The Fighting Dane: Debbie Andersen

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16-year old ball of fire for Team Denmark, Debbie Andersen taking the face-off draw. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

These days, the game of hockey stretches to all corners of the earth, and particularly throughout the European Union. While its Scandinavian brethren Sweden and Finland have long been hockey hotbeds, the game has also been embedding its roots into the country of Denmark. This current 2015-16 NHL season has seen seven Danish players crack NHL lineups, including regulars like Anaheim goaltender Frederik Andersen, Colorado’s Mikkel Boedker, the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen and Montreal’s Lars Eller. Possessing a strong interest in the women’s game, it makes me wonder as to whether women’s hockey has much of a presence in Denmark as well. I end up meeting a 16-year old ball of fire for Denmark’s national U-18 team, forward Debbie Andersen.

“My favorite hockey player is Sidney Crosby”, Debbie tells me. I am sure that even the NHL would be impressed to know that an aspiring 16-year old female hockey player in Denmark calls the face of their game her favorite NHL player. “My favorite team is the New York Rangers”, she says; even better. But Debbie has her own personal heroes too that fall a bit closer to home. “There is also a player on my team who never gives up, and I really look up to him; I want to be better than him someday; his name is Joah (Aalling)”. Debbie and Joah play for Denmark’s Aarhus IK hockey club. Speaking more about Joah, it is obvious that Debbie knows that in order to succeed in hockey and to remain at a successful level, she needs to work on her game constantly. “He is a player who wants hockey more than anyone else that I’ve ever met. He makes me want to fight even harder, and that is what makes a ‘favorite’ player in my eyes”, she expounds. “He trains six times a week and shoots pucks daily, and I’ve started to do that also. I get inspiration from him that I have not really gotten from anyone else other than my coaches”.

Located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, Debbie lives in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, which is also where her hockey club is from. The second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus’ own hockey club is not far from where she lives at all. “There are not many hockey clubs in Denmark, and most are pretty far away from where I live, but in Aarhus it only takes me five minutes to get to training. But if I play or train in another place, it usually takes me one or two hours to get there by car”.

Debbie began playing hockey at eleven years old, and has played as a forward right from the get-go. “Forward is my favorite position, because I’m a fighter *she laughs*, and I want to be the one who makes the goals and assists; I’ve always wanted to play forward for that particular reason”. I suppose that in a family where she is the only girl with three brothers, two of whom are hockey players as well, Debbie would indeed be a bit of a scrapper both on the ice and at home. Though Debbie does credit one of her brothers for starting her interest in playing. “My brother saw a hockey movie at school, came home and said, ‘Mom, I want to play hockey too; it looks like fun!’. I went with my brother and my mom down to the hockey hall to register him and me too, and since then I’ve never left the ice!”.

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Debbie Andersen being mobbed by her teammates after a Denmark goal. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

Her fighting spirit is what Debbie believes is the most important part of her game, and something that she would extend to other players wishing to learn the game as well. “I think that the most important thing for a hockey player is fighting!”, though she does not mean fisticuffs or brawling; more so, approaching the game with tenacity and ferociousness. “Fight for every puck. Fight against every opposing player. And never give up on that. Be there for your teammates and support them, just like you would want to be supported”. I love this spirit that Andersen embodies. She is that type of player that fits the old adage; you love having her on your team, but would hate playing against her. Andersen is a disturber to the opposition, battling in corners and creating scoring chances both for herself and for her teammates.

This “junkyard dog” style of play and her “never give up”-attitude are what garnered Debbie’s nomination for the Danish U-18 national team that competed in January 2016 at the IIHF Women’s World U-18 Division-I Championships that were held in Miskolc, Hungary. Denmark had actually earned entrance into the tournament by finishing first in the 2015 Division-I Qualification which took place in Poland. For Debbie Andersen, being selected to play for her country was the most meaningful experience of her young life thus far, though it took her strong sense of diligence and commitment to attain it. “All girls who were playing hockey in Jutland were invited to a training camp run by the national team coaches. After several trials with the team, they decided to bring me along for a tryout with the entire national team. They have not kept me off the team since, and I have just continued to fight and work hard to keep my spot on the roster”. There is that fighting spirit again from her. I like the fact that Debbie humbly acknowledges that there are no guarantees, and that if she wants to continue to represent her country and play the game she loves, that she cannot slow her pace; she has to continue being committed.

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Debbie standing tall on the Team Denmark bench during the 2016 Division-I U-18 Women’s World Championships in Hungary (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

But for at least 2016’s version of Denmark’s U-18 team, the hard work was all worth it and something that she will be able to revel in forever. “My favorite memory was when the team and I put our equipment on for the first time and our jerseys. You are just so happy to know that you are one of just a handful of girls who is going to fight for your country. After that, the next biggest memory was the first goal we scored as a team in the tournament”. Denmark’s first goal would come in their third game of the tournament, scored by Andersen’s teammate Michelle Almquist, during a 3-1 loss to Germany. “They were both memories that I will never forget”, Andersen tells me. “It was just so big for me, that even now I will sometimes feel a tear running out of my eye. I was just so proud!”. And while Denmark would not muster a win during their five games in the tournament, being able to represent her country is something that will forever belong to Debbie as she continues throughout her hockey career.

And Debbie already has goals for the years ahead. “I really want to play college hockey. I really just want to get to the highest level that a girl can. And then after that, I really want to coach a team of my own someday”. I love knowing that she has these goals, and we then discuss what it will take to get more girls in Denmark interested in hockey; how do we grow the sport from here. To me it seems that Debbie has thought the process out, and has a strong sense of what it will take to promote hockey interest among young Danish girls. “There really aren’t that many girls in Denmark who are interested in hockey”, she says, a little disappointed. “But I think that if girls started to play some hockey in school, and then at home too with their friends, they’ll see that it’s a lot of fun and they’ll want to play too. Make them feel the fun of playing hockey – just like I did”. And she is right. Give them the opportunity to see how much fun this sport is. I recall being a seven year old in Buffalo, whacking a ball around with my hockey stick in our frozen backyard… there is just nothing else like it, and a youngster can easily fall in love with the game.

