Hockey brought Lara Escudero (left) and Estelle Duvin (right) to Turku. Bikes take them around Turku.
Kuva © Timo Savela

The French Connection: Estelle Duvin and Lara Escudero came to Finland to develop as players

Estelle Duvin, 23, and Lara Escudero, 27, moved from France to Finland to develop as players. They chose TPS because the team was willing to sign them both. The French national team players have been happy with their training conditions and with the level of play in Naisten Liiga. They are both accustomed to leading a life abroad and seem to enjoy their new surroundings, riding around Turku on their old fashioned bikes.

Estelle Duvin, 23, and Lara Escudero, 27, both started playing hockey before they were ten years old. Both saw others play hockey and were instantly hooked by what they saw on ice. However, it took a bit of convincing before their parents allowed them to play the game.

– I started playing hockey when I was four. My brother was playing hockey and I was at the rink all the time. I asked my parents if I could also play but they said that it's for boys. They wanted me to do figure skating but I didn't want that. I kept telling them that I wanted to play until they let me play, said Duvin.

– I started at the age of nine. My sister did synchronized skating. I spent a lot of time at the rink. I saw some guys playing hockey and asked my mom if I could do that. She told me no. She made me wait for a year until she let me play, stated Escudero.

"I kept telling them that I wanted to play until they let me play"

Both Duvin and Escudero first played locally in northern France, but then moved to attend the national training center for women's hockey, the Pôle France Féminin, which was then located in Chambéry, near the Alps in Southeastern France. Duvin was subsequently accepted to enroll in the University of Maine, in Orono, Maine, but she was forced to find another team due to certain discrepancies between the French and the US education systems.

– I played with boys in Dunkirk, where I'm from, from the age of 4 to the age of 15. I was in high school while playing at the national training center for women's hockey. From there I went to the US, to play college hockey at the University of Maine. I was there only for one year. I was not allowed to play, so I only trained there. I then moved to Canada, to play at the University of Montréal. I received my bachelor's degree in sociology and psychology while playing there, elaborated Duvin.

– I didn't play at the University of Maine because the entrance grading requirements are different from what they are in France. You need to have passed all high school courses in the US, whereas in France it is possible to fail one course but do well in other courses so that the average grade still remains high. It was easier to for me go to Montréal and speak French. It's closer to the system in France, clarified Duvin.

Duvin (left) and Escudero (right) seek to challenge themselves on ice.
Kuva © Timo Savela

Escudero also planned to play in North America, but she returned to Europe only after one season in Canada. She chose to study in France and to play in Switzerland.

– I started out in Valenciennes, in the north of France. From there I went to the national training center while attending university. I spent four years there. I then moved to Montréal to play at a prep school. I came back to Europe after one season because I didn't get a full scholarship to play at a university in North America. My parents were willing to give me the money but I thought it was just too much, so I came back, explained Escudero.

– I was living near the France-Switzerland border, so instead of playing in France I decided to play in Switzerland. I spent the whole week in France, studying and training at the national training center, but each weekend I went to play [for EV Bomo Thun] in the Swiss league [SWHL A]. I did that for two years. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in accounting, my coach, [Steve Huard], asked me if I wanted to move and play in Lugano, where he had moved. The season in Lugano was a very good for me as I could concentrate on playing, added Escudero.

Not everything worked out great in Switzerland and after three seasons Escudero found herself working, training and playing on the French side of the border. This arrangement was, however, only temporary as she wished to play abroad again.

– I decided to move back to France after there were some problems with my contract. I worked for an accounting firm for one year while training and playing with boys and girls [at Hockey Club 74]. It was a tough year for me because I was working full time. It was also a bit weird for me, being 26 and playing with boys under the age of 17. You are more like a big sister to them than a teammate, noted Escudero.

– While working, I was looking for opportunities to play abroad, mainly in Finland and in Russia. I talked to Matti [Tähkäpää, the TPS head coach,] and decided to come here, to Turku, clarified Escudero.

New season, new team

Duvin and Escudero ran into troubles trying to find a suitable team abroad. Coronavirus made planning hard not only for them but also for the teams they approached. They had other options besides TPS, but, in the end, opting to play in Turku was, overall, the best choice for them.

– We talked with a Swedish team, but this summer, with coronavirus, it was a bit difficult to make any decisions because all the coaches were saying that they don't know yet if the season is even going to start. Instead of waiting, it was easier for us to make the decision to play here, knowing that the situation was not so bad in Finland. We knew that Finland is a country where hockey is probably going to start normally, explained Duvin.

– We were looking for a team together. We had some options, but it was not so easy to get a contract for two French players. For example, a lot of Swedish teams are looking for American and Canadian players. We also talked with a Russian team, but they quickly told us that they won't sign any import players this season. TPS told us that they wanted both of us, so it was a good option for us, added Escudero.

TPS offers the French national team players plenty of practice.
Kuva © Timo Savela

It is important for both Duvin and Escudero that the training and playing conditions are up to their standards as both emphasize that they want to develop as players.

