The National Women's Hockey League is currently in its offseason following its sixth year of play, but things have been anything but normal over the past few weeks. A lot has transpired recently, and it appears as though this could be the tip of the iceberg.
The 2017 IIHF Women's World Championships will forever be remembered in tandem with the stand that the US Women's National Team took -- and won -- in demanding equal treatment from USA Hockey.
But beyond the headlines (which all but wrote themselves), there was a lot to learn about each of the teams that played in the WWC. From a young Czech team that may or may not be relegated, pending possible tournament expansion, to the Americans' labor saga, each squad showed a lot about the state of their team, the development of their programs, and what's on the horizon.
There is a lot to unpack about the state of international women's hockey after this tournament. The Americans' landmark boycott -- and eventual victory -- is certain to have far-reaching implications, but what they received from USAH is simply not possible for other countries.
By watching the games and talking to the players and coaches, it was easy to see a ladder of sorts take shape. Each of the eight teams in the tournament finds themselves at a different spot in their development. Though each of them have different approaches as well as resources, there are certainly some similarities among them.
In terms of program health, the Americans are the front-runners. They continue to push the boundaries of that development timeline and set new benchmarks. The Canadians seem to have back-slid a bit and are in a spot where they have to assess why what has always worked for them in the past isn't working now -- and come to terms with the fact that they may have rested on their laurels too long and now need to play catch up.
Starting at the top, there's not much to say about Team USA that hasn't already been said. The everyone-for-everyone, full-team mentality that Robb Stauber has instituted seems to be working. The players were loose and confident. The scoring came from a variety of sources. Everyone seemed to know their role and excelled at it. Stauber proved himself in Plymouth and the players seem to be reveling in the atmosphere he's instilled. There are no number ones. They're all equal and are all expected to be able to see the big picture -- both on the ice and off. The gold medal win was definitive and commanding, and Team USA looks to be in prime position heading into centralization.
USA's dominance of the World Championships over the past five years should not be overlooked. Though the Olympics is the biggest stage and every one of the players on both the US and Canada would tell you winning that gold medal is their biggest and most important goal, the fact that the Americans have held the World Championship title since 2013 tells us a lot more than a single Olympic win. These five straight titles are a show of superiority. Canada can point to Vancouver or Sochi all they want, but the simple fact of the matter is that USA has won seven of the past eight World Championships dating back to 2008 -- and Canada has not won a major tournament since Sochi.
Canada's first-ever loss to Finland was obviously a big red flag, but there was plenty for Hockey Canada to be concerned about. The most obvious thing, to my mind, was how lost the players looked when things started to break down. There's no arguing that the women who make up their team are some of the most talented in the world, but questions have to be asked about the way the system works if they players are completely frozen when the system fails.
Obviously there's no way to be sure, but if I were a Canada fan, I'd be incredibly curious about why their players seemed unable -- or unwilling -- to adapt when their usual systems weren't working. Their team dynamic does not seem to foster creativity, nor does it encourage it. The players on that team are talented enough to overcome some of the bumps that tripped them up in Plymouth, but it appeared that they didn't feel empowered to do so.
Further, I'd be concerned about adhering so strongly to a system that hasn't been producing results. Every team plays within a system, but what I saw in Plymouth left me with a lot of questions about the stringent nature of Canada's system and its seeming inability to change or adapt.
Some have questioned Canada's roster makeup, and while I definitely think there are places to look, the young and newer members of the roster have been a bright spot. Emily Clark was named Canada's player of the gold-medal game and one of their top three players for the tournament overall. She and Sarah Potomak were among the goal-scoring leaders both for Canada and at the tournament, with two goals apiece. Erin Ambrose, in her first tournament with the senior team, was Canada's top-scoring blue-liner.
One place Canada has to take a hard look is in net. It's clear that Shannon Szabados is their number one, but beyond her, they don't actually seem convinced of any of their options. I'm not personally convinced that Emerance Maschmeyer is the best choice for the number two spot. I'd like to see Hockey Canada be a lot more open to considering other options.
While Canada will continue to be a dominant force for years to come, their current disarray is uncharacteristic. The Team Canada of the future will have to work harder to win.
