a penalty for roughing."
Having gotten her first shot and penalty out of the way, Metanova settled into her role. In the third period, she helped her team score their lone goal of the game, earning her first assist at the national level. "After we got on the board, I was like ok, now we're making things happen."
The first two games of the tournament didn't go as hoped for the Bulgarian team. They lost the opener to Ukraine 5-1, and then were shut out in their second game 6-0 by Belgium. Entering the third game, Metanova found out that she had been moved up to the starting line.
"Before the tournament coach told me that he wanted even lines, and he placed me on the second line to provide a balance. That first line has played together since the conception of the team in '08, so they had chemistry. When we lost our first two games, coach decided to make a change to give us the best opportunity to win. I found out with the rest of the team in the locker room before the game that I was starting with Popova and Zareva."
"I was excited, but I was more so focused and motivated to play well with my new linemates and give the team the best opportunity to win the remaining games. My teammates were excited for the change in the lineup and were also confident that with that change we would have the best shot to win."
Metanova's first game on the starting line was against South Africa. Bulgaria fell behind 2-0 in the first four minutes of the game, but then Metanova put Bulgaria on the scoreboard with her first goal at the national level at the 6:50 mark in the first period.
"I remember it was a shot from the point, which got deflected high into the air in the slot. I knocked the puck down with my hand and tried to hit it on my backhand. I whiffed, and took a second shot on my forehand which I was able to elevate and it went in."
With her goal, Metanova became the first Concordia Wisconsin alumnus to record such a feat at the international level. However, Metanova was just getting started. At 4:39 in the second period, she scored again.
"When I scored my second goal, the score was 3-1 going into the second, and I scored it pretty early on in the second, so I was calm and excited that we were within one goal and had a lot of game left to tie the game up and still win in regulation."
In the same period, South Africa answered with a goal at the 16-minute mark. 49 seconds later, Metanova scored for the third time to net a hat trick.
"My hat trick came later in the second period, South Africa had gotten ahead and it was 4-2. I remember hitting the defenders stick and stealing the puck away, I headed towards the net, made a move, and roofed the puck over the goalie's glove."
Bulgaria entered the third period down 4-3 to South Africa, with Metanova having scored all the goals for her home country. Her incredible scoring spree continued, as 14:21 into the final frame she exceeded her hat trick by scoring her fourth goal of the game.
"I just remember forechecking in on their defenseman, taking the puck off her stick, and made a move to my left to make the goalie bite, which she did, and then I roofed the puck over her glove. I found success against South Africa by shooting it high on the glove side from the way the goals were scored. At that point, the game was 4-4 so we were excited that we were right there with South Africa."
Unfortunately, despite Metanova's herculean effort, Bulgaria ended up falling 7-4. Nonetheless, she was recognized for her incredible performance and was named the Game MVP.
"It was an honor being selected as the MVP of the game. I am thankful to the people who played a part in the selection and am honored that they chose me."
In light of her achievements in the third game, it's no surprise that Metanova was kept with the starting line for the final game against Hong Kong. The decision payed off once again, as down 3-2 in the second frame Metanova scored the equalizer. Bulgaria and Hong Kong kept battling, with Hong Kong gaining a 6-4 lead with time winding down. With 3:52 remaining in regulation, Metanova scored again to pull Bulgaria within one. As time continued to run out, Bulgaria still needed one more goal to stay alive. Metanova provided, scoring to complete her second hat trick in as many games.
"Scoring two goals that close to each other and sending the game into overtime was very exciting. Our team was pumped up and the adrenaline kicked in. I think it kicked in a little too much for me because with about a minute and a half left in the game I went hard for the puck against a Hong Kong player and ended up knocking her over by accident. I was penalized for that which put my team at a disadvantage and in overtime we ended up losing while I was still in the box, so I was disappointed that I placed my team in that situation. But I can't take away credit from Hong Kong because they played a hard game and they were also thirsty for a win so kudos to them for winning and capitalizing on their special teams."
Even though the Bulgarian team fell short of the victory, the tremendous impact Metanova had on the team was not lost on her coaches. One game after receiving the Game MVP, she was surprised with an even higher honor.
