Jennifer Harss was not expecting to play at the 2005 IIHF Women’s World Championships. She did not join her team until partway through the tournament, after one of Germany’s goalies suffered an injury. But with 35 seconds left in Germany’s last game, a 3-0 win against China that secured them fifth place in the tournament, Harss got her first taste of the World Championships.
“We were winning and the coach put me in for the end of the game,” said Harss. “That was a special experience because I didn’t expect to get any playing time.”
Harss is no longer a back-up goaltender seeing little playing time. This past April, 12 years after her first World Championship experience, Harss led the goaltending trio (of herself, Ivonne Schröder and Franziska Albl) that helped Germany achieve their best ever finish at a IIHF Women’s World Championships. The Germans were dubbed the ‘Cinderella’ team, as they defied expectations by finishing in fourth place.
What makes their final ranking even more impressive is the fact that in 2016, Germany did not compete in the top division of the Women’s World Championships. They finished last at the 2015 World Championships and were relegated to Division IA for 2016. However, they quickly bounced back, winning the 2016 Division IA World Championships to return to the top division for 2017.
“We had a good set up in Plymouth [at the 2017 World Championships] and felt very comfortable,” Harss said in regards to the differences between the team’s 2015 and 2017 tournaments. “Over the last three years we improved and grew a lot as a team, including many ups and downs. This has helped us to develop a good team chemistry and I also think it was very important for us to have a good start in the tournament. After beating Sweden we gained confidence and we knew we could move on.”
A definite key to Germany’s success was their goaltending. Harss, a University of Minnesota Duluth alumna, and Schröder played the majority of Germany’s games, giving outstanding performances in high stakes situations.
Both Harss and Schröder were players before they were goalies, and when not competing or training with the German national team, both play for German men’s teams. Harss just signed a contract with her team, ERC Sonthofen, for another season. ERC Sonthofen plays in Germany’s third highest league, Oberliga Süd, which is considered to be a semi-professional league.
“I grew up playing on a boy’s team and I am used to it,” Harss said of playing with men. “[There] are more games and practices throughout the season, [and the team competes] on a very high level.”
Schröder plays for Tornado Niesky, a team in Germany’s fourth highest league, Regionalliga Ost. She also grew up playing with boys, and enjoys the speed of the league. Outside of their regular teams, Germany’s goaltenders have also spent a lot of time working with goalie coach Andreas Jorde.
“He has helped us to improve and play confident in net,” said Harss. “This is definitely a huge part for us as goalies to work with a goalie coach regularly.”
Germany opened the 2017 World Championships tournament with Harss in net for a 3-1 win over Sweden. Schröder started the next game, an exciting 2-1 win over the Czech Republic. Schröder stopped 40 shots, while the Czechs only faced 12.
“She was very very happy, and she cried because she was so happy,” Schröder’s translator said of her feelings after beating the Czech Republic. “It was a very important game for her and for the team too, because she knew that [if she won] the game, then they would not lose the World Championships. Then she knew that she was in the quarterfinal.”
With Harss in net for the quarterfinal, Germany beat Russia, the 2016 bronze medallists, 2-1. This was only the second time Germany has beaten Russia, the first time being in 2005. The next two games for Germany were not easy ones. After suffering a 11-0 loss to the United States in the semifinals, Germany lost 8-0 to Finland in the bronze medal game. But despite these difficult losses, both Harss and Schröder held their heads high.
“We knew we were going to play two great opponents with a lot of talent and skill, and the games definitely weren’t easy, but it was a good experience for us,” explained Harss.
“We [got to] play against Team USA, and wow!” exclaimed Schröder (through a translator). “We were on the ice with the stars of Team USA, that was a great feeling.”
The bronze medal game was more of a disappointment for Germany. “They know that the Finnish team is very strong, but they hoped to score one or two goals,” said Schröder’s translator. “So they were very disappointed. [But] they were proud after the game because they finished fourth.”
Germany did not qualify for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics, but their great performance at the 2017 World Championships shows how much hockey has improved in countries like Germany in recent years.
“Overall women’s hockey has improved a lot over the years,” said Harss. “It is always tough when you lose a lot of great and experienced players due to retirement like we did after the 2014 Olympic Games. We kind of had to start over and rebuild our team. This doesn’t happen over night. It takes time, patience and hard work.”
Harss, Schröder, and Germany’s up-and-coming goaltenders will no doubt continue to play a significant role as Germany tries to further improve their performance at the World Championships and qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics.