Women’s hockey fever took hold in Southeast Alaska this month as the best teams in the world play for Olympic gold in Beijing. That’s because one Czech hockey star has a huge, close-knit Hoonah family rooting for her.
The Czech women’s hockey team made its debut at the Olympics this year. They lost to the United States in the quarter finals last week, but their strong preliminary games and an early lead against the US in the quarterfinals made some noise in the women’s hockey world.
Alena Mills is the Czech team captain. She is married to Thomas Mills, who grew up in Hoonah and Juneau. They now live together in Russia, where he teaches while she travels to play hockey.
“I’m not surprised that she is in the Olympics,” said Alena’s mother in law, Jane Lindsey, who lives in Juneau.
“I’m actually a little surprised it’s taken as long as it has for her Czech team to qualify.”
Lindsey says one thing that strikes her in Alena’s story is how she committed her whole life to playing hockey — she even moved to the United States in high school so she could be on a team.
“There was pretty much no opportunity for her to excel at the level she needed in the Czech Republic for as a woman, as a young lady. So I think I just really admire her for being at the place that she’s at,” Lindsey said.
The family couldn’t join her in Beijing this year because of COVID-19 precautions, but that doesn’t stop them from streaming the games — which are really late at night because of the time difference.
“The Hoonah family and all of us are just kind of — we’re all over Facebook every time she plays. I’ll get on to the phone and be like, ‘I can’t believe she just made that shot!’ Or, you know, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so nervous!'” said Lindsey.
Valerie Veler is Alena and Thomas’ cousin in Hoonah. She says Alena’s Olympic journey has brought her huge family together.
“Even though we aren’t face-to-face the whole time, we have our phones up. And we’re FaceTiming and we’re wearing our number 9 Alena Mills jerseys,” Veler said.
Veler got to meet Alena when the couple stayed while she was introduced to the family in Hoonah. Veler says she blended right in. She remembered they went casting for trout, and she was especially happy that Alena embraced Lingít foods she prepared, like herring egg salad and canned cockles.
“She ate whatever foods we had, which is cool because when you come in from the Outside, a lot of people who are not familiar with our way of life don’t have a desire to try different things. And she’s very open,” said Veler.
So she says seeing Alena achieve her dreams on national television is really moving.
“I totally leaked tears because it’s like, how awesome is that to have somebody representing this, you know, she’s married into our family, but instantly she’s like, one of us,” she said.
A lot of the family is concentrated in Hoonah, but many members are spread out across Alaska and the Lower-48. Everyone tunes in for the games: Facebook messages to a cousin in Kansas, chats between Juneau and Russia. Alena’s father-in-law lives really remotely, on Excursion Inlet. Veler says he doesn’t get the games out there, but he’s always got his team hat on and stands by for text updates from the family when Alena plays.
“The bottom line, the whole thing is like: our hearts are full of love, excitement and pride for her,” Veler said.
“We are all spread out all over the U.S. and we are all feeling the same thing. You can’t quite explain it, but it’s pretty powerful. Pretty awesome. She’s one person connecting all of us with all these feelings and emotions,” she said.
Alena Mills’ team won’t medal this year. They were eliminated after a loss to the U.S. team. But the Mills family — from Hoonah to Juneau to Kansas to Russia — was with her the whole way.