2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship Preview

Women's World Championship
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It’s August, so let’s get these tourneys GOING! August is ending with a bang as the Women’s World Championship event is playing out in Calgary from the 20th to September 1st. There have been a few changes – including the location and team size – but otherwise? It’s all the same job, and 250 athletes are here to do it.

Women’s World Championship Preview

The biggest change for the teams this time out is an increase in size. With no one allowed to add players in case of injury or availability, the roster size is now at 25. That’s a good excuse to get younger players a look at what’s going to be expected of them when their turn comes. If you watched any of the “Bubble Cup” from 2020, you get the idea. Your subs still have to be able to play, but you’re hoping not to use them.

PANIC! At The Truro

The world rankings aren’t quite in line with who has the invites. That’s because France (ranked 10th in the world) and Sweden (ninth) were relegated at the last tournament in 2019. Denmark (11th) and Hungary (12th) won promotions in 2019, and without any tournament play in 2020, the IIHF kept everyone in place. Division II B and Division III got their tournaments done, but those had no effect on the top ranks.

As a result, the 2020 tournament that would have been at Truro and Halifax was cancelled along with every other international match. This might mean the selections are going to be frozen for the 2022 Olympics. But if their final decision is to go by international ranking, that means Sweden and France will have no opportunity to gain points while Denmark and Hungary will. But that doesn’t mean there are no stakes.

With the top six teams automatically going through, one of Czechia, Germany, Denmark, or Hungary is going to lose their place to host China. A good showing at the Olympics in any of those countries would provide a real boost. Just like with the men’s, the international tournaments are for people who are already fans. The Olympics, on the other hand, gets the attention of EVERYONE.

It’s Just Like Starting Over

If you aren’t familiar with the Women’s tournament format, here’s a quick rundown. (If you are, let the newbies catch up here and we’ll meet you next segment.)

Of the ten teams in Calgary, the top five in Group A will play against each other for position. The next five in Group B aren’t just playing for position, but to avoid relegation. So the winner of Group B will face whoever finishes third in Group A. Second in Group B plays against second in Group A, third in Group B is up against Group A’s winner, and third and fourth in Group A face off against each other.

And the bottom two are out. That’s not as dramatic as it sounds this year because the federation has decided this year is a mulligan. Everyone lives, no one relegated. Which you can be sure annoys Sweden and France no end, but without each division playing it’s fair. Or as fair as they can manage after two ridiculous years.

Honey, We’re Home!

Calgary is going to have a lot of COVID-19 protocols in place because this is the Women’s World Championship. Do it right or don’t bother coming. All the teams have been in town at least ten days ahead of time to quarantine to match seven days in their home countries, with international teams taking chartered flights in. Again, they’re here to do a job. If they happen to bring a medal back with them, so much the better.

Let’s meet the teams.

Canada – Host, Rank: 2

You have to know that number burns. But if there’s any country here that has to remember the maxim: “Thank your enemies, for they make you strong” it’s Canada. They may share the world’s longest unprotected border, but they and the United States have been fighting over this ground for decades.

Player to Look For

Going to go a little – very little – off the board for this one. Keep an eye out for Sarah Fillier – the first 2000-born player to score a goal for Team Canada. And she did it in 2018. To be blunt, this is NOT a team you can just walk onto as an 18-year old! Between her national turns, she was named captain of Princeton, leading them to their first ECAC crown.

Thing is, she’s got a lot more going on than a highlight reel. She is a smart player and has a good eye for intercepting plays, either catching pucks mid-pass or disrupting an opponent’s line. Take your eye off the puck when she’s on the ice and she’ll teach you a thing or two.

USA – Rank: 1

They won the gold in Pyongchang in 2018, and they have no interest in going to Beijing as an underdog. They’ve won five straight Women’s World Championship tournaments and not one was a fluke. The team with the target on their back, and they welcome all comers.

Player to Look For

Yes, obvious pick is obvious with Kendall Coyne-Schofield. But for good reason: how many players have a youth program named after them? Okay, a fair number, but how many named quite so perfectly as the Golden Coynes? C’mon! Her impact is huge and didn’t go down with her appearance at the 2019 NHL All-Star game.