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The diminutive fireplug for Aarhus IK , Debbie Andersen, fighting for puck possession against a much larger opponent. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

There is no slowing Debbie Andersen down. This young lady is a Tasmanian devil of sorts, at least on the ice and with her dreams for growing women’s hockey in her home country. “I really hope that girls’ hockey can become much more popular”, she almost pleads to me. “Girls’ hockey is just as important as men’s hockey. Yes, we are girls, but we want to play just as much as the men do… at least me!”. I like this kid; she has got superb leadership qualities and some bite to her. I think that if you put Debbie Andersen at the helm of women’s hockey in Denmark, made her a spokesperson of sorts, that she could definitely rally young girls and get them interested in the game. She leads by example, and as this young lady gets a little older and begins playing for the national women’s team, she may very well have inspired a large grouping of young girls to fall in love with the game as well. Go Debbie!

 

 

“Have Purpose”: Olivia Knowles, Team Canada defender

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Olivia Knowles #27, defender for Team Canada, is a remarkable person and hockey player. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Olivia Knowles is wise beyond her years. Hailing from Campbell River, British Columbia, the seventeen year old defender for Team Canada’s U18 Women’s Hockey team has a good head on her shoulders, and has a strong sense of self-awareness; particularly when it comes to what she wants to achieve in her hockey career, what steps she needs to take to accomplish those goals, and where she stands right now. It is inspiring and thought-provoking to listen to her speak, and equally as captivating when watching her compete on the ice.

I was fortunate enough to see Knowles play regularly in January at the IIHF U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines, having made the drive up from Buffalo. It was well worth it, as the tournament was a great deal of excitement, and presented my first opportunity to see Olivia Knowles play in person. She was a stalwart defender for Team Canada during that entire tournament, and her strength and tenacity on the back end were instrumental in Canada’s run to the gold medal game against Team USA; unfortunately, a 3-2 overtime heart-breaker for Knowles and her teammates. And while I know that she wishes that the outcome had been different, the tournament was a tremendous success for Olivia in more ways than one. Knowles finished the tournament with 2-assists for 2-points in 5-games, while putting up a plus-3 for her plus/minus to go along with 4-shots on goal, two of which came in the gold medal game against USA.

Thinking back on the tournament, Knowles tells me, “There is no bigger honor than to be a Canadian, playing the sport that every Canadian loves. It’s bigger than yourself. I think back on that whole week, and sometimes I think I talk about it too much *laughs*. It is hard to actually try and relive the experience, but the memories from the tournament always come back. The little things, the little memories are the best”.

Olivia Knowles began playing organized hockey when she was about 8-years old. At the time, her older brother was already playing hockey, as well as two of her cousins (who are now both playing in the British Columbia Hockey League, BCHL), and with being at the rink with so much regularity it was perhaps only natural that Olivia would end up playing the game too. “The first time I had played was actually with the “ESSO Fun Day” program, which is a great event. I had done gymnastics for a long time, so I have always been very competitive and very athletic. At the time, there were not a lot of opportunities to play with girls teams in Campbell River, so I played with boys instead, and even then would have to often travel to Victoria or Vancouver to play. But you are starting to see a lot more opportunities now in the area for young players than what there were before”. Olivia’s grandfather played for the old Trail Smoke Eaters of the former Western International Hockey League. “Playing hockey runs in the family, but it seems to skip a generation”, she laughs.

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Knowles in the thick of intense action versus Team USA at the 2016 U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Olivia has been enrolled at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, British Columbia, and she has certainly found her place there. “It felt like home as soon as I got there. And I love the city of Penticton. I love the program here, and it works really well with the hours spent at the gym and training”. Okanagan possesses an incredible coaching staff and management team that includes former NHL players like Dixon Ward, Robert Dirk, Blake Wesley, and Stu Barnes, but it is former Wayne State University head coach and assistant at St. Cloud State, Jim Fetter, who has been most paramount throughout Olivia’s time at OHA. Fetter serves as the head coach for the women’s prep program at Okanagan. “He is such a great coach, and he really helped with my university decision making. He was a coach at Wayne State and St. Cloud, so he is very knowledgeable. He teaches us what to expect in college, and that we have to work hard through everyday. He taught me a lot about how to handle days away from the rink too, how to prioritize and time management”.

Looking at Knowles’ numbers from the 2014-15 season with Okanagan they are indeed very solid from her work on the blueline. In 28-games she recorded 4-goals and 6-assists, including one power-play tally, and also scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 victory over the Colorado Selects. Olivia laughs recalling the 3-goal game, “It was really weird. That was the first hat-trick of my life. It was one of my very first games with OHA, and I am thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing out here, this is my first time playing with girls, I’ve never played with girls before’, and then I end up scoring a hat-trick. It was really fluky”.

Olivia considers her hockey hero to be her former defense partner and captain at Okanagan, Micah Hart. “She was my D-partner last year and she is a born leader. Someone that you respect instantly. I find myself in situations where I am asking myself, ‘what would Micah do here?’ or ‘how would Micah handle this?’. I think that leadership is so important, and I try to imbue those same skills that Micah does.”. Hart is currently playing for Cornell University and had a stellar freshman year, being named to the ECAC Hockey All-Rookie Team and named as an All-Ivy Honorable Mention. Hart also spent two years on the Team Canada U-18 squad, and captained the team that took silver in Buffalo in 2015. It is easy to see why Knowles looks upon her with such tremendous respect and admiration.