"After the fourth game, since it was the last in the tournament for us and Hong Kong, the IIHF also selects an MVP from each team for the tournament, not just the game. The award for this MVP is a Tissot Watch, which has the IIHF logo and Best Player Award 2019 engraved on the back of the watch face. This award is unanimously selected by the coaches and I was selected as the MVP from Team Bulgaria. I was given that award after the game along with Hong Kong's goalie for that night."
While the first two games did not go as well as Metanova could have hoped in regards to her personal performance, the final two games saw her make her presence emphatically known as a force on the Bulgarian team.
"After the first two games having only an assist, I knew I needed to be more productive and I think the coaches knew they also needed to make a change to help expedite that. So the lineup change, along with the comfort and growing chemistry with my team, we were finally able to string along a pair of games with goals and a genuine fight and thirst to win. Throughout the tournament our team's attitude was very positive and that of a "never give up" mentality, which I think really helped shape the end of the tournament."
"Obviously we didn't get the results we wanted, but the coaches said they saw a lot of growth from us just in this tournament alone, and I was happy that I could help with that and also mentor my teammates in certain aspects of the game."
Even though she was playing in a tournament far from home, Metanova received support and encouragement from friends and family, as well as from the fans of Team Bulgaria.
"Our fans mainly expressed their support through social media, but I was very thankful for my family and friends that were following along in real time back home in Bulgaria and the states. The support was tremendous, waking up to text messages from loved ones who watched the game and who were also posting on social media about it. I am very appreciative of that and that's what makes all of this worth it."
Metanova ended the tournament with seven goals scored, which already places her as the third all-time highest scorer in the history of the Bulgarian Women's National Hockey Team. The CUW alumnus trails only Tina Lisichova at 9 goals scored and goal-leader Mirela Zareva at 11. Notably, Metanova has only played in four games with the team, while Lisichova and Zareva have played in 23 and 27 respectively.
"It is an honor to have made my mark on the all-time record book. I don't personally know Tina because she was unable to make it to this tournament, but I was linemates with Zareva and she is a very fast skater and a hard worker, so it is an honor to be among some of Bulgaria's best women hockey athletes."
Beyond the records and awards, Metanova values the experience she had just from interacting with her teammates and helping elevate the Bulgarian team.
"My goal was to make an impact on the scoresheet and provide mentorship to the women on how to grow as athletes. I learned a lot about the way they trained in Bulgaria and we were able to exchange workout ideas, practice plans, and overall hockey tactics. I am very pleased with my experience."
"This tournament and this week were more than I imagined and I am very thankful and blessed that I was invited to play for team Bulgaria, and that we were able to make a positive impact for Bulgarian women's hockey. Sure, we didn't get the results we wanted, but we showed a lot of potential and I believe our team will be a real threat in the near future for our division. We have a high likelihood of moving up in division and in world ranking."
"My favorite part from the tournament was getting to play hockey at a competitive level once again. Coupled with players from my home country, it is hard to put into words the joy and excitement I felt, but that was my favorite part. Playing hockey with my teammates from Bulgaria and representing my homeland. Truly an honor."
Moving forward, Metanova would gladly represent her home country in the next tournament. It will be a while, but for now, the CUW alumnus has the opportunity to reflect on the experience of a lifetime.
"I would love to play for Team Bulgaria going forward. The next tournament dates will come out at the end of May, so for now, I am just focused on progressing in my career here in Wisconsin. Once that time comes, I would love to play for Bulgaria once again as long as I can make it work with my work schedule. I intend to use this influence and recognition by being more of a mentor for younger women who are also playing hockey in Bulgaria, or for that matter, anywhere that want to represent their home country at the international level. I would love to speak publicly about my experiences and serve as a resource for future generations of female athletes."
"I know that playing internationally will come to an end eventually, so as far as playing professional hockey goes, I think I would enjoy more of a behind the scenes role. Like I said, serving as a mentor to young female athletes in my free time and speaking publicly in my free time about my experiences is something I would love to do. As for my professional career, I love being a police officer and serving my community, therefore that is at the forefront. But I will cherish this experience for the rest of my life and will be ecstatic if I can play in the future."
"Coming to Bulgaria on this trip, my only friends were my family members. Leaving Bulgaria, I am happy to say that I have gained 23 new friends that I will hold dearly to my heart."