The Czech women's national team celebrated a huge victory and will play in the top division next year in Ottawa. Here is Martin Merk's report on their remarkable progress in the last two years.
VENTSPILS, Latvia – Surprise at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A: The last-seeded Czechs won the tournament and will play with the elite nations for the first time ever next year in Ottawa.
“I haven’t really realized what we have achieved here yet, but I think this will come later,” said Radka Lhotska, who was selected best goalkeeper of the tournament after performing a 96.15 save percentage in five games.
“I feel great, but the main thing is that we won. We have all battled like a team.”
The Czechs had just come back from the third to the second tier this year, but they have already been playing five years in the top division with their women’s U18 team including three semi-final appearances and one bronze medal.
About half of the senior team included young players with U18 experiences. By developing players and becoming more active through new IIHF initiatives like the Ambassador and Mentor Program and the Women’s High-Performance Camp, the Czechs were ready to harvest the fruits of their work in the week-long tournament in Ventspils.
For the Czechs, who have participated in the Women’s World Championship program since 1999, it will be the first time the women’s national team will play in the top division at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Ottawa, Canada. They went up two levels within just two years, while Kazakhstan went the other way and will be relegated after losing all games.
“It’s amazing. We just came up from one level below,” 19-year-old forward Lucie Povova of the Northeastern University said. “We wanted to win, but we didn’t expect to get to the highest division that fast.”
“I think we’re going to get much more respect from the people because in the Czech Republic no one really recognizes women’s hockey and even in the States or in Canada people are going to recognize us. They’re playing well, but we’re up there too now. It’s really amazing.”
The event in Ventspils was one of the most evenly matched IIHF tournaments of the season and the quality of the games implied that the gap between the top division and the second tier has become smaller.
Latvia was the surprise leader of the first two days, but the hosts ran out of energy. Japan was leading the standings after the third day of play before the Czechs took over on day four.
On the last day four teams were still in the race for promotion with the Czechs in pole position before the troika of Norway, Japan and Austria that was ready to capitalize on a possible Czech slip-up on the last day. But it didn’t happen.
Japan kept its chances alive in the afternoon by defeating Kazakhstan 5-0. The Japanese avenged for the loss at the 2011 Asian Winter Games where Kazakhstan won in a shootout on home ice in Almaty.
After an evenly matched first period the Japanese took off in the middle part of the game. Chiho Osawa opened the scoring on a breakaway at 2:58 and Saki Shimozawa doubled the gap midway through the period.
The Kazakhs, who mostly used two or three lines throughout the tournament, seemed to run out of gas. Hanae Kubo, Tomoe Homma and Kanae Aoki added three more goals in the third period, but after the later games only the bronze medals were left for the Japanese.
The Norwegians, who have seven players in Sweden and two at the University of North Dakota, also fulfilled their task on the last day, defeating host Latvia 6-0.
Already the first period gave a clear indication where the game would be heading to. The Norwegians had 14 shots on goal and allowed only one Latvian shot. Line Bialik Øien opened the scoring after less than three minutes of play, Madelen Hansen shot the 2-0 goal ten minutes later.
The goals were scored by five different players with Helene Martinsen adding the third goal at 2:36 of the middle stanza, and Andrea Dalen and twice Ingvild Farstad netting more goals in the third period.
The Norwegian players celebrated from the ice with their fans on the stands, but they knew that the win wouldn’t be enough to get promoted and they had to hope for a surprise win by Austria against the Czechs.
However, the Czech Republic was not ready to give away their position and Norway had to settle for silver.
The Czechs stormed towards the Austrian net from the beginning, having a 22-3 shots-on-goal advantage in the first period against their neighbours that wanted to play the killjoy. But the Austrians were too undisciplined, taking five minor penalties in the first period.
At first the Czechs were not able to capitalize on their many opportunities. Their play reflected the stats with the Czechs scoring only one power-play goal in four games and 16 power plays. Midway through the period they even missed out on their chances with two more players on the ice for almost two minutes.
At 17:28 the Czech Republic eventually managed to break the deadlock and bring the puck past Austrian netminder Paula Marchhart for the first time. Sonja Novakova scored on a rebound during a power play after Marchhart had deflected a long shot from Katerina Flachsova.
Simona Studentova added another goal just one minute later after a pass from Eva Holesova.
In the second period Holesova received an early penalty for tripping, but the Austrians weren’t able to capitalize either. Coming from the penalty box, Holesova even had the chance to score on a breakaway, but she just hit goalie Marchhart with her shot.
Lucie Manhartova did it better with a shot from the face-off circle at 12:13 of the second period and three minutes later Alena Polenska made it 4-0.
Klara Chmelova and Studentova added two more markers for the Czechs in the last period while Eva Schwärzler scored the consolation goal for Austria.
After the 6-1 victory the Czechs could finally let out their emotions and celebrate their sensational victory, hugging each other, chanting loudly and singing their national anthem.
And next year they will battle in Ottawa with the top nations. For Lhotska, 31, it will be a premiere to play against the top nations.
“I’m really looking forward to going to Ottawa,” she said. “It was our dream and now it comes true.”
1. Czech Republic 12
2. Norway 11
3. Japan 9
4. Austria 6
5. Latvia 5
6. Kazakhstan 2
Individual Awards selected by the Tournament Directorate:
Best Goalkeeper: Radka Lhotska, Czech Republic
Best Defenceman: Trine Martens, Norway
Best Forward: Denise Altmann, Austria