– Team France takes part in the Olympic qualifications next summer. That's probably my last chance to be part of that, so the point was to find a team where we can have good conditions and plenty of time on ice. We looked at how TPS did last season and compared it with what the coaching staff have put in place for this season. The training conditions are good and I think we can have a good season here, stated Escudero.

"we really get more time to work on the details"

For them, the conditions in Turku are what they are used to, if not better, at least in some respects. There is plenty of on-ice training, which also makes it possible for the team to focus on various aspects of the game, rather than only on the bare necessities.

– In the past I haven't spent so much time on ice, maybe three times a week in training and two games over the weekend. This year it's four times a week with the team, plus two times a week doing power skating or shooting. When I played in Switzerland, the practice times were between 8 to 9 pm, so it was very late. Here we are already done before 9 pm, stated Escudero.

– I think the conditions here are perfect for improving ourselves. There's plenty of ice time and we have a lot of specific drills in training, like power skating and shooting. For me it's almost the same as it was at the university where we were on ice every day. The difference is that there are more specific sessions here than there were in Montréal. We had one power skating session per week in Canada but no training in shooting, added Duvin.

The attention to detail is what both players particularly appreciate in their new surroundings. In their view, this is also complemented by the ever present coaching staff.

– In the mornings there are maybe six or seven players for one coach, so we really get more time to work on the details. Communication is very important, especially between the coaches and the players, noted Escudero.

– We have good coaching staff, a power skating coach, a shooting coach, a goalie coach, a lot of people on the ice, said Duvin.

Both players appreciate the opportunities to develop their individual skills in practice.
Kuva © Timo Savela

The presence of the whole staff is important, not only the presence of the coaching staff, but this is not a given in women's hockey.

– Everything on the team looks professional. We have good staff here. When we have a game on the road, Juffe [equipment manager Juho Lehtisalo] comes with us. When I played in Switzerland, we didn't have that, for example someone to sharpen our skates in the away games, stated Escudero.

Both Duvin and Escudero started off strong with the team in Naisten Liiga. In their first five games, placed in the first line, alongside Pauliina Salonen, Duvin scored two goals and assisted three others, whereas Escudero netted four goals and one assist. Both players are happy with the league, albeit for their own reasons.

– I didn't expect the league to be this good. I was walking through some games last season, but here the level is quite good. There are some very good teams. It keeps things interesting, said Escudero.

– The biggest difference is that here we play against ten different teams whereas in Canada we played against four provincial teams, five times each. It was a bit repetitive, noted Duvin.

The time in-between

Playing and practicing is one thing. The time in-between is another thing. Duvin and Escudero are happy with their new surroundings. They are from small cities and find it easy to adjust to life in Turku.

– The city is nice, we can do a lot of things. It's a big city but people look less stressful than they do in France. Everybody also speaks at least a bit of English, which makes things easy for us, said Escudero.

– I don't like big cities with millions of people. I prefer smaller cities because I come from a small city. People here don't talk a lot but they are willing to help you when you need something, said Duvin approvingly.

The players spend their days either working or at home. The team staff has helped Duvin to get a job, for which she appears to be grateful. Escudero is looking for a job, while acknowledging that landing a job without being able to speak Finnish is difficult.

– I work for Sormat, at their factory in Rusko. I assemble and package things. It's something where you don't need the Finnish language. I'm a bit tired by the end of the week, but I think it's also good for me because I get to do something other than hockey. Some days it's nice to just be at home, but I think it's good to be out there, to do something and to see other people during the day, stated Duvin.

– I'm not working at the moment but we'll see how things will turn out. It would be cool to get a part-time job. I could work a little bit, but so that I'd still have enough to time to practice and rest. In France it's very hard to find anything part-time, but it seems to be easier here. Of course, it's not easy to find a job here if you are not a Finnish speaker, said Escudero.

So far, so good. Duvin and Escudero have made immediate impact in Turku.
Kuva © Timo Savela

When the two the have time, when they are not working, practicing or playing, they enjoy getting to know Turku and the surrounding areas. Nature or, rather, the access to it is something that both players appear to be thrilled with.

– There's a lot of forest and lakes. The nature is beautiful, stated Duvin.

– We actually live next to a forest, Escudero pointed out.

The extensive cycling infrastructure also gets their approval. It's largely taken for granted by the locals, the interviewer included, but for them it's something to be excited about.

– We bought bikes. We blend in now and we've already been to Ruissalo and Naantali, said Duvin enthusiastically.

– We can go everywhere by bike. There are bike paths everywhere. This is perfect. It's really nice, especially during summer, added Escudero.

Everything seems to be in order. Nothing seems to bother the French national team players, except for two things: the dreaded darkness and rain.

– It's a beautiful country and city. For the first two weeks it was sunny. It was beautiful. Now it's raining a lot, stated Duvin, followed by laughter.

– We have some friends [Marion Allemoz and Lore Baudrit] who are playing in Sweden, in the north, for MODO in Örnsköldsvik, and they told us that it's not easy to get used to the darkness. They managed it and they think that we will also manage it, added Escudero.

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