Having been born in January of 1999, Knowles is eligible to compete once more for Canada at the 2017 Women’s U-18 tournament. With what she has learned from working alongside Hart and the tutelage of Coach Fetter, combined with her own experiences from this past year’s tournament, I am certain that Canada will call upon her to be one of the key contributors and role models for the 2017 club. At least for this next go-round, Knowles will know what to expect too. Speaking of the selection process for the 2016 team, she recalls it quite vividly. “It is a pretty long process. I remember meeting with Coach Fetter, who had been the coach for the 2004 U-18 women’s team, and I was told that I was definitely ‘on the radar’ for Team Canada, but needed to look at my game a bit more because it was not quite there yet. I was brought in to do fitness testing at a 10-day conditioning camp in Calgary with 12 D-men who were being considered for making the team. I have always thought that I’ve had really good conditioning because of all of my years doing gymnastics, so I thought I would be okay. But there is no questioning, that was the most tired I have ever been. It was so hard both mentally and physically, but it is amazing how much you are able to learn in such a short period of time. We went onto play three exhibition games at Lake Placid. We ended up winning the first, losing the second, and winning the third”.

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Knowles #4 helping to defend her net during an exhibition game versus USA in Lake Placid in September 2015 (Photo Credit: Nancie Battaglia Photography)

After the games in Lake Placid though, Olivia had to wait full four months, nervous all the while, before she would learn whether or not she made the team. “The goalie for Team USA, Alex Gulstene, also attends Okanagan, and she had already been notified that she was selected. I remember getting the call from Team Canada, and in some ways, it is the most terrifying thing ever”, she laughs. “So I am on the phone with Team Canada, standing outside at the academy, and I was so nervous. Alex walks out and realizes what is happening. She starts jumping up and down, freaking out, wanting to congratulate me while they are telling me that I made the team, and here I am trying to keep my cool and be professional on the phone”.

In addition to her experience from this past tournament, a selection of Knowles to the 2017 squad seems a no-brainer, particularly when considering the intangibles and fundamentals that she possesses. “I am blessed to be big”, she says, standing at 5’9″ and at the 150-pound mark. “I have size and strength. You can’t really learn size, and I do feel that it gives you an upper hand. I also feel that I am very body aware from all the years that I did gymnastics”. Olivia and I speak at length about how important it is be a coachable athlete, something we both found makes a true difference in how you perform and how you learn. “By being coachable, you know how to react to criticism, and how to learn from it”, she says. “I have always had a strong work ethic, and I have never been afraid of hard work. Plus, it helps that I am extremely competitive”.

There is so much more in store for Olivia Knowles’ future, in addition to playing for her country, and it is exciting to hear her talk about her decision to commit to playing at the University of Minnesota, becoming a Golden Gopher. “It was the first university that I had ever been to when I was about 9-years old. I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘when I grow up, I am going to play hockey here’. I have been to other schools, and they all have their perks. But in the end, it would come back to my dream of playing there, and what would work best for me; how well I’d fit there. It’s a gut feeling, telling me this is right”. And while she does consider the possibility of playing professionally, Olivia knows that it is one step at a time, and that it really comes down to her own development. “I want to go as far as I can playing hockey. My goal is to play for the senior team (National Women’s Team)”.

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Olivia Knowles peppering a shot on net against USA during the 2016 IIHF U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Seeing what she is accomplishing and attaining in her life, I cannot help but be warmed by an interesting story she tells me. “I was just discussing this with my billet sister the other day. When I was in 8th-grade, our English teacher gave us an assignment to write down where we want to be in five years. Well, I wrote down that, one, I wanted to attend the Okanagan Hockey Academy, two, I wanted to commit to playing at a university or college, and three, that I wanted to play for Team Canada”. It is reassuring and inspiring that Olivia has accomplished these goals so exactly, and some of them are still blossoming. She certainly possesses a sense of self-awareness, and her strong foundation in hard work and determination is paying off in tenfold. The general consensus between Olivia, her billet sister, and myself is that she should indeed frame this assignment from 8th-grade and hang it up.

“Have purpose”, Olivia tells me. “That is my favorite quote – ‘Have Purpose'”. Very profound indeed. She elaborates even further, “You need to do things with a purpose, and you need to do them to the best of your ability. Having purpose. Working hard. Saying things to yourself, like ‘I am going to work on my wrist-shot today’, and then actually going and doing it. You need to care about the little things. The other motto I follow is, ‘Do what you can control’. I can’t control things like, the other team, or the fans. But, I can control my attitude. I can control my work ethic. You should never be satisfied. Yes, it is good to celebrate the small victories along the way, but don’t be satisfied with them. There are many fish in the sea, and if you don’t work hard someone else could easily displace you. Keep your nose to the grindstone. But definitely, have purpose”. Listening to her talk, if I was Olivia Knowles’ teammate, I would be readied to go to war for her on the ice.

Let me repeat myself – Olivia Knowles is wise beyond her years, in case you have not garnered that already. She is a superb hockey player and Canadian. There will be many great things that she is going to accomplish in the years ahead, and we have only just scratched the surface of her potential. You cannot help but be excited for her and to get caught up in her sense of duty and character, and her enthusiasm for the future. Olivia Knowles has purpose.

 

 

Swedish sniper: Pernilla Winberg

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One of the most accomplished players for Team Sweden, #16 Pernilla Winberg helps lead her team into the 2016 Women’s World Championships in Kamloops

With the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships currently underway in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, I find it interesting to look at each team participating in the tournament, and to see where their strengths may lie. From there, I like to delve into (what I feel) are interesting aspects of individual players and what they bring to the table for their respective teams. This led me to look more closely at Team Sweden and a standout winger with a lot of firepower on their roster, Pernilla Winberg.

Including this current 2016 tournament, Pernilla has competed for Sweden at TEN different Women’s World Hockey Championship tournaments, beginning in 2004 at just 15-years of age. “The national team coach watched me play with a boys’ team when I was 13-years old, and after that I got invited to one practice during a summer camp that they (the national team) had”, Pernilla tells me. “After that practice, he called me up again and said that I should come back. And ever since then I have played for Team Sweden!”. With arguably her finest performance coming at he 2007 Championships in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when she netted 5-goals and 3-assists in 5-games, assuring a bronze medal at the tournament, Sweden will be looking for the veteran Winberg to contribute a similar level of production in Kamloops. In 40 World Championship games, Winberg has scored 10-goals and 18-assists for 28-points, including her 8-point production in 2007, as well as 7-point run (1-goal, 6-assists in 5-games in 2009).

