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
Canada 5 USA 4 in overtime. Here is American national team player Caitlin Cahow's view of the final game. She was unable to play due to an injury.
Hats off to Team Canada for a well fought final! It seemed to me an appropriate finish for Caroline Ouellette to net the game-winner in the extra frame. She had a fantastic tournament and has always been a quiet leader with an explosive impact. If I ever have to lose, I want it to be on the stick of a class act like Caroline. I have a profound respect for her as an athlete, competitor and catalyst for the growth of women’s hockey.
Additionally, as hard as it was to not hear my anthem at the end of a championship game, I have to say I have never been more proud of my team or my sport than I was yesterday. What a tremendous event the 2012 World Championship was for women’s ice hockey! In particular, this tournament was huge for the American players regardless of the outcome.
I think maybe only those of us who have worn the jersey will understand what it must have felt like to be on that ice with a deafening U-S-A cheer erupting through a packed house. It brought tears to my eyes because the only buildings in the world where women’s hockey packs them in by the thousands are Canadian ones. My memories of wearing the red, white and blue in front of a sold out crowd are almost exclusively associated with a sea of red. A long time ago I had to make peace with the fact that even though the 16,000 were almost all cheering against me, they were really cheering for women’s hockey, and I never took that for granted.
To a US player, the sound of silence from a sold out crowd is your goal in life. Because the only time a Canadian crowd will grow quiet is when we put one in the back of the net. It’s something special, a pure moment of joy shared between 21 women in matching jerseys. With the storm swirling around us, it’s the electric silence in the eye of the hurricane, a feeling of ecstasy, power and joy. It is our passion and our constant pursuit across all provinces. But this week we got to feel the ferocity of the storm in our own sails. This week the building shook with U-S-A.
For those of us who have dedicated our lives to wearing the USA jersey proudly, there are no words to describe what that feels like. I can only hope that our sport continues to grow; that we expand and strengthen the power of female athletes to transfix and transform the world with our dedication, passion and achievement. And that one day all players, from every country, get the opportunity to share that feeling.
They may have been chanting U-S-A, but I know, as I always have, that they were really celebrating the pinnacle of our game. They were overwhelmed by and in awe of the virtuosity of 40 athletes, role models and stateswomen. Forty examples of the best our sport has to offer the world. And they are hungry for more. I could have written about strategy, individual efforts, battles lost and won. At the end of the day, with talent like that, the game is a balance sheet of mistakes made and opportunities capitalized upon. Those statistics can be found in the box score. Team Canada was one goal better, and for their efforts they are crowned world champions, and well-deserving.
As much as I hate losing, especially to the greatest rivals I have ever known, I don’t feel loss. I feel empowered to build upon this momentum. To come back with renewed vigor and focus, to push harder than ever before so that every time I step on that ice, I am making myself and the game better. We have something magical on our hands, and none of us, Canadian or American, thinks we are done.
To be continued…
Here is Team USA player (she is on the injured list) Caitlin Cahow's answer to that question after the American's ripped through Switzerland 10-0 on Friday nite.
Friday night was another dominant display from Team USA. Florence Schelling put up a good front for Switzerland, but 80 shots is tall order. People keep coming up to me and asking me what is happening. Why does Team USA seem to be pulling away from the rest of the pack all of a sudden?
I have a couple of responses. First, I think the Team Canada that Team USA is going to face today in the gold medal game will be a very different one than they found last Saturday night. I will wait to make any commentary on the disparities between the US and Canada until after today’s result.
The major difference in my opinion is the growth of the game in our country at the grassroots level. Girls are getting involved in the game much younger than before. And the advent of competitive playing environments for younger players had pushed the highest levels of women’s hockey forward. For instance, there are currently at least six or seven players on Team USA who played for the US Under-18 Team prior to joining the U-22 or senior national teams. That is a full line and change. If you look at the games the US has played in thus far, Coach Katey Stone has been playing all four lines.
This is the biggest difference in the current Team USA from past teams in my opinion. When I played on my first US Team in 2005, the fourth line players (of which I was one) were chosen because they were great athletes in great shape that could follow directions, and not get scored on for shift or two a period. We were fore checkers, shot blockers and dump and chasers. We also took our job very seriously, and we were good at it.
Now on Team USA, players progress faster at a much younger age both in skills and conditioning. The players coming out of high school who have played on the U18 team are at a stage of development that many college grads were 5 years ago. The expectations have been raised, and the players have answered.
Historically, the challenge for any national team was to get the most skilled players in better shape (because talent can mask many sins) and to teach every skill player how to be a role player when asked. Since the Vancouver Olympics, USA Hockey has taken itself to task in this regard. The result is that from the first line of Team USA 2012 through the fourth, everyone is a skill player, and everyone is in very good shape. When your fourth line is Erika Lawler, Hannah Brandt and Jillian Dempsey, you know you have depth. Each of these players is a first liner in her program. They each have tremendous skill and ability, but they also have the discipline and dedication to be role players whenever asked.
One of the very cool things about women’s hockey at this level then is, unlike the NHL, there is no “checking line.” Aside from Hilary Knight (and I say this with love because she is a remarkable and singular athlete), the US forwards are not overly physically imposing. They are agile, quick, explosive, talented and… smaller than you might expect. Erika Lawler is a great example. (She is also 5 feet tall) Though she is currently anchoring the fourth line, I think everyone who has ever seen her play will agree that she is a playmaking threat every second she is on the ice. The same holds true with Hannah Brandt. She may only be in high school, but she showed up at USA Winter camp in December and scored a hat-trick on one of the best goalies in the world on the first night. She is a serious talent. Jillian Dempsey was Harvard’s leading goal scorer this year. To be a leading scorer on a division I hockey team is no longer about being faster than everyone else like it was 10 or even 5 years ago. It used to be if you had jets, you were going to get frequent breakaway looks at the net, and the most prolific scorers were often the fastest skaters on the ice. It takes a complete game to be a standout in women’s hockey these days, and that is as it should be.
