“Unvergesslich” – Nikki Evans description of an “unforgettable” year with UHC Hamburg, one she is delighted to be able to reprise for a second season.
Her enthusiasm for the year gone by is infectious, something that rubbed off on her club coach Claas Henkel who told the Deutsche Hockey Zeitung “it’s impossible to be in a bad mood in her presence”.
It is an attitude that probably helped her overcome some initial trepidation for the year, admitting that she cried all the way over to Germany as she moved away from her boyfriend, family and friends.
But, by season’s end, she says she was crying all the way home such were the memories of a rollercoaster season, coming back with European Cup and German championship silver medals.
“Not the fairytale ending but an unforgettable season,” she tells The Hook about the year gone by. “Losing finals hurts like hell and we came bitterly close in both the EHCC and German Championships.
“I guess that is elite sport, and there are such fine margins at the top. But I am privileged, honoured and incredibly proud of what we have achieved with UHC Hamburg this year.
“It has been an unbelievable experience for me personally, fun times, lifelong friendships, endless laughs and many memories. I am delighted and excited to say that I will be returning back next season!”
Evans qualified as a lawyer a year ago and decided to take a year out from work, putting full focus on hockey in World Cup year with a high-class offer on the table from one of Germany’s top clubs.
She linked up with a UHC side who have won five outdoor German championships in the last 11 years, reaching the final 10 times as well as European silver and bronze.
Lining out with the likes of Olympic medalists Janne Müller-Wieland, Jana Teschke, Marie Mävers, Eileen Hoffmann and Katharina Otte (now Frank) provided perfect team-mates to learn from.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” she enthuses. “I am so grateful to my team mates, coaches and UHC for making me feel so welcome and making Hamburg feel like home for me.
“A club like UHC has extremely high standards and sets the bar so high. The level of hunger and expectation was definitely a big attraction for me, consistently competing and succeeding amongst the best.”
There were initial teething problems, particularly with the language barrier with every session conducted in German (“such a difficult language”).
But hockey soon did the talking with Henkel hailing her “athletic play” but “most of all, she is an incredible team player who, in her positive way, gets everyone involved”.
It built toward a climax in the past two months with big game after big game.
“It was a rollercoaster of a season, particularly this second part. With the way the German season is structured, we have played 16 competitive games in two months.
“It has been all go. There are no easy games in the Bundesliga. Every weekend you face tough games with present different tactics and challenges.
“The EHCC was definitely a career highlight for me. The standard and quality of play was like playing in an international competition. It is strange to say that I was so disappointed to come away with a silver medal from the biggest club competition in the world.
“It was bang, smack in the middle of our season. We had two away games the weekend before, flew to London on the Wednesday and played our German rivals Mannheim in the quarters.
“It was definitely the hardest tie in the quarter-finals, playing a top outfit with some world-class players. It was always going to be close as we had played each other 10 days previously in the league.”
A fantastic goal from Eileen Hoffmann was enough to take UHC through before their keeper Noelle Rother was outstanding.
“Then came UHC v Amsterdam. A repeat of last year’s semis, my first experience of Germany playing Holland…. a local derby!
“That togetherness, grit, never say die attitude and team spirit we have enabled us to dig in and grind out a sudden-death shoot-out win. Again, our keeper was incredible. One of the best days in my career!”
It set up a repeat of the 2017 final against Den Bosch, the undisputed queens of the competition. UHC got level at 1-1 with eight minutes to go and Evans felt her side had the momentum to push on for glory.
But an unexpected turnover two minutes from time gave Den Bosch a sniff and they counter-attacked at speed to score the clinching goal.
“Heart-breaking, having come so close. Still tough to take but I know I will look back in years to come and be proud of a silver medal in the top European competition amongst the best in the world.”
After that whirlwind five days in London, the club were straight back to action domestically, qualifying for the final four and a ticket to Krefeld to play in front of over 4,000 fans each day.
“Livestream, video referral and the prospect of another game against Manheimmer HC in the semi-final. This game we were lucky to win but I always had confidence. They had the better share of the chances. It took a sudden death shoot out and another master class from our goalkeeper to send us through to the final.
“I knew a different team would turn up for the final the next day. A local derby against our Hamburg rivals, Club on the Alster. We started strong and went one up.
“We should have scored a second and put the game to bed. But half time came at a bad time for us and ill discipline cost us in the third quarter, conceding two goals.”
The forward says she “sees the game differently now and love the German mentality” and is keen to carry what she has learned into the green jersey.
“The standard of the German league is a lot higher. German teams are renowned for their structures and style of play, played with a very high level of basic skills.
“Playing and training at a high level week in week out has helped me improve technically and enabled me to bring my physical output to the next level.”
She was rested for last weekend’s games against Canada due to the proximity to the German playoffs. But now she is back in the fold in Dusseldorf, looking forward to a series in Germany against some of her team mates to start the run-in to the World Cup.
“We have an incredibly exciting couple of weeks coming up as we continue our preparations for World Cup. It is also fantastic for us that SoftCo have joined our team.
“They have always supported hockey in Ireland, sponsoring Hermes-Monkstown and so its great to have them as our major sponsor. It is brilliant to have this international organisation, who are proud of their Irish roots, join our journey.
“It is also great to have some matches at home before we head to the World Cup in London. I am looking forward to seeing the Green Army perform on the world stage.”
Once the World Cup is over, she has that return ticket to Hamburg to look forward to.
“With a ticket to the EHCC next season, I am excited about my future with this amazing club and delighted to be staying.
“I am hungry for the challenge next season, to be better, learn from this season and make improvements next season and see if we can go one step further than we did this season domestically and in Europe.”