There seems to be a clear and direct line in both style and approach from Finland to Germany and Czech Republic. Finland has forged a new path for themselves and slipped into territory that was previously explored by just two teams (the US and Canada). Germany seems to be sitting where Finland was just a handful of years ago. They've installed a great coach, invested in younger talent, and are seeing the fruits of such a shift in attitude paying off.
It also seems clear that this approach to development extends down to the Czech Republic. They sit where Germany was a few years ago, with girls from their U18 team playing at the senior level. They're just starting to look to build their program -- and their experience. Their next investment should be in goaltending. The Czech pipeline to the NCAA has been well established and they've got spectacular young scoring talent. Now they need the blue line and goaltending to back them up.
Finland, it would seem, has created a bit of a blueprint for how a program can adapt, evolve, and come out stronger. Coach Pasi Mustonen has led a revolution for the Finns and it paid dividends for them in Plymouth.
And it starts off the ice.
The culture shift for their program has been monumental. It's helped that the Finns have seen success, but that may be an argument about which came first. The team trusts him. They trust his vision and his methods. That buy-in is incredibly crucial. Together, they have created a level of cohesion and a team culture that every player trusts, and they are seeing the results.
"Our expectations on individual players are the highest," Mustonen said. "You have to buy in the rules and norms of the group and the leaders are creating, otherwise it won't work."
Maybe more important than anything else, Mustonen believes in them. He treats them like hockey players and like they can and will be successful. He's dismissive of any "male versus female" rhetoric, and he's publicly called out their federation and their men's teams in search of support for the women.
Mustonen also took them back to the basics and instituted conditioning and nutrition programs. Before the team could worry about their style or systems on the ice, he had to make sure they were fit enough to handle whatever was thrown at them.
What Finland won in Plymouth was the mental game.
"We proved to the women's hockey world that we can beat those two [US and Canada]. We won't [beat] them five times out of ten. But we can beat them and we know it ourselves. And they know it," said Mustonen.
Looking ahead, goaltender Noora Räty noted that she and her teammates would be getting as close to centralized as they are able. They'll be apart during the week, but will come together on the weekends to play up to 40 games together as a national team.
"So we're centralized, but not really centralized," she said, jokingly adding that the only difference between the Finns and the North Americans is "we're not getting paid and they are."
Many of the players on the team have to work full- or part-time jobs in addition to their time with the team, but Räty said they'll be looking for Olympic Federation support to help subsidize their income in the fall and noted that their bronze medal and excellent performance in the WWC would certainly help their case.
"There's financial resources we don't have. That's as simple as it is," said Mustonen.
One sticking point for Mustonen is that all of his players will need to be training with and playing against boys' or mens' teams. Simply put, there is not a women's team in Scandinavia that can push them to the speed and compete level that the Americans and Canadians have. There is no other option for them but to practice against men. And Mustonen said it's time for the Finnish men to really show that they support the womens' team.
Mustonen said that playing with the necessary speed to approximate what they'll face from USA and Canada is "decisive in the development of an individual player."
The Finns know that they're starting at a disadvantage -- their ice hockey federation does not centralize or financially support their players. While it's a situation that they all want to see changed, they also know they can complain about it or they can adapt as best as possible and find other ways to close the gap. If they've won the mental game, it's now about making sure that they're prepared to win the physical one as well.
There was something so bittersweet about Germany's surprise fourth-place finish. Their win in the quarterfinals merely gave them the opportunity to be beat up by the US and Finland in the semifinals and third-place game. The Germans were in Plymouth fresh off a heart-breaking tournament in which they failed to qualify for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Showing what they were capable of at the WWC merely put what they should have been able to do only weeks earlier into stark relief. But coach Benjamin Hinterstocker was focusing on the positives that he and his team could take from the tournament.
Despite not heading to the Olympics, the Germans have plenty on their calendar in 2017, with summer camps and the World Hockey Challenge tournament that they'll play with Finland, Sweden, and Russia.
"We are not really out," he said. "We will use the next season to take the next step."
Hinterstocker credited two specific moves in the program's past that he directly associated with their success at the WWC.
First, they hired a goalie coach. They put special emphasis on the netminder, knowing that building a program starts from the net out and that they'd need to rely on a strong set of goaltenders if they were going to have a chance.