But she’s also the captain of the US squad after first being named to the team in 2011. Her phenomenal speed gets her into position before most of the defence can turn around. That first tournament saw her score four times in five games. In her last tournament in 2019, she scored another five goals in five games and added four assists. It’s not just that she scores but what she does to do so that makes her worth watching.

Finland – Rank: 3

Perpetually knocking on the door, Finland kicked it down at the Women’s World Championship in 2019. They beat out Canada in the semi-finals and thought they had won the gold in overtime against the US only to have the play reversed after a ten-minute review. The US then won in the shootout on Finland’s home ice. Revenge is a great motivator.

Player to Watch

Normally, this would be an easy pick: Noora Räty. The star goaltender made 93 saves in those two games against the US and Canada, and her not being in Calgary hurts. But one player they’ve relied on for years is returning, captain Jenni Hiirikoski. She is a fast, smart defender who can whip outlet passes forward from anywhere in her end. She’s not just the national captain for Finland, but the captain of the champion Lulea HF of the Swedish Women’s League.

Hiirikoski has won the Women’s World Championship Best Defender seven times between 2007 and 2019. Watch her and you’ll see why.

(Not) Russia – Rank: 4

A court ruling has them competing as the Russian Olympic Committee, but the players remain the same. And in this case, they are coming from the Russian teams in the Zhenskaya Hockey League (ZhHL). The professional league has only been around since 2015, and it incorporates the KHL into the previous Russian League. They’re counting on that influx of skill – and money – to make the women’s side more competitive on the international stage.

Player to Watch

It’s a three-headed monster in the net – the Russians have never had great luck with their goaltenders internationally. But this time out could be different if the team decides to hand the reins to the young Valeria Merkusheva. Their usual workhorse duo of Anna Prugova and Nadezhda Morozova have earned their spots on the international squad with their play in the ZhHL. But the best in Russia was the 21-year old with SKIF Nizhny Novogorod. After 22 regular-season games with a 1.45 goals-against average, she followed that up with a .957 save percentage in the playoffs.

It’s more a case of watching to see if the (Not) Russians give Merkusheva her chance right away or after a game or two – but we expect her to make her presence felt this year.

Switzerland – Rank: 5

The Swiss cracked the Medal Barrier at the Olympic Games in 2014, winning bronze against Sweden. They were the first team outside what was then the Big Four (Canada, US, Sweden, Finland) to do so. It wasn’t a complete surprise, though, as they had won the IIHF bronze just two years earlier against Finland. While most of the women are coming from the Swiss league, this year they are drawing talent from the American college ranks and Swedish leagues as well.

Player to Watch

The bronze medal-winning goal scored against Sweden was by Alina Müller. She was 15 at the time. But hey! Anyone can get lucky once, right? Well, she followed that up with a four-goal game in the 2018 Olympic Games, tying an Olympic record. She’s going into her fourth season with the Northeastern University Huskies, where she’s scored a ridiculous 60 goals and 155 points in 100 games over three seasons. And yes, it’s another woman with a professional brother she’s outshining…

She’s led the team in scoring in all three years she’s played there, and she’ll bring that to the Women’s World Championship.

Japan – Rank: 6

After five straight second-place finishes to either China or Kazakhstan, Japan finally took gold at the Asian Games in 2017. That same year they won promotion to the top division in hockey, pushing them solidly into the top-six and getting a guaranteed berth to this year’s Women’s World Championship. Japan was the first Asian nation to join the IIHF, and they’ve earned their spot.

There’s a push for more, too. Their women’s team won the Youth Olympics gold medal in 2020. By the time relegation returns to international play, they’ll be dug into the top-level hard.

Player to Watch

Captain Chiho Osawa “joined the enemy” by moving to Luela after she helped knock Sweden out of medal contention at the 2018 Olympic Games. Then, for good measure, her team pushed Sweden out of the top level of the World’s later the next year. Imagine living with that pressure, and still getting eight goals and 18 points in 36 games on a Swedish team. She followed that up with six assists in their 11 playoff games as Luela won the league championship that year.

If you need someone who can shut out the noise and get the job done, you can do worse than Osawa.

