June 18th, 2024

Women’s world junior hockey championship on the distant horizon

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on April 9, 2024.

Canada's Danielle Serdachny (92), Ella Shelton (17) and Nicole Gosling (61) warm up before their game against Finland at the IIHF Women's World Hockey Championship in Utica, N.Y., on April 4, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

UTICA – A women’s world junior hockey championship will happen, but is at least five years away, says the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Canada and the United States want that timeline shortened. They’re taking their development women’s teams to Europe in December to play other countries in exhibition games to get the ball rolling faster.

The IIHF male trifecta for a quarter century has been the men’s senior, under-20 and under-18 championships.

A women’s world under-18 championship was added to the IIHF calendar in 2008 – Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin played in the first in Calgary – but there isn’t an IIHF tournament between it and the world championship.

“It’s the missing piece to our puzzle right now,” said Katie Million, USA Hockey’s director of national women’s team programs.

“We have our really strong under-18 championship program and women’s worlds, but there’s a span that can be four to six years where we don’t see those players again, and have those touch points like they do on the men’s side.”

The world junior men’s, or under-20, championship stakes a large claim in the hockey landscape. Held over the Christmas holidays into early January, it’s like college bowl season for hockey fans.

It draws millions of viewers to screens and thousands to arenas, particularly when held in Canada, which makes it profitable from corporate sponsorship. It’s also an NHL scouting bonanza.

Canada’s general manager Gina Kingsbury, who is also Toronto’s GM in the new Professional Women’s Hockey League, wears both club and international hats in her desire for a women’s junior tournament.

“With this new league, I think it’s even more critical in a lot of ways. You can almost create what the world junior men’s is, a pre-NHL sample for everyone,” Kingsbury said.

“Fans and people who are following the women’s game can start predicting so-and-so from Europe is probably going to go first overall because she destroyed the World Junior Cup and look at all these prospects that are going to be entering this professional league.

“I would hope the league speeds up that process. It’s been on the agenda for a few years with the IIHF.”

Canada and the United States hold camps for their women’s under-22 teams and play each other in a three-game series every summer.

Lack of money and a shallow player pool in countries outside North America hinder the immediate establishment of a women’s junior tournament, says IIHF women’s committee chair Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer.

“I would say not in the next five years, but we will get there,” she said.

A women’s junior tournament for the top countries requires the IIHF to hold the equivalent for countries in lower divisions.

There are hockey federations struggling financially post-COVID, and women’s Division 3 Ukraine and Israel play for countries currently in geopolitical strife, Kolbenheyer pointed out.

“There are also concerns about, except the top four countries, that they have enough players to not play the same players in all three tournaments,” she said.

“For sure, the U.S. and Canada have enough players to play different players, but would that be the case for other European countries or Asian countries?”

Japan’s head coach says his country has the player depth for an under-20 team.

“We really strongly wish we had an under-20,” Yuji Iizuka said through an interpreter. “It’s really hard to keep those younger players after the under-18 category. There’s so much of a gap.”

Sweden’s national team director Anders Lundberg echoes concerns about young women drifting away from the game during that gap.

“If I compare it to the men’s side, you have under-16, 17, 18 and under-20, the world juniors, you have those small steps to say ‘hey, I can reach the next step’, but when the gap is so big between the under-18 and the senior team . . . for some players it goes fast, but most players, it could take 10 years from when you play in the under-18 world championship until you get your first international game at the senior level,” Lundberg said.

“That’s also a big part, to keep the girls playing and have something to strive for.”

There are 20 players in the women’s world championship in Utica, N.Y., aged 18 or under, and spread across the rosters of Czechia, Switzerland, China, Denmark, Germany, Japan and Sweden.

They’re facing 30-year-olds at a time when there is more leniency around body checking in women’s hockey.

“We have on the male and female side in lower divisions . . . the same players are playing for the under-20 and under-18 and also for the senior tournament,” Kolbenheyer said. “This should not be our aim to give three tournaments per year to the same players.”

Whether the women’s junior tournament will be under-20, under-21 or even under-23 is still to be determined.

Where to put another women’s tournament on the calendar is another hurdle. The world under-18 championship slot is in early January so players don’t miss too much school.

Million feels the ideal time is in December just before the holidays, when colleges and universities are on a break.

Nicole Gosling, the youngest player on Canada’s team at 21, believes young women deserve more chances to play for their country in a world championship.

“If you look at hockey players, some people peak at different times, so it gives I think more players that are in that age range, like in college, an opportunity to represent their country if they weren’t successful at the under-18 team,” said the defender from London, Ont.

“If you look at the men’s world junior team, if someone played at the world juniors, it’s always something listed in their bio.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2024.

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