BURLINGTON – One of the reasons the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championship has been so successful on ice is the direct effect the U18 event is having on developing players and preparing them for the senior level. Although the women’s U18 is only five years old, it has already established itself as a farm team of sorts critical to the competitive improvement of the senior game.
“The initiative was to create a category to allow the younger players to compete at a level within their age bracket,” the IIHF’s Sport Director Dave Fitzpatrick explained. “Otherwise, 15-year-olds would play against 25 to 35-year-olds. The championship category was also seen as an initiative for nations to promote and recruit younger players and introduce them to the sport at the local and regional levels within their country.”
Indeed, the numbers are startling for Burlington. Russia has 15 players on its pre-tournament roster who played at U18. Switzerland had 12, Sweden 11, Germany and Slovakia 10, Finland and the United States 8, and Canada 6. This total of 80 players is remarkable considering that in 2007, prior to the inaugural U18, the number was zero.
The North Americans are at the bottom of the list because so many of their top players have been around a long time and are not going to be replaced easily. But when the Wickenheisers and Potters of the game retire, the numbers will go up for Canada and the United States as well.
“The Under-18 age group is the key to the future success of the sport,” agreed Tanya Foley, the IIHF’s Women’s Program Manager. “It is this age group that the IIHF and nations have the most hope for in respect to educating them on how to be athletes first and then hockey players by choice of how to use their athletic ability. With the introduction of the Under-18 Championship, the athletes get an earlier exposure to international competition and have the opportunity to play against tougher opponents than most see during the course of the year. This can only make them better.”
Case in point is Germany’s Manuela Anwander. She scored the winning goal in the shootout against Slovakia at the end of game one of the Relegation Round, and she comes to the German team after three years with the U18 program.
“The U18 was very important because when you come to the national team at 16 years old, it’s too difficult,” she explained. “The development is much better because you can play for three years at under 18 and feel more confident going to the national team. The transition isn’t as great when you get there as well. The game is not as fast as it would be otherwise.”
Foley notes the extra level isn’t only for the players. “It also helps develop coaches and other staff members in national programs, which is helping bring more people into leadership roles and expand the development of the game around the world.”
Like everything else, though, it takes time to establish a tournament. In 2008, in Calgary, there were eight teams but only in one division. In 2012, there were three levels and a total of 20 teams.
“This age group is the key for beyond Sochi,” Foley maintains. “Many nations have witnessed the confidence that the graduates of the Under-18 Championship possess as more and more of them are appearing on rosters at the senior level World Championships, and they are creating internal Under-15 or Under-16 programs to continue this progression. Many of the nations are now seeing the first generation of true hockey athlete come through their programs to replace those that simply played hockey as a recreational activity, and the level of skill on the ice will continue to improve and the European and Asian nations that continue to support their young athletes and create depth in their programs will be battling their North American friends for gold.”
Danielle Goyette, a legendary player for Canada and coach of the CIS champion University of Calgary Dinos last month, couldn’t agree more.
“For sure it helps, even for Canada and the U.S. But when you think of the other countries, the problem is that the Olympics are only every four years. Girls don’t train full time, so it’s hard to keep a good team together. But if you look at a country like Slovakia, they can start training players at a younger age because there’s the U18. They see what it’s like playing for the national team, so they’re going to keep playing at least until they finish university.”
From the European perspective, the opinions are the same. Sweden’s coach, Niclas Hogberg, has selected more than half his team here in Burlington with U18 experience.
“The U18 is very, very important,” he stressed. “I can see the players coming up from there even now. They’re individual skills are better, and so is their focus. They do everything they have to do to be on that team, play regional tournaments to try to make the under-18 team. Before the IIHF U18, we didn’t have those tough games to develop players. To focus on the under-18 is our first challenge. For young kids who don’t get to play U18, I think they are missing some training and developing the mental part of the game that you have to have in the senior level.”
It’s only a matter of time before virtually every player on every team comes from U18, much like all North American NHLers come from Canadian junior or NCAA. It’s all about creating enthusiasm at an earlier age, teaching training and commitment and skills, and developing players who can, one day, create a level playing field across the entire spectrum of the women’s game.