Czech Republic – Rank: 7

This is as high as Czechia has ever ranked in women’s hockey, but they likely won’t be stopping here. They have yet to qualify for the Winter Games, so this tournament has a lot at stake for the young team. Yes, young: they have all of four players over the age of 25, and one of those – Denisa Krížová – is only 26. Speaking of which…

Player to Watch

Krížová honed her skills at Northeastern, playing four years and finishing as their sixth-highest scorer in team history. For those keeping track, that’s 62 goals and 169 points in 143 games, which isn’t too shabby. She played one season with the Boston Pride – 14 points in 16 games – before moving closer to home. She went to Byrnas with another Czech star, Katerina Mrázová, to terrorize that league for a while. Amusingly, the two followed an identical pattern: US college, one year of NWHL, then off to Byrnas.

Mrázová is a little older, but they can be well described as twin terrors. Krížová scored six goals in eight playoff games when they mattered most; Mrázová only four, but added seven assists in those same eight games. Consider this a two-for-one to watch.

Germany – Rank: 8

Germany has lagged behind the Men’s team of late, but with the Men’s success, hopefully that will inspire a wash over effect. At the Women’s World Championship in 2017, the Germans managed fourth place, their best-ever showing. Unfortunately, any sense of accomplishment there was dampened by 11-0 and 8-0 losses to the United States and Finland in their last games. They survived relegation in 2019, but it was a close call. Most of the national team players are from their domestic league.

Player to Watch

Nicola Eisenschmid decided not to take her older sister’s route through US college ranks, staying closer to home to hone her craft. When Tanja Eisenschmid returned from her turn at the University of North Dakota, though, Nicola jumped at the chance to play with her in Ingolstadt. That’s worked out well for both of them, with defenceman Tanja racking up six goals and 30 points last season, and forward Nicola? Just a league-leading 19 goals and 42 points in 24 games.

Germany’s going to need those goals if she can provide them. They are always light on finishing, putting far too much pressure on their goaltending. They were the second-lowest scoring team in 2019, and need that number to creep up to avoid being replaced by China in Beijing.

Denmark – Rank:11

This is Denmark’s breakthrough tournament – the first time playing at the top level of international hockey. They spent the first decade of the 2000s bouncing back and forth between Divisions I and II. Ironically, the IIHF changed the divisions, creating IA and IB pools just in time for Denmark to leave that third tier for good. After years in the fourth spot in what is now IA, they finally cracked the ceiling. Now the challenge is to stay.

Player to Watch

Fortunately, they have a legend on their side. The 30-year old Josephine Jakobsen has been waiting for this moment her entire professional life. She moved to Sweden at 17 to join Segeltorp IF and finished the season as the league’s fifth-highest scorer. Jakobsen was fifth again the next year and took the league lead the year after that. She eventually took her talents to the University of North Dakota for four years before digging right back into the Swedish Women’s League.

Her scoring isn’t at the heights it once was, honing an excellent all-around game in the WCHA. It’s not like she’s given it up entirely, though, with 73 goals and 165 points in 182 regular-season games since her return. She is the unquestioned captain of this team, and they’ll go as far as she can take them.

Hungary – Rank: 12

Possibly the most important game of the tournament in Group B will be the first match of Day Two. Hungary meets Germany then, and both teams know they have razor-thin margins to work with. Hungary was the host for the 2019 tournament that boosted them into the top division. Unlike the Germans, Hungary has yet to play in the Olympics. They are a core nation in the EWHL – European Women’s Hockey League. The current version has nine teams from six different nations, giving smaller countries where women’s hockey might be less popular a chance to play against good competition.

Player to Watch

Going to cheat a little here for the last selection and go with Alex Gowie. Not the most stereotypically Hungarian name because she was born in South Africa. So how did she get into hockey? By being raised in Port Coquitlam, BC, naturally. She went from there to the Okanagan Hockey Academy then to Alberta, joining the University of Calgary Dinos. She won the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (now U Sports) championship there and got invited by a teammate to play in Hungary.

Then it got wild.

Gowie played in Hungary with KMH Budapest for a couple of years, gaining citizenship and joining their Olympic Qualifying team in 2017. She also played in Slovakia for HC Spisska Nová Ves; then off to Italy (and switching to defence) with EV Bozen Eagles. Continuing to play international matches for Hungary, she went back to Alberta – UofA this time – to finish her degree. Oh, and play two seasons there before going back to Hungary to join the OTHER European Women’s Hockey League team, MAC Budapest.

And now she’s back in Calgary, playing for Hungary once more. And after a story like that, how can you NOT watch?

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