Second, over the past three years, they've made a concerted effort to bring players from their U18 and developmental squad up to the senior level. The women who first played with the team as teenagers in 2015 now had dozens of international games under their belt. Hinterstocker said that comfort with playing at the top level, at the top speed, against the top opponents was crucial to Team Germany's ability to succeed.
That it took until now to see those players reach their potential and gel together tells Hinterstocker that he needs to be looking 50 or 60 games ahead. With a much smaller player pool in Germany, identifying the talented players at a young age and getting them the seasoning and experience with the senior team is a vital step in their development.
"We have to bring young girls into the program -- bring them earlier. [So that we can] find a way to make our dream come true to qualify for the Olympics in 2022," he said.
Though they lost the bronze medal game to Finland 8-0, they did not give up a goal in the final period, something Hinterstocker said he specifically addressed during the final intermission. He was looking for a small victory his team could look to and build on to keep the momentum they'd gained from the tournament. There were signs of forward momentum and growth for the Germans, as well as things that showed how much further they have to go.
"We won two games over Swedish and Czech Republic -- they are both going to the Olympics. And we beat Russia. You could say that the German team is competitive to those nations and then Canada, Team USA, and Finland, we don't have to discuss about that. Everyone in the room saw it. We have to learn from those games. We have to take the good and bad into the next season and I think we will handle it," he said.
In year's past, Team Germany has averaged around 60 days together over the course of a year. That may have been sufficient before, but Hinterstocker notes how limiting it is for them. "I think, the whole system, we have to improve it. Now we know that that was enough for [us to play] good games, but not [enough] for the really good teams," he said. "Now we have to find a way. We have to take the next step."
How much support the team gets isn't in their control, but Hinterstocker is committed to making sure that the 2017 tournament wasn't a peak, but just a step in the right direction.
After a bronze medal in 2016, Russia's fifth-place finish is not what they were hoping for. They made some surprising changes heading into the tournament, effectively changing much of what had worked for them in the past. Though it didn't result in short-term success, it's likely too early to deem those moves unsuccessful.
Iya Gavrilova said getting used to a new coach is a process and felt that it was going well. She mentioned the Russian team traveling to America to play games as one of the reasons they felt prepared for the World Championships. The women they faced in Plymouth were familiar to them, as was the speed of the game.
The most important thing Russia needs to figure out is scoring. The managed just seven goals in five games and put just 112 shots on goal. Special teams were also particularly awful. They were 1-for-18 on the power play and allowed seven power play goals -- two more than anyone else in the tournament. They also led the tournament in penalty minutes served. They have to find a way to clean up all those parts of their game if they want to have a chance to medal. Their margin for error is razor-thin, and giving their opponents that much time with an extra attacker is just not going to go well for them.
Team Sweden finished sixth. It was neither growth nor a backslide, but wouldn't it be nice if the goal was more lofty than that?
The Swedes feel stagnant and unsure of what to do next. Though they are home to one of the strongest women's leagues in the world, they have not committed to growing their national program. They're finding themselves in the middle of the group, based purely on the talent of the players that happen to play for them. Much like the Canadians, Sweden has rested on their laurels and what has worked in the past; unfortunately for them, the rest of the world has changed and the landscape of women's hockey no longer looks like it did.
If Sweden is going to be competitive, they first have to admit that things need to change. Their federation has to find them some new coaching and leadership. Having the SDHL there means that their players are getting a ton of ice time, but they need more than just the same old league play. Finland especially has benefited from off-ice training, and Sweden should look to do the same.
While Hinterstocker and Mustonen spoke of the future and growth of their respective programs, Swedish coach Leif Boork was reluctant to talk about what he learned from the tournament without first having a chance to look back on it. He focused on how he thought his team handled the tournament mentally and specifically mentioned how well his veterans helped the younger players adapt, but there was little from him about on-ice play or the future of the program.
Loath as I am to call out anyone specifically, it seems clear that Boork is a coach from another time and that the women's game seems to have passed him by when he wasn't looking. His personal feuds with players have made for more headlines than the team themselves and he's simply not getting results.
They'd do well to take a page out of Germany's book at look at developing their younger talent with an eye toward the future. They had 18-year-olds Jessica Adolfsson and Hanna Olsson, as well as 16-year-old Maja Nyhlén-Persson on their roster, which is a good start, but is not enough.