For Pernilla’s tenth tournament, this time in Kamloops, she has nothing but the very best sentiments about playing in Canada. “It’s always a blast playing in Canada, and the tournaments always bring a lot of people to them. They are very professional”.

Competing in hockey has been in Pernilla’s life for a very long time. Starting at the age of 7 she would play organized hockey for the first time on a boys’ team, as there was little opportunity for Pernilla to play alongside girls in her hometown of Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden. “I always played with boys while I was growing up because we didn’t have much women’s and girls’ hockey down south. As I got older, I continued to play with boys’ teams, but also played some important games with a women’s team in Stockholm (AIK IF, or Allmänna Idrottsklubben Ishockeyförening). Perhaps it is no surprise that when I ask Pernilla who her favorite hockey player was growing up, she easily tells me “Peter Forsberg”; arguably the greatest Swedish hockey player of all-time, and one of the game’s true greats, period.

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Pernilla, with her parents, playing with her Swedish team, Linköpings HC.

In international competition, what Pernilla Winberg is perhaps best known for is a startling upset of the Americans during the 2006 Torino Olympic games. At just 16-years of age at the time, Pernilla was the youngest player for Sweden. A seemingly storybook ending – a David versus Goliath of sorts – that the youngest Swede would be the one to knock aside USA in the semi-finals, as it would be Pernilla herself that scored the game-winning goal in a shootout victory. With Team Sweden defeating the Americans by a final score of 3-2, the game is one of the most significant in women’s hockey history, as it marked the first time in international play that USA lost in competition to another team besides Canada. Pernilla recalls, “I was 16-years old, and that was the best experience of my life! It was like a dream come true to play in an Olympic final. Nobody thought it was possible, and to score the winning shootout goal was just the best thing that had ever happened to me in my hockey career”. Team Sweden would go onto to face Canada in the gold medal game three days later, and though they would lose the final game 4-to-1, Pernilla and her teammates had pulled off the unthinkable and became silver medalists.

Winberg’s success at the Olympic games has continued well after the silver medal at Torino. A 5-goal performance in only 5-games in 2010 in Vancouver saw her cap-off a 4-goal output in one game against Slovakia, and a fifth goal against USA. In 2014 at the Sochi Olympics Winberg averaged better than a point per game, capitalizing on 3-goals to go with 4-assists in 6-games. The regularity of her scoring seems to always be there for Sweden, and her Olympic statistics total thus far at 9-goals and 7-assists in 16-games. It is amazing to think that she has been an integral part of Sweden’s Olympic program for such a long period time and since she was so young when it all started. I would have to imagine that there is at least one more Olympic run in her – at least.

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At just 16-years of age, Pernilla Winberg became an Olympic silver medalist at the 2006 Torino Games.

Separate from international play, and in order to further her career as a hockey player, Pernilla opted to enroll at the University Minnesota-Duluth, beginning with the 2008-09 season. She was an immediate success for their hockey program. “I wanted to develop as a hockey player and as a person. And since Duluth was the best team in the country the year before I started school there, I saw it as a great opportunity to go there and get better”. In her freshman year at Duluth, Pernilla exploded right off the bat by scoring 14-goals and 27-assists for 41-points in 38-games. The Bulldogs would make it to the “Frozen Four”, the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Tournament, as semi-finalists, but would lose to Wisconsin 5-1. But there was no question that Winberg’s performance and numbers sparked a run that went far into the tournament for the Bulldogs, and that would enable them to play for the national championship that year in Boston, Massachusetts.

Across her four years playing NCAA hockey, Pernilla appeared in 139-games for the Bulldogs and maintained pretty close to her Olympic average of a point per game; she would end up scoring 45-goals and 66-assists for 111-points, all while playing for one of the best women’s collegiate programs throughout the world. Speaking of her decision to play at Minnesota-Duluth and how it correlated to her success in their hockey program, Winberg says, “I had a few teammates (from Sweden) that had already played or were playing there at the time, and because of that it was natural for me to go there and be comfortable when I already knew a lot of the people”.

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Sweden relies on Pernilla Winberg’s firepower and experience.

Currently playing for Linköpings HC in Sweden, Pernilla attends the 2016 Kamloops Championships with a tremendous amount of achievements associated with her name and hockey teams that she has been a part of. And while she is still only 27-years of age, she will be a steadying veteran presence for Sweden at the tournament, having been through this same grind and in the international spotlight many times before. In many ways, this tournament will be nothing new for Pernilla Winberg, and in many ways, Sweden would not want it to be – they would want her winning ways and scoring prowess to continue as it always has. Still, she finds it just as much fun and just as meaningful, being able to compete in the tournament as a member of Team Sweden. “It is always an honor to play for your country, and there is nothing better than to put on that jersey in a championship”.

It is exciting to know what this Swedish sniper can bring to the table for her hockey club, and it will be enjoyable to watch her play regardless. Best of luck to Pernilla Winberg and to Team Sweden!

Stellar goaltending: Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa

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Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa backstopped Team Finland to three bronze medals at the IIHF Women’s World Championships throughout her career.

The first time that I ever saw Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa tending goal was during the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics… and she was simply superb! At just 22-years of age at the time, Hassinen-Sullanmaa and then 16-year old Noora Räty were Team Finland’s exciting young tandem in the nets who backstopped the Finns to a solid fourth-place finish at the Torino Games. I marveled at how well Hassinen-Sullanmaa defended Finland’s net at such a young age, and how she fearlessly faced, even at times stonewalled, powerhouse hockey clubs like Team Canada and Team USA. Facing hall of fame caliber shooters in the likes of Danielle Goyette, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Angela Ruggiero, Hassinen-Sullanmaa held her own in a seemingly insurmountable situation for the Finns. Former US Olympic gold and silver medalist, AJ Mleczko, stated at the time, “Maija Hassinen is a fantastic goalie. She’s young. She’s got a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of youth”. It was that youthful enthusiasm imbued by Maija that caused me to immediately recognize that she was a stellar goaltender.

