I’m right now sitting in a hotel room in Ljubljana thinking back on a season that has been historic and memorable in so many aspects. After last season I doubted very much if I would ever reach my season high of watching 116 hockey games again and browsing through the list from this season realizing I ended up watching 137(!) games, that’s 137 games of women’s hockey spanning visits to Hungary, Austria, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Slovenia and everything from the two greatest hockey nations USA and Canada facing eachother in a small arena outside my childhood hometown to a magnificent game between Spain and Iceland high up in the Pyrenees. There has of course been games not worth remembering while others has been just unforgettable, but still not as unforgettable as many of the wonderful players I’ve gotten to watch bloom, gotten to talk to and hang out with, little things that make all the effort worthwhile.
Got many words to describe this season as, but "even" is the one that truly sums it up. Not only that the Swedish league was the most even ever despite the league being expanded from 8 to 10 teams this year and the battle for first place even became an goal-difference affair between to-be champions Luleå and last years winners Linköping. The world championship circus has also been more even than I’ve ever seen it before as the division 1A in Aalborg, Denmark featured close game between all the teams and Slovakia whom in the end got relegated held up very well against the promoted German team. Having spent this last week in Bled, Slovenia for the division 2A I actually think the gap between the top three teams here and those playing in the division 1A aren’t a yawning chasm but rather a small bump in the road. Naturally I realize silver medalist France from 1A would beat Korea or Great Britain in a series of games, however I do believe they would at least stand a chance of winning perhaps 1 in 5 games and that leaves me to think the Olympic qualifications starting in August will be one interesting affair for many of the "outsiders". Hosting Korea along with USA, Canada, Russia, Finland and Sweden are fixed and then the last two spots are up for grabs! Just look at the results of the last qualifications for the Olympics in Sotchi, Japan finally secured the spot winning the final over Denmark who was ranked 19th in the world back then.
Now for the really even part, and in some cases also the most uneven. The World Championship division 2A in Bled, to be remembered as the most even medal race imagineable with Great Britain, Korea and Poland ending up tied for first place on 12 points each. It’s not unheard of that two teams tie for first place in which case whomever of the teams won their game against eachother becomes the tie-breaker, but with three teams they first form an internal round robin table usually decided by goal difference, and still they were tied to the very point that the whole tournament was finalized by the team who scored the most goal against the other two teams leaving Poland as champions with 3 goals against Korea and Great Britain tied at 2. Close call to say the least and Poland were actually very close to making a fatal mistake in their game against Great Britian as the coaching staff wasn’t aware that a one goal loss would be enough to win the tournament, so with little more than a minute remaining of the game they decide to pull the goalie going for the tied and my jaw dropped to the floor as I understood they didn’t realize letting in a goal at this point would toss that gold medal into Lake Bled. The Brits however did know and gave everything to get the puck towards that open net and there were a couple of close calls where the Polish players desperately sacrifices body parts to make sure the puck didn’t get all the way through and in the end managed to keep the score to a 1-2 loss. It was heartbreaking watching both teams in tears as the Poles still didn’t know that they had actually just won the gold and the promotion to division 1B, but I did feel better 15 minutes later watching the Polish girls coming out all smiles from their locker room as they had recieved the good news. But for a second just imagine that feeling if they would have let in an open net goal to take them out of the tournament, could there be a worse feeling in the world of sports?
Fair result in the end? Others might disagree but yes I would say Poland deserved the win after their great team effort this last week, basically the same team as last year with some new young players coming in and all of them fighting hard towards the same goal. Going into this tournament I guessed it would be a race between Korea and Great Britain for the gold based on what I saw last year and both of them had for sure improved since last time, especially Korea taking another step in the right direction towards the Olympics however seeing how well Poland got their game together was just impressive and getting to see them always wearing big smiles around the rink make them such a loveable team. I’ve liked Karolina Pozniewska and Magdalena Czaplik since I got to see them in last years tournament, but the one who kind of blew all the other favorite players out of the way this year was young goalkeeper Martyna Sass stepping in net from the start for Poland, only 15 years old and her first international tournament above the U18 level and what an amazing goalie with a completely unique style and unmatched reflexes. The thing is Poland has a lot of young players who are already showing signs of brilliance and I think they will be a uncomfortable surprise for the teams in 1B next year, definitely have to make sure I get to see that tournament since the great young Slovakian team will also be there. Worth mentioning this will be the first time Poland get to play at the division 1 level of Worlds.
My all-star team of the tournament turned out a bit different to the best player awards selected by the directorate but as always I stand by my choices which were:
G. Nicole Jackson, Great Britain
D. Chol Sun Won, DPR Korea
D. Ela Filipec, Croatia
F. Karolina Pozniewska, Poland
F. Jong-Ah Park, Korea
F. Pia Pren, Slovenia
Jackson was named best goalkeeper so at least I got one, best defender went to Koreas Kyou Sun Lee and best forward to the Polish captain Katarzyna Frackowiak, all well deserved prices so I do respect the directorate choices. And I was very glad as they announced the MVP for Croatia to Danijela Prokopec to pay homage for a long career and she should be considered one of the pioneers of women’s hockey in Croatia. Overall the division 2 tournaments in Bled and Jaca once again put up great arrangements unlike Scandinavia, with advertising, lots of people moving around the arena the whole way through the tournament. Sweden, Norway and Denmark still has a lot to learn about marketing a women’s hockey tournament even if they are great at everything surrounding what happens on the ice. But once again a big hand for Slovenia and Spain who put up overall great experiences at Worlds, the same goes for France and Great Britain last year. Also a big hand for photographer Drago Cvetanovic capturing the tournament brilliantly with beautiful pictures showing all kinds of emotions, he can be found as Cveto.si on Facebook.
As the season is now over I begin to prepare for the next one, since I do believe we have a very interesting Silly Season ahead and I’m glad to say I’ve already made some contributions to it which will improve the Swedish leagues further. Have a nice summer everyone, I’m taking a few days extra in Zagreb to visit my favorite hockey players before it’s all over!
On a final note I would like to add how much I love the world of sports remembering a moment from this last week as the Korean team were sitting in the stands cheering for their neighbors DPR Korea on the ice and I only wish the political situation between the countries could be as sisterly!