Switzerland seemed to break through in 2014 as the surprise winners of the Olympic bronze medal, but that was three long years ago and things are constantly evolving. The played in the relegation round against Czech Republic and placed seventh to secure their ranking going forward.
But Lara Stalder pointed out how close things were between the teams placed fourth through eighth.
"It just shows how tight it can be. If Czech beats Sweden, or Czech beats Germany –- it's so tight –- we could have been in the quarters. If we don't win in overtime, we would have been in. It's so close between going up and going down," she said.
Though they weren't happy with the seventh-place finish, there were positives to take from the tournament. They were down a game in the relegation round and won the final two to secure their spot. When their backs were against the wall, the Swiss fought for their lives. That tenacity is so important for them.
One important lesson learned is how important the play of goalie Florence Schelling is to Switzerland's success. She was stellar in Sochi and was clearly the difference-maker for them. When she struggled in Plymouth, it affected the whole team.
Switzerland has to find a way to get a defense that lives up to their offense. They've got players like Alina Muller to complement Stalder up front and add offensive depth, and Livia Altmann and Christine Meier proved to be great offensive threats from the blue line, but without a more stalwart defense that can help protect Schilling and not make her role so very vital to their success, the Swiss aren't likely to find themselves in medal contention in Pyeongchang.
"The dream came true in Sochi, but the nations are so tight together and everyone gets better every year. Games are tight and you just have to bring your best hockey to even win one game," said Stalder. "Yeah, we have that bronze medal, but it doesn't mean anything right now. We just have to keep going and stay in the present. We've got to look forward. We have to work on our team. We have to work all summer long because the other nations are doing the same. We can't just stop; we just have to keep going, especially in an Olympic year. It's a process. I think that's what makes you stronger."
There is so much promise in the Czech Republic. Tereza Vanišová managed to continuously stand out among a sea of talented players. She tied Kendall Coyne for most goals in the tournament with five, and she and Aneta Lédlová were among the top 11 scorers for the tournament.
They were aggressive, putting the third-most shots on goal in the WWC, behind the US and Finland and ahead of Canada. Unfortunately for them, that resulted in just 10 goals, so they'll need to focus in on making sure they're quality chances as well as having the presence up front to follow up on those shots.
Their youth and inexperience showed through, especially in the relegation round series against Switzerland. They won game one and it was the only time all tournament they had a lead -- and they almost squandered it. They forgot how to play like the better team, and those lapses almost allowed the Swiss back in the game.
If Germany is a few rungs below Finland, then the Czechs are another couple of rungs down the ladder. But they seem to be following the lead of Hinterstocker, getting their young players international experience that will hopefully pay off for them in the future.
With an average roster age of just over 21 years old, the Czechs have only three players older than 25 and seven players who are gaining experience in the NCAA. There's no reason not to believe in the future of this young and talented squad. Their country is still relatively young on the international scene in both the men's and women's game, and they'll do well to look towards ensuring they have a pipeline and development program in place for young girls.
Defense will be crucial to their continued growth. Their goalies faced 54 more shots than the next closest team. On the positive side, the Czechs were fearless in terms of blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies. But all that means is the number of pucks that got through to the net could have been even higher. They have to find a way to be more smothering on defense and limit what their opponents can do. It's simply not fair to ask their goalies to carry that kind of burden.
There were far more flashes of brilliance and promise than anything else from the Czechs. They're going to continue to be a fun team to watch as they grow into their own and mature as a program.
The women's hockey landscape is truly changing and inching towards more parity. Each rung on the ladder is essential to developing a solid national team. The way the lower-ranked teams have developed recently hearkens back to the American team's demand for more support for their girls' hockey programs and U18s. Youth development is so important, particularly in women's hockey where there is no elite junior league, and the best North American players (and many of the best Europeans) end up in the NCAA. The path to a national team roster spot, and to being an elite international player, is changing. There are now a few different ladders taking shape. But they are all being constructed to lead to the same place -- not just to an Olympic medal, but to a positive and flourishing hockey culture for women around the world.
Filed under: iihf women's world championships; ice hockey; team germany; team czech republic; team switzerland; team sweden; team usa; team canada; team finland; team russia
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