I first got in contact with Maija in 2008, and have remained in touch with her since that time. Knowing that she recently retired from active play over the summer 2015, I wanted to chat with Maija a bit and reflect upon her remarkable career, both internationally and in her native Finland, and to find out what she is doing these days.

As is the case with most top level hockey players, Hassinen-Sullanmaa began playing organized hockey at a very young age. “I was 6 or 7 when I started playing on a team”, Maija recalls. “I played first with boys as a defender, and after only a few years I started playing as a goalie on a girls team. But always when we were playing just for fun with my friends, I was the goalie. And that’s really where it all started”. To be precise, “where it started” was Maija’s hometown of Hämeenlinna, Finland, which is located in the southern part of her homeland; a town of about 68,000 inhabitants. “Hockey has always been a part of my life”, Maija said.  “I used to go watch the local men’s team play in the Finnish national league since I was a little kid. There were quite a lot of opportunities to play on teams always, and we played a lot outside with friends as well”.

I enjoy hearing Maija recall her memories of playing hockey outside as a kid. For isn’t that where hockey always seems to be rooted? No matter if I am considering my own childhood playing on the streets of Buffalo, New York USA, or talking to a Québecois winger hailing from Montreal, or an Ontario-born netminder out of the suburbs of Toronto, or even a stalwart defender from the heart of Russia, or a Finnish born goalie like Hassinen-Sullanmaa, that is the one common thread – hockey as a kid outdoors is magical. And growing up in Finland for Maija it was no different. I like knowing that this common ground exists among those who love the game of hockey, regardless of the countries we are born in.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa would find it a great honor to represent her country at both the Olympics and the World Championships.

Maija had her heroes as well. As a young female goalie who was born in the 1980s, it is likely no surprise that one of those heroes was the first woman to play in the NHL (albeit a preseason game), Canadian goaltender Manon Rhéaume, who also represented her country on the international stage, and had a taste of the NHL with preseason appearances in net for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Rheaume won gold medals for the IIHF Women’s World Championships in 1992 and 1994, as well as an Olympic silver medal in 1998 at the Nagano Games. Maija also idolized another former Canadian goaltender, Andrew Verner, who backstopped her hometown Hämeenlinna HPK in the mid-1990s. Verner being a former draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers, and a standout in the Ontario Hockey League with the Peterborough Petes. Like Verner, Maija would also end up playing for the Hämeenlinna HPK women’s team as she grew up and progressed as a goaltender.

Recalling her stellar performance at the 2006 Torino Olympics, I came to ask Maija how the opportunity to play for the Finnish national team came about. “During the 2004-05 season (at the time she was playing for Finnish team Ilves Tampere), I was called for the first time to attend the camp for national team. And then the next season I was included on the team for the first time in Torino”. But while my recollections of Hassinen-Sullanmaa from the Torino Games are certainly memorable for me, they completely pale in comparison to what it would mean for her to play for her country, and especially what it would mean for her future in her personal life. “Well, it was amazing of course. It’s such an honor to play in the Olympics and represent your country. It was great to be able to play a lot, but a big disappointment to finish fourth. But a big thing for me from the Torino Olympics is that I met my husband there at the games”.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa would play 7-years for her hometown hockey club, Hämeenlinna HPK.

Despite facing powerhouse shooters from both Canada and the United States at Torino, Hassinen-Sullanmaa still put together very respectable numbers for the tournament. In four games, Maija would put up a .875 save-percentage to go along with a 3.38 goals against average and a total of 77-saves at Torino. When looking at these numbers, one needs to consider the attacking strength of both USA and Canada, and the disparity in scoring for teams like Finland when compared to either of those two dominant teams. The fact that Maija’s numbers were as sound as they were after having faced both of those teams is very remarkable. But though her individual performance was very solid, Hassinen-Sullanmaa and Team Finland would fall to the United States 4-0 in the bronze medal game of the tournament, and settle for the fourth place finish.

Though Torino would not turn out as she would have hoped, Maija would eventually find success in playing for her country, including a bronze medal she attained in front of her own hometown. For the games of the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships, Maija would backstop Finland to bronze medal victories in 2008 in China, 2009 in Finland and 2011 in Switzerland. “It’s been great to be a part of Team Finland for any event, and of course, especially for the ones where we won a bronze medal. The 2009 championships were a special occasion for me as they were held in Hämeenlinna, my hometown”.

Between the Torino Olympics and four World Championship tournaments, Maija would appear in 9-games for her country, compiling a 0.828 save-percentage within those four tournaments, as well as a 3.12 goals-against average. “I am proud of every time that I’ve had the chance to represent Finland, especially in the Olympics”.

Separate from the international stage, Hassinen-Sullanmaa would play 12-years in the top women’s hockey league in Finland, SM-sarja, of which the final 7-years saw her playing for her hometown club, Hämeenlinna HPK. Perhaps her most memorable season would come during 2010-2011 when Maija backstopped HPK to the national title. Maija was absolutely phenomenal that season, appearing in 15-regular season games and putting up astounding numbers with her 1.44 goals against average and .948 save-percentage that season. Maija’s incredible play continued through the playoffs on HPK‘s championship run, as she would appear in 6 more games with a slightly better 1.42 goals against and a .929 save-percentage.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa celebrating a Hämeenlinna HPK victory.

For those 12-years that she competed in the Finnish national league, Hassinen-Sullanmaa’s career numbers will make you do a double-take. Only once during her career did she put up a regular season save-percentage below a .915-percent, and that came during her very first season. On four different occasions her season ending tallies for save-percentage were above .940. Likewise, in the playoffs only twice did she ever fall below a .900 save-percentage for a season, and again, one of those was during her very first national league season. Those numbers speak volumes as to Maija’s success and longevity playing a high level of hockey for over a decade.

