Although the result of the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championships in Malmo, Sweden did not meet Canada’s golden expectations, the event found Jenn Wakefield’s magical season coming full circle. Suiting up for Swedish club team Linkoping for the 2014-15 campaign, it marked the first time that a Canadian-born Winter Games gold medalist competed in elite league play there. While it may have been a much different world than what she was accustomed to in North America (primarily attributed to the language difference), her presence represented a special precedent.
With Sweden as the setting for the IIHF Worlds, it provided the perfect end to Wakefield’s season, one in which her efforts not only added an element of interest towards the growing impact of European women’s hockey, while giving her the chance to be a hockey ambassador.
In the last few years, a growing trend has seen women from Europe coming to North American to compete at the CIS, CWHL and NCAA levels. This has also been reciprocated for several years by American and Canadian players. A little known fact about the game is that several women from CIS and NCAA hockey have continued their careers in elite European league play.
Some recent names familiar to fans include the likes of Cherie Hendrickson, Jess Jones and Kelley Steadman, to name a few. By taking the path of going to Europe, not only does it allow these women a chance to extend their careers, but it provides them with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live and play in another part of the world.
When a world-class talent such as Wakefield may be the most notable name to have opted to engage in European completion, it definitely stands as a surprisingly pleasant announcement. She would actually follow in the footsteps of fellow Canadian national team member Bailey Bram (who was released during the centralization camp leading up to Sochi), who made the jump to Sweden in early 2014. Prior to signing with Linkoping in summer 2014, Wakefield would finish her 2013-14 season (which included gold in Sochi) with a team in Pitea, Sweden, suiting up for Munksund in the Riksserien League.
An added benefit for Wakefield was the opportunity to continue the gradual breaking of hockey’s gender barrier. Competing with Division 3 men’s club IK Guts, based out of Norkkoping, she emulated the legendary Hayley Wickenheiser. Back in 2003, Wickenheiser (who played with Wakefield in Sochi) competed among men in Finland. As a side note, Hilary Knight had also been approached about competing with a men’s team from Sweden in 2014. Knight would be named the Most Valuable Player at the 2015 IIHF Women’s Worlds.
Appearing in 15 games this season with Linkoping’s female club, Wakefield’s scoring touch yielded strong dividends, accumulating an impressive 18 goals. Along with four assists, her role as the offensive catalyst ensured Luinkoping finished its season as league champions. Posting a goal and an assist in a 5-0 title win against AIK, it allowed Wakefield to participate in a special Swedish hockey custom.
In years past, Swedish championship teams (especially at the IIHF level) celebrate their victories by adorning gold helmets. As a side note, the gold helmet also bears importance in Sweden as an award, annually given to the Swedish Hockey League’s MVP. Wakefield proudly donned her golden helmet (known in Sweden as a Guldhjalmen) in celebration of Linkoping’s win.
Her efforts not only brought awareness to women’s hockey in Europe, certainly one of the game’s best-kept secrets, but it allowed her a chance to call international rivals teammates and friends. Playing alongside the likes of Austrian Denise Altmann (a four-time scoring champion in Sweden), Swiss star Stefany Marty and Swedish hockey legend Pernilla Winberg, the talented roster wove a tapestry of hockey diversity, where the common language was defined by the love of the game.
By season’s end, Wakefield captured the imagination of many new fans, while possibly opening the door for many more Canadian and American stars to consider a season in Europe. Malmo served as the fond farewell for Wakefield, allowing the Swedish fans one more chance to appreciate her talents before the seasons of spring and summer bring new sporting endeavors. In Canada’s first game of the event, Wakefield logged two points, including a second period goal in a valiant effort against the US.
Statistically, Wakefield registered five points for Canada at the IIHF Worlds, while providing a proud veteran presence on a Canadian team filled with many players making their debut at the IIHF Worlds. As a side note, Wakefield had the chance to sit with former teammate turned TSN broadcaster Tessa Bonhomme (who both played together on the Canadian national team and with the Toronto Furies) for an interview about the Swedish experience. The rapport and mutual respect between the two shone through, resulting in one of the best interviews during TSN’s coverage of the IIHF Worlds.
Perhaps more importantly, Sweden also represented a chance to connect with the game in a fun and unique way. As an elite player for the majority of her life, Wakefield was always accustomed to not only very high levels of play, but the pressure that sometimes accompanies such a reality. Suddenly, a chance to play in Sweden brings about an innocence and amusement that not only furthers her love of the game, but allows an entire new group of hockey fans to appreciate her superlative talents.
Photo credits: Game action by Jonathan Hayward, Golden Helmet image obtained from Twitter
Acknowledgements: Mats Bekkevold