The Bolzano Eagles that is, those were only some of our guests here in Sweden as the second round of the European Women Champions Cup went under way. Host team and Swedish champions Linköping went into the tournament undefeated since the 19th of January, that’s 22 straight wins counting only official games. In other words, a team with great confidence and only one goal, to be the best in Europe.
Aside from Bolzano we also had the pleasure to welcome Espoo Blues from Finland and Aisulu Almaty from Kazakhstan, which turned out to be an interesting combination of teams. Everything set up for a weekend of exciting games, a bit more than I would have expected actually.
This tournament was a bit special for me as I got the assignment of serving as team host for the Italians and I considered it a great honor, making sure I would be available for them 24/7 if needed. That was at least my take on the mission at hand, it turned out they didn’t need very much help but just being there was much appreciated. I did get to know some great people during this weekend, not only some of the players on the Bolzano squad most of which also represent the Italian national team but also got to speak a lot to their team manager Manfred and the coach Marco. It’s a bit special when you get to bond with a team like this and I will make sure to visit them in the future, just to know some people when travelling around the world for tournaments and World Championships makes it all a lot more fun and I think it’s important to connect between nations especially for the development of the women’s hockey world.
So you might wonder how the tournament played out? Well it started of with a really lopsided game between hosts LHC and Bolzano where the home team was not only a few numbers bigger than the Eagles and that’s nothing both teams didn’t know before the game. Italy has very limited resources when it comes to women’s hockey while LHC represents the fringe of Sweden’s development, lining up world class players like Jennifer Wakefield, Kim Martin-Hasson, Pernilla Winberg, Denise Altmann and the list goes on. Bolzano did have some good sequences in the game but still were overrun 14-0 in the opening game, still I thought Dani Klotz played a pretty good game in goal when facing a team playing propaganda hockey.
The late game was between Aisulu and Espoo where Michelle Karvinen got to showcase her spectacular skills on the ice despite just having arrived after a long trip from Grand Forks, ND. It’s a bit more acceptet in my world to bring in stars for this type of tournament than what happened last season in the Swedish and Norwegian leagues as a few very important players were brought in which had some unfortunate consequences this season when you look at the bigger picture. But back to the game, Espoo ended up victorious 7-4 in a very strange game, should have been an easy win for the Finns however Aisulu managed to score on the most strange shots and without Karv on the team I’m not so sure if Espoo would have gotten the win.
For the third game I was sure Espoo would crush Bolzano just like LHC did in the first one but instead we got to see a very well organized and hard working team standing tall against the Finns. But even if they did a real good job of making sure Karv didn’t get room to move, it’s hard to keep it up 100% and when she get’s free the puck will be in your net. As was the case 8 minutes into the game as she notched a beauty for the lead, Bolzano made a quick recovery and the game was well played from both sides. And even if the Finns eventually pulled away I was really proud by the effort "my" team had showed on the ice, despite a 7-3 loss I had high hopes for the last game against Aisulu.
LHC played the evening game against Aisulu and won 2-1, a game not as close as the result would reflect but it turned out Jillian MacIsaac in Aisulu’s net would be a tough nut to crack. Still it’s not important how big the win is, but that you get the win!
And it was the same MacIsaac that defeated the Eagles in the first game on the final day, Bolzano and Aisulu exchanged opportunities but the Italians just couldn’t get the pucks past the Canadian goalie on the other side. So Bolzano ended up without victories despite two really good games the last two days, I could see great potential for this team and Italy has improved a lot since the 2006 Olympics. They’ll take another step as Vermont alumni Chelsea Furlani goes Italian, to get a player of this caliber a citizenship is a huge deal at this level.
As for the final game it was to be a battle of wits between goalies Kim Martin-Hasson and Isabella Portnoj. I’m not so sure I could pick a winner but Kim shut the door for the 1-0 win and also picked up the tournament’s best goalie award, although Portnoj had a lot to do against a starspangled Linköping and played a great final game. It was only Anna Rydberg who managed to beat Portnoj which was of extreme importance for Espoo who advanced to the second round as the best second placed team with only a goals margin against German champions Planegg.
The final four will compete in late February for the title of European champions and the teams beside Linköping and Espoo are Swiss champs Lugano and Russian champs SKIF Nizhni Novgorod.
Now Christmas is knocking on our doors and the national teams in Europe gather for their last tournaments of the year, a traditional 4-nation tournament takes place in Sweden where Finland, Germany and Russia are invited. France will host a tournament with Norway, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. That will be a grand finish to put 2014 in the books. Can’t imagine anything better than to end the year watching those favorite players you only get to see once or twice a year, especially Germany’s Kerstin Spielberger and Finnish star goalie Meeri Räisänen not to mention the Swedish players who are back from college for this tournament!
I hope you all have had a terrific year and that Santa brings a lot of fine hockey gifts for the important part of the season as it commences in January. Fight hard and win a lot in 2015, winning is awesome but remember development is also awesome, don’t dispair if you are on a losing team every bit takes you a small step towards the top!