During the summer of 2015, Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa would officially retire from playing hockey and move into coaching with Hämeenlinna HPK. When I ask her why she opted to retire when she is still relatively young and was still putting up great numbers, Maija tells me that “I felt that it was time for me to stop and let the younger players have a shot… I’ve been working as an assistant coach for the HPK women’s team, and I am mainly responsible for physical training for the players and helping goalies”. It is nice to see how Maija has moved into a different role where she is still very much involved in the game, and able to impart knowledge and experience into a younger generation of players. “For the younger players, I try to tell them that you’ll have to work hard, but to keep enjoying the game and keep playing”.

Lastly, I ask Maija to tell me how she thinks her teammates from throughout her lengthy career would recall her as a player and as a teammate.”I think they remember me as someone who was really focused, hard-working and competitive”. I would have to agree with Maija’s assessment completely, for I see those same qualities when I look at her playing career as well. And while I know that there is always a time to move on and say goodbye, it makes you a little melancholy in knowing that you will not see a player you admired grace the ice with her presence forever. And as the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Championships get ready to get underway in Kamloops in only a few days, it makes me nostalgic. Team Finland will be playing among the top four teams that comprise Group-A; Canada, the United States and Russia. I pause and wonder how Finland would fare, and how would Hassinen-Sullanmaa fare, if she were to suit up for one more championship tournament with the best women in hockey today.

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Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa, now an assistant coach with Hämeenlinna HPK.

But alas, it is not meant to be and she has moved onto other things. I am glad that Maija found great success in hockey, as well as having found her husband. I am glad that she helps train and sculpt young female players today, and I am glad that she is doing so in her hometown where she played for so many years. It is nice knowing that even though she no longer dons the pads, a catching glove, a blocker and a mask, she is still donning a sense of “focus”, “hard-work”, and “competitive” nature. Great job, Maija! And thank you for the all that you have done for the game and for your country.

 

 

NWHL, 6’4″ Brianna Williams is on her way!

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Brianna Williams, a 6-foot 4-inch 16-year old goalie from Fenton, Missouri dreams of playing in the National Women’s Hockey League someday soon.

 

NWHL, I would ask that you remember the name Brianna Williams – just give her a few years, and she is going to be right there with you. While the Buffalo Beauts and the Boston Pride are currently engaged in the inaugural Isobel Cup Finals, of what is the first season in National Women’s Hockey League history, I have the pleasure of chatting with an aspiring 16-year old netminder who has every intent of playing there someday too. It will not surprise me in the least when she makes it happen, either. Did I mention the fact that Brianna is also 6-feet, 4-inches tall?

Brianna Williams is a charming young lady from Fenton, Missouri. She has been playing organized ice hockey for just over 4-years now, since she was 12-years old, and she is already garnering the attention that is oftentimes reserved for the finest of young athletes. Brianna presently tends goal for three different teams, and while this certainly keeps she and her family on their toes, she gets to do something that she truly loves and has become enthralled with. Even as I write this article, Brianna is on her way to practice, while her younger brother Jacob has two games today of his own, and her twin brother Blake, and Jacob, have both been asked to play in a pickup game. So yes, you could say that hockey runs deep in the Williams’ household. “It gets really chaotic”, Brianna says. “I play for three teams, my younger brother plays for two teams, and my twin brother plays on a roller hockey team”. Brianna actually got to play against younger brother Jacob a couple of times, as both their respective teams would play against each other in friendly matches.

Even Brianna’s father, Craig, is a former goalie himself and has helped his daughter each step of the way. “I never had the idea of playing goalie”, Brianna tells me. “But when I tried skating for the first few times, it didn’t go so well. My dad gave me a pair of his old goalie skates to try out, and it went a lot better, so I ended up playing goal. My dad tells me a lot about what he did as a goalie, and things that worked for him. Positioning, covering the puck”. One of the reasons why I can tell Brianna Williams is going to accomplish her goals is because she has this strong, loving support network amongst her family, and that hockey is an integral part of their daily lives.

For this past year, Brianna has showcased her goaltending capabilities with two high school teams and a U-16 all girls hockey team. “My high school is Fox Senior High School but they don’t have a hockey team, so I actually play for another high school, Lutheran South High School”. For Lutheran South, Brianna plays for both their Varsity Team and their Junior Varsity B squad. Brianna is the only girl on both teams, and I ask her if this is tough for her or not. “It doesn’t really matter. I’m just a part of the team, and I get to play goal and show what I can do regardless”.

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Brianna making a save for Lutheran South High School.

 

The U-16 girls team that Brianna plays for is the St. Louis Lady Cyclones hockey club, and within the past year she has helped backstop them to great success. Just last month (February 2016), Brianna and the Lady Cyclones competed in the Irish South Bend Cup Tournament, which was hosted at none other than the University of Notre Dame. Brianna did her part between the pipes, as St. Louis pitched three consecutive shutouts in the tournament series, and then went on to win the tournament championship by a score of 3-1.

The fact that Brianna is 6-feet 4-inches tall is very unique for a female goaltender, especially one who is so young. In some ways, it almost seems fated for her to be a goaltender and to possess a true passion for the game. Brianna’s build accentuates her skill and control in the crease – it is a perfect recipe for her success, and one feels gladdened to know that she has been blessed with such gifts. “When I go down, I cover the entire crease. I feel that I am pretty strong too. When I first started, I was more of a standup style, but now I am more of a combination of standup and butterfly”. Though I initially liken Brianna’s size, strength and skill in the net to that of current Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender, Robin Lehner, perhaps I am remiss in my comparison, as Brianna’s favorite goaltenders are actually Montreal’s Carey Price and hometown St. Louis Blues’ Brian Elliott.