What is difficult then about having so much talent on one squad is constructing a culture that elevates the team over the individual. Part of that equation is coaching, and part is the responsibility of the players holding themselves and one another accountable for the team mission. In my experience playing for Coach Katey Stone, I have found that the second flows from the first. Coach Stone is a culture creator. She establishes herself as the authoritarian, and clearly states her expectations. Then it is up to the players to make it happen. She has very high standards, but she is not a policewoman. She may set the culture trend for Team USA, but she demands that the players set the terms. It is the player’s willingness to buy into it and follow through that determines success. There is a sense of ownership and responsibility in the Team USA locker room right now that is amazing to be a part of. We each still take our jobs seriously, but it’s not shift to shift or fore check to fore check. It is moment to moment. Each moment is an opportunity to continue to grow and get better. If you look on the ice, you see the accomplishments of a thousand moments in which each of us has chosen to put the team before herself. And it’s working.
Complete Stats of the Game and Florence Schelling's 58 saves go to:
Swiss 5 Russia 2 ( 1 - 2 , 1 - 3 , 0 - 0 )
Editors note: Of the five goals, Stefanie Marty scored 2 goals and an assist on her twin sister Julia’s goal. Here is her blog on the Swiss team who were seeking revenge.
After our great win against Sweden on Tuesday, we were very determined in our quarterfinal against Russia. It was the second year in a row that we faced Russia in the quarterfinal and after last’s years loss we wanted revenge.
Even though no one mentioned last year’s game specifically, everyone on the team knew very well how much it hurt last year when we lost at home in the quarterfinal after a 3:0 lead. I think it is safe to say that it was one of the toughest losses for everyone on that team.
Because of that we felt like we were paying back something; also because of the great win we had the day before, gave us a very strong focus on the game. It started with the moment we knew that we will play Russia and ended with the moment when the game was over.
We were prepared for a physical game during which we had to be disciplined for 60 minutes to be successful. From the beginning on we tried to get many shots on the Russian net. Unluckily, it was the Russians who scored the first goal only two minutes into the game. We were too passive in our defensive zone, so that they scored on a rebound. During the first period Florence Schelling made some key saves to keep us in the game and it lasted until the second half of the period until we got to some great chances thanks to several power play situations. It was finally on a five on three we capitalized on a nice backdoor play. In the last minute of the opening period Phoebe Staenz luckily capitalized during a box play situation after a failed clearing attempt of the Russian goalie.
The second period was back and forth with advantages on our side. Thanks to some great plays we managed to have a 5:2 lead after 40 minutes. With the momentum on our side we were sent into the second intermission. For a short moment I thought about last’s years quarterfinal when we were in the exact same situation, but ended up losing. The atmosphere in the locker room was great, everyone was focused and I deleted that thought very quickly.
The last period was played smart and with great patience from our team. We did what we had to do and we managed to keep the three goal lead for the last 20 minutes. It was the second great win in two days and now we are very looking forward to our second semi-final at a world championship after 2008.
Wednesday is another day off before we face the US in front of their home crowd. Now, even more than before we have nothing to lose. In 2008, we ended up in the fourth place. This year we want more and we know that anything is possible.
USA 11 Finland 0 ( 0 - 2 , 0 - 6 , 0 - 3 )
Caitlin "Cahow, an injured US player posts her thoughts on this blow out game. It is not about the score. Tuesday April 10, 2012
Tonight was another anticlimactic finish for Team USA. As a player, I never like to see a double-digit score. It belies the passion and rivalry of our game. As proud as I am that Team USA is playing great hockey and winning by vast margins, I can’t help but be disappointed in the ever-expanding lack of parity in my sport. It was not that long ago that the US, Canada, Finland and Sweden were competing to one goal finishes. Watching the shootout in the Torino Olympics that took my team out of gold medal contention was one of the most disappointing moments of my life. I couldn’t fathom how we had lost to Sweden that day, but I certainly didn’t think that they hadn’t earned it.
That was a Team Sweden with remarkable skill, fitness, coaching and resources. Resources are the lynchpin, the watchword of our sport, and they run dry in between Olympic years, the only time when our sport draws international attention. I have also been a victim of an empowered Team Finland at the World Championships in 2008.
Finland and Sweden have consistently been arch-rivals of North American squads. Tonight’s final score is an unfortunate reminder of how tenuous that rivalry is without commitment from national federations.
As we get closer to Sochi, one hopes that in particular, the Russian Federation will take notice. For a country with such a storied hockey history, their support of their women’s team is lackluster at best. You cannot blame the players, who sacrifice their lives to a game they grew up loving, aspiring to be like national heroes: Mikhailov, Kharlamov, Makarov and Tretyak. Yet they don’t receive benefits in the same stratosphere as their male counterparts.
Of course, there were some remarkable accomplishments tonight by Team USA. Kelli Stack and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls both recorded hat tricks.
Coach Katey Stone perfected a trap fore-check breakout and made crucial adjustments to in-zone coverage. But let’s be honest. Tonight the story is really about equality in women’s sports. If countries like Finland, Sweden, Russia and others can support competitive men’s programs, they have no excuse not to support equally competitive women’s teams. The Olympics are two years away. There is time to invest in all of the qualifying teams, so that Sochi is one barn-burner after another. The skill, passion and drive are there waiting for a leg up. They are looking for their countries to answer the call.