It’s the World Women’s U18 Ice Hockey championship this week, and over in Japan, Canada and the USA look poised to continue their long-standing rivalry at the top of the international game.
A year ago, though, it was a bit different in Dmitrov. Russia, hosting the tournament for the first time, started by conjuring a huge shock; Sweden went on to become the first European team to reach the gold medal game in this event. A competition full of twists and turns went on to set attendance records for an u18 event outside of North America.
Even from day one, it was clear that something special was in the air. Dmitrov, a small town about 90 minutes north of Moscow, has some women’s hockey pedigree thanks to its title-winning Tornado roster. But few expected the surge in interest in seeing the opening game between Russia and Canada. Long queues spilling across the snowy square in front of the rink. Standing room only in the arena, an overspill crowd turning up next door to watch the Group B game between the Czechs and the Swiss. And on the ice, a crowd pleasing upset to start. Russia 3, Canada 2: the first time ever a Russian women’s team had defeated North American opposition in competition play at any age group. In the evening, Sweden frustrated Team USA until overtime before going down 1-2, boosted by outstanding goaltending from Anna Amholt. Europe was here to play.
From the press box, the experience was unique. On the ice, the teams produced good quality, highly-competitive and impressively structured hockey. After the hooter it was a shock to grab an interview and find myself face-to-face with a teenage girl. But the mixed zone also exposed difference between the hockey structures on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Canada and the USA were well drilled; poised, upbeat, on-message. Simultaneously a delight to work with, since they knew exactly what was expected in a post-game interview, and slightly frustrating, since there was a tendency to stick to the same message. Russia and Sweden, although obliging, came across as far less polished. An interview with Russian captain Alina Orlova started warily when discussing the tournament – improved performances brought heightened expectations and greater potential for harsh criticism from the local press – and only warmed up when we started discussing life and university in Ukhta, the little-known northern city where she played her club hockey. Her American counterpart, Taylor Heise, bounced into conversations with the same ‘sweep-all-before-it’ confidence that she took out onto the ice.
That, in a nutshell, was the difference between the two continents. In North America, women’s hockey is a thing. It has been for years and there’s an established national program that collects the brightest talents and develops them – on and off the ice. That’s why every Olympic women’s final bar one has seen Canada face the USA; it’s why 2018 was the first time ever this annual tournament did not end with a cross-border clash.
There were bright signs for Europe here. There was encouragement from competitive games against the North Americans and there was a breakthrough in attendances. For the first time ever on this side of the Atlantic, the average crowd topped 1,000; only twice before had the aggregate attendance at this championship got past 10,000 when played in Europe.
When it came to the crunch on the ice, though, the old powerhouses delivered once again. Canada, unimpressive in the group phase, rallied to claim bronze with an emphatic 5-1 win over a Russian team physically and emotionally drained after a narrow semi-final loss to Sweden. Cue captain Sarah Filier and head coach Delaney Collins drumming home the message about the ‘journey’ from opening day defeat to medallists at the end of the week. The Russians, tearful, faced a grilling about how they had ‘failed’ against a team they defeated for the first time ever a few days earlier.
The USA took on Sweden in the final, recovered from the shock of allowing a second-minute goal and delivered a blitz of six goals in six minutes on the way to a hugely impressive 9-3 victory. “I don’t want to say we were unstoppable but we were a group that definitely not many people could stop,” said Heise. Sweden, though, won its first ever silver in this tournament; the Tre Kronor also has Europe’s only Olympic silver in women’s hockey back in 2006. “In Sweden’s eyes we are making history,” said head coach Ylva Martinsen, part of that Olympic success in Turin. “We were never in this final before and we hadn’t been in any major women’s final for such a long time. Our girls achieved so much here. I hope in the future they will properly understand what a huge step they have taken for women’s hockey in Sweden and in Europe.”