The team arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan last week and got to work:
Before we look at this year’s team, let’s look at their history in the tournament. You know that Sweden is one of the powerhouse hockey countries, but the history of women’s hockey in Sweden is one of a struggle not just to close the gap on Canada and the USA, but to keep pace with Finland and, increasingly, Russia.
In 1990 when this tournament began, Sweden came fourth behind Finland. In 2005, they won their first bronze medal, and it looked like they were the team to challenge Finland as the usual third-place finisher. This was a time of marked shrinking of all the skills gaps in the women’s game and Sweden, Finland and some other countries started to catch up.
Sweden won their second bronze in 2007, finished fourth the next time the event was held in 2009, and they’ve never been in contention since. Not even as host in 2015, have they finished as high as fourth. The surge of the Russian team has left them looking like they are standing still in this race.
The second most popular sport in Sweden after hockey is the one where everyone asks, “What’s wrong with Swedish hockey?” A situation that is familiar to many Canadians. The answer is likely very complicated and is partly about money devoted to the sport but also simply a numbers game. Sweden has a tiny population compared to Russia. But their even-smaller neighbour Finland can’t count on the bronze medal without a heavy fight anymore because of the growth in Russia and other countries.
It’s a whole new world in the women’s game.
It’s not clear that the governing body of Swedish hockey is entirely comfortable in that new world. For the third year in a row, the head coach of the women’s team is Leif Boork, who is 67 and a veteran of SHL coaching in prior decades. And while the most important and talked- about member of the team should be the women playing on the ice, Boork is always at the centre of the story with this team.
Two of the women most people think we should all be talking about are Jenni Asserholt and Emma Eliasson, two top players in the women’s league, the SDHL. Asserholt was captain of the national team the last time Boork allowed her on it. Because of his personal feud with these two women, he will not consider naming either of them. And yet, he continues as head coach and is expecting to be extended and to coach the team through the Olympics next year.
The official list of players as announced on March 14 included some surprising names:
Maria Lindh , Univ. of Minnesota-Duluth
As you can see, the majority of the team is from the SDHL with only two US College players. The SDHL champions, Djurgården, are not well represented, however, their head coach, Jared Cipparone, 31, is the assistant coach, leading some to hope that he brings a more modern approach to the team. Maria Lindh has also signed to the team for next year, leaving college hockey behind her.
Boork has been criticized for playing a defensive style that stifles offence, but he sees their struggles to score in recent national team matches as a problem of injuries:
We’ve had some problems with the scoring. Emma Nordin , Anna Borgqvist , Erika Grahm and so on. We have had several of those supporting offensive players away. Maybe not at the same time, but from time to time. This has meant that we have not been able to transform the team so we have the really aggressive quality.
There are very few new players on the team since last year, but one that stands out is Maja Nyhlén Persson, a 16-year-old defender who has never played on the women’s national team, but has been a regular on an SDHL team. It is really difficult not to see her inclusion on this team in the same light as Rasmus Dahlin’s turn on the recent Swedish WJC team at the same age. That move garnered a lot of buzz while he didn’t add a lot to the play on the ice.
Given that Emma Eliasson scores at over a point per game in the SDHL as a defender (and was tied for second in defender scoring in the World Championships last year) and Nyhlén Persson doesn’t quite hit .5 points per game, this exchange of the veteran the coach can’t get along with for a budding young future star seems like it isn’t doing the team any favours.
The rest of the defence corps are seasoned SDHL veterans and most are national team and World Championship veterans who will carry the team with the bulk of the ice time.
The expectation from Boork is that two forward lines will produce for him:
Now, I think we have two lines that have offensive qualities. Lisa Johansson , Anna Borgqvist and Emma Nordin, we have a line. Pernilla Winberg and Hanna Olsson is another line.
A surprising omission from Boork’s analysis of where his offence will come from is Fanny Rask. She is coming off the best year of her career at only 25, and looks to be in peak form. She led HV71 in points and goals by a massive margin this year, and led her team to the finals losing only to the champion Djurgården. Of course, HV71 is Asserholt’s team, and Rask is a close friend and supporter of her teammate and captain.
Rask (#49 in white) is shown here, first in the corner digging for the puck, then out in the slot and then she drifts away like a leaf floating on the current, only to zip in and grab the goal when everyone’s lost track of her.
Lisa Johansson is Rask’s equal in points this season, as is Erika Grahm. Pernilla Winberg, however, has played at the World Championships since 2004, and is not having a great year at the net. She does bring a wealth of veteran experience, however. And that’s how this team has been built with a mix of youth and experience.
Sara Grahn is expected to start every game as the main goaltender. She has a .934 save percentage in four games with the national team this year, and is the strength they will be relying on in tough matches.
Sweden plays in Pool B, which means they have to outplay only two of the Czechs, the Swiss and the Germans to get into the quarterfinals. That part should be a given. It’s the next step that looks difficult for this team, and one they’ve done poorly at in recent years. Last year Russia thumped them 4-1 in the quarterfinals, and they do not want a repeat of that performance.