Friday, 29 August 2014

Renaissance period for women’s hockey in Sweden

The upcoming 2014-15 season is one that may prove to be a turning point in the proud women’s hockey history of Sweden. With the 2015 edition of the IIHF Women’s World Championship taking place in Malmö, the feelings of excitement and anticipation are rising rapidly.
After competing in the relegation round versus the Czech Republic at the 2013 IIHF Women’s Worlds in Ottawa, Canada, there is no question that the Swedish team is hoping to avoid such an outcome on home soil. Taking into account that the 2013 team consisted of many young players, there was definitely an adjustment period in question.
A strong turning point occurred at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Not only did Sweden compete in the bronze medal game (despite a heartbreaking loss to Switzerland, who claimed their first bronze), the aftermath of the Games provided more encouragement. In addition to speculation that Hilary Knight was offered an opportunity to play in a Swedish men’s league, a pair of elite Canadian players made their mark.
Bailey Bram (one of the final players released from Canada’s Centralization Camp) and Jennifer Wakefield, who earned her first Winter Games gold medal brought their world class games to Sweden. Of note, their presence was a historical one. They were the first Canadians to have won IIHF World Women’s Championships to play in Sweden.
Fans can expect to see more of Wakefield this season. On Sunday August 24, the first preseason game for Linköping (her club team) took place. Competing against AIK, Wakefield and Swedish national team captain Jenni Asserholt each contributed two goals in a 4-1 road victory.
Taking into account the IIHF’s efforts to improve women’s hockey globally with its Mentorship and Ambassador program, the movement of Bram and Wakefield to Sweden is significant. The best way for so many of the players in Europe to improve is to be able to call such accomplished players as teammates in their home leagues. It just brings a unique perspective on the game while having individuals such as Bram and Wakefield as mentors. Although the NCAA has been very accommodating to European players, there is an adjustment period for many players in North America.
Other North American players shall be joining the likes of Wakefield this season. With Fredrik Pettersson having established an expansion team in Gothenburg, he has included three players crossing the Atlantic to compete on his roster.
Bemidji State graduates Tess Dusik and Jessica Havel, a pair of graduates from the NCAA level with the Bemidji State Beavers shall continue to be teammates together. Blueliner Christi Capozzi, who played for head coach Graham Thomas with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds shall also be extending her career in Sweden.
Joining them on Gothenburg shall be goaltender Ellen Wilhelmsson. Having played with the Swedish Under-18 national team, her international experience she shall likely make her the club’s franchise player. 
In addition to Gothenburg, two other expansion clubs shall be competing this season. Building on this great momentum is the fact that the Swedish Elite League plans to expand to 10 teams for the 2015-16 campaign. Long established men’s clubs Färjestad and Djurgården have established sister franchises, stamping their legendary names in the growing women’s game.
Considering that Djurgården has long featured prominent men’s players, they are building strong momentum with two marquee signings: goaltender Valentina Wallner, who stood between the pipes for Sweden at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, along with Tina Enström. As a side note, her brother Tobias skates for the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets.
Of all the free agent acquisitions, AIK managed a very significant one. Yuka Hirano, who suited up for Japan at Sochi becomes the first Japanese player to join the Swedish Elite League. With regards to homegrown talent, AIK has also acquired blueliner Elin Holmlöv, who played alongside Wallner at the Sochi Games. As a side note, Holmlöv has also played pro hockey in Russia.

AIK shall rely heavily on her leadership as the club attempts to dethrone defending champions Linköping. The club boasts the likes of Swedish hockey hero Pernilla Winberg, former national team member Melinda Olsson, along with Ingrid Morset, the captain of the Norwegian hockey team. In addition, the club features Wakefield. There is already discussion that she may already play for a men's Division 3 team, which would be akin to Hayley Wickenheiser, who competed at the Division 3 level in Finland men’s hockey. 

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