And on second thought, I agree with her – Brianna is a lot more like “Les Habitants’” Price, the 2015 Hart Memorial Trophy Winner as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. It is no coincidence that both Brianna and Price wear the number-31. And like Brianna’s own estimations of herself, Price is widely recognized for covering the bottom of his crease so superbly when he goes into his butterfly. Price’s extremely quick reflexes are cat-like, and considered one of his best attributes. It is no wonder that he is Brianna’s favorite, and it is remarkable to see how she emulates these same qualities.

Brianna’s statistics speak for themselves. Within the past year, she has stopped 422 out of 452-shots for a whopping 93.4 save-percentage. In 25-games played, Brianna has a record of 19-wins and a mere 5-losses to go with 1-tie. Her goals against is also outstanding at a 1.42, which is not surprising when Brianna’s has blanked her opponents as often as she has; 7-shutouts already.

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Brianna tending goal for the St. Louis Lady Cyclones.

Also within this past year, Brianna was able to work one-on-one with former NHL goaltender and St. Louis Blue, Bruce Racine, at his goalie clinic in St. Louis. A star goaltender at Northeastern University in the late-1980s, Bruce Racine tended net for 11-games with the Blues in the mid-1990s, most oftentimes as backup to legendary Hall of Famer, Grant Fuhr. “Bruce Racine really taught me a lot”, says Brianna. “He worked with me on going down in my crease, how to best cover the puck, and how to properly play angles”. Though most would not think of St. Louis as a hockey hotbed, it is great to know that there are opportunities for a young goaltender like Brianna to work so closely with former NHL players. “I’ve also got to meet Cam Janssen and Pat Maroon”, two NHL-level players who were also born and raised in the St. Louis area too.

Brianna Williams has sincere aspirations to play professionally in the NWHL someday. “I think it would be awesome!”. It is exciting to see such a talented young lady with goals like this in mind and working so hard to attain them. But perhaps it is even more exciting to see how much more she is going to accomplish along the way.

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Soft-spoken and courteous, Brianna is a good kid with a very bright future as a goaltender.

When she thinks of “Brianna from a few years ago”, I ask her to tell me what advice she would give to a young girl wanting to play hockey for the first time, especially a goaltender. “Never give up. Keep trying. It does get easier”. This is a good youngster we are talking about here, folks. Brianna is courteous, and she imbues a sense of commitment to her craft that seems to be more of a rarity these days.

So look out Nana Fujimoto! Look out Jenny Scrivens! Look out Brianne McLaughlin! Brianna Williams is only a few years away from making her own NWHL debut, and vying for one of the starting jobs as a professional women’s goaltender. I cannot wait to see what this young lady has in store for hockey fans for the years to come.

If you would like to know more about Brianna Williams, please check out her website at http://www.williamsicehockey.com

 

 

From Russia with Might: Liudmila Belyakova

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Liudmila Belyakova #9 leading the rush out of the Riveters zone against the Buffalo Beauts.

At just 21-years of age, Liudmila Belyakova is the youngest player in the National Women’s Hockey League, and is just one of two Russian born players in the newly established American women’s professional hockey league. Liudmila is also my favorite player!

Despite being the youngest, Belyakova brings a long list of achievements that even many veteran players do not have on their respective résumés. As a member of the Russian women’s national hockey team, Belyakova has played in 92-games, while registering 34-goals and 22-assists. She was a candidate for 2010 Russian Olympic team at the Vancouver Games, and was tagged as a first replacement for Team Russia at the 2014 Games in Sochi. In 2013, Belyakova helped lead Russia to the bronze medal in the Women’s World Championships which were held in Ottawa that year; in six tournament games she notched 1-goal. But perhaps most impressive on the international stage was Belyakova’s paving the way for Team Russia to the gold medal in the 2011 Women’s U18 Division-I Championships – there she scored an unfathomable 11-goals in 5-games of the tournament, and added another 5-assists to lead the entire tournament in scoring. Liudmila would be voted as the “Best Player” and “Best Scorer” of the tournament. It would be remiss not to mention that Belyakova’s U18 international career saw her record 30-goals and 11-assists in 28-games; better than a goal-per-game(!).

Those accolades at such a young age are truly remarkable! But what I notice about Belyakova on the ice is not so much her scoring prowess, but how sound she is in her own zone. I do not know if I have ever seen another female player backcheck with the same amount of responsibility that Belyakova exudes. Belyakova never takes a shift off, and when the puck is in her own zone she is readily found defending in front of her team’s net in the thick of the action. Yes, in the game of hockey this is the job of the center – to backcheck and assist the defense. But when Belyakova is on the ice for the New York Riveters, it is virtually like having three defenders and three forwards on the ice at the same time. A number of forwards will fall to the habit of “cherry-picking” and shirking their defensive responsibilities; Belyakova is the total opposite. There is not a time when she is on the ice and the puck is in the Riveters’ zone that Belyakova can be found out of place.

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Liudmila Belyakova preparing to take the face-off for the New York Riveters in a January 31st, 2016 game against the Buffalo Beauts.

I enjoy making comparisons between up and coming players like Liudmila Belyakova and players of the past or present. Liudmila is so strong; it is noticeable in her build and her physical attributes, and you can see it specifically when she fights for a loose puck or picks up her assignment on an opposing player. As I watch Belyakova skate on the ice today, I begin to draw comparisons in my mind to another great Russian player, Sergei Nemchinov. Like Belyakova, Nemchinov was a remarkably strong player physically, who could turn on the offense when needed, but at the same time be responsible in his own end. It was what led Nemchinov to win two Stanley Cups; one in 1994 with the New York Rangers, as one of the first Russian-born players to have his name engraved on the Cup, and then a second Cup championship in 2000 with the New Jersey Devils. Perhaps the irony being that Nemchinov, and now Belyakova, found/are finding success in “The Big Apple”.

The fact that Liudmila Belyakova is able to transition so easily between forward and defense reminds me off another great Sergei – Sergei Fedorov. Though it is early in her professional career, and it will be interesting to see if Belyakova’s scoring capabilities grow into the likes of Fedorov’s, there is no doubt in my mind that she is able to switch from “O” to “D” just as cleanly as Fedorov did. This is perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of Belyakova’s game to watch. As I said, it is almost like you have three defenders and three forwards on one shift together anytime that Belyakova is on the ice; she just moves that flawlessly; appearing that she is in two places at the same time.

