Two years ago I was in Reykjavik, Iceland watching the World Championship Division 2B and it was quite the experience if you remember my article from back then. I was sad about missing the event in Jaca last year, but nothing to do as it collided with a lot of important games back home in Sweden. However back at it again and due to the hostile climate right now in Turkey the IIHF decided to move the tournament to Spain and Jaca once again which made me glad since I heard so much good things about the location from last year. Don’t get me wrong, I was very excited about going to watch hockey in the Turkish capital Ankara, but equally excited about seeing Jaca so it was somewhat of a win-win scenario except for losing some money on the tickets I’d already bought.
What I didn’t expect coming to Spain was how the teams had evolved. From what I saw two years ago the level kept pretty much the same last year from the games I followed on the live-stream, but boy have they raised the bar this time! Not all of the teams of course, evolution takes a different path in different countries and I would say Turkey are on about the same level as last time having a year off in the division 2 qualifiers. Mexico more or less the same as last year and New Zealand actually regressed after being demoted from the 2A division, not so much that the players haven’t grown but more that a big part of the team consisted of new younger players with many of the top players from last year away on more important assignments. For example last years captain of NZ plays in the Swedish top league this year and had her first quarter-final this last Wednesday and the number one goalie Grace Harrison got stuck with school over in North America, also last years top scorer Jasmine Horner-Pascoe are back at home working, so very much a new team and they will get to fight hard against Turkey to stay in the 2nd division for another year.
But over to the improvements, starting with Australia who dropped out of division 2A two years ago and they had a rebuilding year last season finishing 5th in 2B. You can tell Australia is back on the rise again with a team of young and strong skaters, among which Youth Olympic contender Madison Poole is one of their bright lights for the future falling just a point short of winning an Olympic bronze medal in the skills competition. Alivia del Basso who spent a couple of years with Minnesota-Duluth playing college hockey stands out quite a lot on the team and was leading the scoring tables as I headed back home after the first 3 days, Del Basso sitting on top with 17 points in 3 games, a lot of which came against Turkey and New Zealand of course. Australia is a safe bet in the medal race even if I don’t think they will manage to capture the gold.
Iceland is another team on the rise, as well as they played two years ago I actually thought they would make it to the top three last year but alas racking up yet another fourth place in the division. This years edition has grown further though as the young players are taking over, last year in Jaca young Silvia Björgvinsdottir (-99) made her debut and also led the team in scoring her first year and this years freshman Sunna Björgvinsdottir are keeping right on her tail in the scoring sheets. With long time starter Karitas Halldorsdottir out of the picture a couple of new goalies are aiming for the job and both have been playing good from the start, it’s quite a nice situation being set up with two high quality goalies in the division 2 (Gudlaug Thorsteinsdottir and Elise Väljaots). Also with more players every year going over to play in Norway and Sweden the team takes leaps forward as they develop a lot faster with the better practices and games available. Iceland is gunning for medals this time and I don’t think Australia has got enough to stand in their way of finishing with silver.
The biggest improvement of the group has got to be Spain, getting some expert help on the bench from Swedish veteran Christian Yngve taking the job as head coach and he has tamed the unpolished Spain from two years ago and made them into a team with a plan. Building a team of players who work well together, setting them up with tactics to follow and the confidence to brush off mistakes and try again. I was very impressed already after the first games watching the team totally run over New Zealand, sure a bleak NZ team but you could see how the team had grown into just that, a TEAM. Next came the first real test against rival Mexico who beat Spain for the silver medal last year and there was no question about who would win after Spain took command of the game right from the start. Mexico who took an impressive shootout win over Australia in the first game were stunned by the strong skating and puck moving Spanish team. Sure Mexico had some chances here and there but it was Spain all the way and with 3-0 on the board at the end of the game the team stood with heads held high listening to the national anthem while being applauded by a well filled arena. Impressive to say the least and it was to get even better before I had to go in the last game against Iceland. I will say Iceland were playing really good this game, clearly their best game of the tournament so far and they kept thing even through the whole game but the determination of the Spanish wolfpack paid off with a well earned powerplay goal just 5 minutes before the end making the score 3-2. The players of course shaken by the pressure in the last few minutes but a late time-out to calm the nerves set up a couple of incredibly strong final minutes of the game and not only did they keep Iceland out of any serious scoring chances but they were only a post away from securing the win with a empty net goal. Amazing calm performance from young Alba Gonzalo in net and Spain has found a mighty good replacement for old-timer Carlota Alvarado, even better actually from what I’ve seen this week. The combination of hard working experienced players like Vanesa & Letitia Abrisqueta, Irene Senac, Ainhoa Merino and Gemma Ortiz combined with young talented and future European star players like Sara & Laura Danielsson, Ana Sierra, Vega Munoz and Elena Sans the future look bright for Spain and I really think they can claim a gold medal at home this weekend!
Still to two gamedays to go but I will pick out an all-star team for the tournament based on what I’ve seen this week.
Goalkeeper: Alba Gonzalo, Spain
Defense: Gudrun Vidarsdottir, Iceland
Defense: Vanesa Abrisqueta, Spain
Forward: Olivia Del Basso, Australia
Forward: Sunna Björgvinsdottir, Iceland
Forward: Laura Danielsson, Spain
Next up when I return home is the Swedish playoffs, then on to the Norwegian playoffs next weekend! It’s the most wonderful time of the year!