ÖRNSKÖLDSVIK, Sweden – Last March, a first period Maria Lind game-winning goal and a 27-save shutout performance from goaltender Valentina Lizana saw MODO Örnsköldsvik upset favourites Brynäs IF to claim the club's first ever Swedish women's championship. The 1-0 win for the team from Örnsköldsvik, coming against a team from Gävle, was a significant milestone in the history of the women's game in Sweden, as it saw the end of a long period of dominance enjoyed by Stockholm-based clubs since the inaugural national championship of the 1987-88 season.
With MODO Örnsköldsvik hosting the 2013 European Women's Champions Cup, preliminary round, Group C played between October, 20-22, head coach Mikael Nilsson harbours high hopes for the continued development of his young team following their first Swedish title.
"Last season we integrated thirteen young players into the first team. Although we were far from being favourites to win the championship, our perfect mix of good national team players and young and hungry upcoming players became a recipe for success. We have been going into the new season with more or less the same roster, which hopefully means that we will be even stronger this year," he said.
As the pioneers of the Swedish women's game, it was in Örnsköldsvik that Ulla Jonsson formed the first women's team in the country, by drafting the wives of the MODO men's team players. They played Sweden's first organised women's game against Timrå in 1969, but despite their position as frontrunners, they soon became also-rans as Stockholm developed into the undoubted epicentre of the women's game in the country.
The success of greater Stockholm based clubs such as, initially Nacka HK and FoC Farsta, then Mälarhöjden/Bredäng before giving way to the latter day dominance of AIK and Segeltorps IF was built on fierce competition in the regional division, where the Stockholm teams had the experience of many tightly-contested encounters against each other during the regular season. This gave them an undoubted edge ahead of the national play-offs, which made the Stockholm clubs annual locks for the Swedish championship.
An important shift came about in 2008, when Riksserien, an all-encompassing national league, was initiated. Later that same year the first two ice hockey academies, officially endorsed by the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation, opened their doors in Västerås and in Järved, outside Örnsköldsvik, offering budding female players between the ages 16-19 the chance to combine their education with playing the game they love, which has played an important role in opening up the nationwide development of the sport.
"The ice hockey academy we have in Örnsköldsvik is great for us, and its excellent reputation means that a lot of talent players want to come here. This together with the support we are getting from MODO are all contributing factors which has made us the top team in Sweden," said Nilsson.
Two more ice hockey academies for girls have since followed suit, with Leksand in central Sweden getting their program underway in 2009, to the most recent, Segeltorp, in the greater Stockholm area starting up last year. Next in line should be one in the far southern part of the country where the women's game is still finding its way at the top level, something Erika Holst, Manager of Women's Hockey Development at the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation as well as a member of national women's team is hoping soon will be changed.
"It is positive that a team from southern Sweden, HV 71 won promotion to Riksserien last season and I am hoping that more teams in the south and the west of the country will soon follow. It would also be benefiting for women's hockey if more teams from the men's Elitserien and Allsvenskan (two top men's divisions in Sweden) would put more effort into their women's team or even start one," she said.
Meanwhile, with the sixth edition of Riksserien underway Stockholm club AIK, a heavyweight in the European women's game with three national championships and four European Women's Champions Cup in their trophy room, is looking to prove that the shift of power in Swedish women's hockey is just temporary.
"The development of the game is never going to be good if it's only done by a few clubs, but I am fully convinced that Stockholm will be represented at the top in the future. We at AIK are going for gold, and we cannot work for anything else with the history we have here at the club. But it will be a very tough championship this season and at the moment, last season's final teams, MODO and Brynäs will be the favourites, with a team such as Linköping also look like a strong contender," said AIK coach Ylva Lindberg.
MODO, meanwhile, have started their defense of the Swedish championship in emphatic fashion, winning their first eight league games of the season. The players are now looking forward to testing their skills against opponents from the continent.
"We are looking forward to play the European Women’s Champions Cup on home ice and I believe our chances to progress to the next round are good. In fact our team is good enough to win the whole tournament, and then age matters very little," said Nilsson.
The 2013 European Women's Champions Cup, Preliminary round, Group C is played at Fjällräven Center, Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, between 20-22 October, 2012. Hosts MODO Örnsköldsvik play Vålerenga Oslo (NOR), Laima Riga (LAT) and Hvidovre (DEN) where the group winner progresses to the second round played between 7-9 December 2012.