As I see her skate onto the ice after each intermission, I notice that she does a choppy, deliberate skate-step-skate-step-skate onto the ice; a bit of a shuffle. This tells me that Belyakova is an individual and unique. Not only are those the types of players who are a sincere pleasure to watch, but they also seem to be what the really great players grow and develop from. Wouldn’t it be remarkable for the New York Riveters if Liudmila Belyakova grows into another Nemchinov or Fedorov?!

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A Belyakova breakout from the Riveters’ zone.

Belyakova’s international numbers certainly demonstrate that she has the offensive capabilities that the greatest players possessed, including Fedorov. Then combine the fact that she is so sound defensively and so physically strong – the outcome is that the New York Riveters have a young lady whom they are only now just seeing a glimpse of her potential.

It is my sincere hope that after this inaugural season of the NWHL comes to a close, that fans, players, coaches, and owners, will be able to reflect on the year and notice that their league has potential to blossom into greatness. Much the same way that their budding young stars like Liudmila Belyakova possess too – the best is still to come. I am overfilled with eagerness to see what Liudmila is going to accomplish in her professional career, and my hope is that she will help the league to continue to be the place where professional women hockey players aspire to be. Belyakova is a hockey player that fans of the game will marvel at for years to come.

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Liudmila and I before the start of the Riveters game; amazing person, amazing hockey player!

 

Disparity in Women’s Hockey

I have long been a fan of women’s ice hockey, going back to the 1998 USA Women’s Gold Medal winning team at the Nagano Olympics. The first female hockey player that I ever became a fan of was USA netminder Sarah Tueting, the young lady who backstopped the USA women to the first ever Olympic gold in women’s hockey. Since that time I have followed the women’s game with much enthusiasm, and have had the opportunity to attend some of the women’s tournaments on the international scene.

Much of last week I spent my time in St. Catharines, Ontario for the 2016 Women’s U-18 World Hockey Championships. And I loved every moment of it! I even brought my mom along with me to the Czech Republic vs. Canada game in front of a raucous, pumped-out Canadian crowd.

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Flags of the eight nations participating in the 2016 Women’s U-18 Championship in St Catharines.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing that I noticed throughout the tournament is the disparity that still exists between the top two nations, USA and Canada, and the other countries who compete in the sport. To be blunt, after USA and Canada, no other team even comes close. At the start of every international tournament and every Winter Olympics, it is known that either Canada or USA will be taking home the gold medal while the remaining teams fight it out amongst themselves for bronze.

I am troubled by this for two main reasons. Firstly, though I am an American, I was rooting for Team Czech Republic for the entire tournament, as I know one of the young players on the Czech team personally. I attended each of the Czech Republic’s games, including their heart-wrenching losses of 6-0 to USA and 11-0 to Canada; my heart broke for my friend and her teammates at the hands of that 11-0 loss. So I will admit that I am biased, and wanted the Czechs to perform well and at least medal.

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Team Czech Republic receiving instructions at a timeout during their January 12, 2016 Quarterfinal loss to Sweden.

Secondly though and perhaps most importantly, for the sake of women’s hockey, we need to see another nation rise to the forefront and give Canada and USA a run for their money. And on an ongoing basis. It worries me that interest may lost in the women’s game if it is always the same two nations winning and nobody else even comes close. Kind of what happened with Laili Ali in women’s boxing. Nobody cares about women’s boxing anymore because no one could be Laili Ali, and the interest in the sport fizzled out.

Now obviously there is more to it than that. These young women are playing for their countries, and no matter what the outcome, competing for their own nation is the greatest accomplishment in sport, and it is not something that can ever be taken away from an athlete. These young ladies also love the game of hockey, and if you love a sport as much as these athletes do, you play and compete for it regardless of whether you win or lose. This is why the game will go on and why even if USA and Canada win every time there is something to say for the hearts of all of the young athletes who participate in this game. For me, being a true enthusiast of the women’s hockey, my interest will never falter either as I simply love the sport.

But for the casual fan, will he or she tire of always seeing the same two nations win? This is what concerns me for women’s hockey in general.

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Team Finland lined up after their 11-1 win over France on January 8, 2016.

So why the disparity after all this time? One would think that between Nagano in 1998 and today’s game in 2016 that the playing field would have evened out to some extent. It has not, and I cannot figure it out.

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France’s goaltender Anais Aurard receiving Player of the Game for Team France after facing 54-shots in an 11-1 loss to Finland.

I surmise that it might have something to do with the size of the athletes. Looking at the majority of the young ladies who suited up for USA and for Canada in the tournament, they look more like grown women, while the athletes of the other nations appear more their age, if not younger. More muscle, more strength for the Canadians and Americans can transfer over to controlling the game and maintaining better puck possession for the entire three periods; something that the other nations were not able to do. I definitely noticed a drop-off in the third periods of each game when Canada and USA were not missing a step, while the other teams looked tired and were merely holding on. More muscle also allowed them stronger, faster skating which enabled USA and Canada to reach loose pucks more quickly and with greater ease. Not to much that they could skate from point-A to point-B faster as well.

But this was the only real difference that I could discern. All of the teams, especially Czech Republic, practiced hard, fought hard in the corners and in front of their own nets, worked hard from the first second of play until the last, and played their hearts out for their teammates and their countries. I love cheering for underdogs, so it is my sincere hope that all of these efforts by teams who are NOT Canada and USA will eventually payoff and the tide will turn. If you follow MMA at all, perhaps I am hoping for something similar to Holly Holm (finally) serving a defeat to Ronda Rousey and changing the sport forever. Like Rousey, right now USA and Canada seem unstoppable. But it cannot last forever.

Will there come a time that another nation dethrones USA and Canada? For the sake of women’s hockey, I hope so. For my sake, I hope it is Czech Republic!