Despite opening day wins for Canada and the USA, the early exchanges in Sochi illustrate how far female hockey in Europe has progressed since 2010.
At first glance, one could say little has changed in women’s hockey. The opening weekend of the Olympics saw Canada and the USA cruise to comfortable victories over the best of the rest. Both powerhouses of the women’s game scored very early, and piled on the shots for the remaining 60 minutes.
Yet a closer look suggests that Europe is steadily drawing closer to North America. Switzerland’s 5-0 loss to the Canadians was its best result against the Maple Leafs, and Finland proved obdurate in a 3-1 defeat against the Americans.
It’s a big contrast with the opening games in Vancouver four years ago, which saw margins of victory so great as to provoke questions about the viability of the women’s game at this level – and a new generation of European women is gaining valuable experience on both the U.S. College circuit and playing semi-pro hockey against men.
Finland’s Michelle Karvinen, 23, is back for her second Olympics and the forward has spent much of the intervening four years honing her skills in the NCAA with the University of North Dakota. “There are a lot of Europeans getting game time in the NCAA now and that’s having a huge impact,” she said during preparations for the Games. “We get to practise and play with the best players.”
Karvinen also gets a strong grounding from her father Heiki, a former player in Sweden’s Allesvenskan and the Danish top league who has been coaching for close to 30 years.
Indeed, while Karvinen is proud to represent Finland, she was born in Copenhagen and retains close ties with the Danes – a nation which she believes has potential to develop a strong women’s hockey culture of its own, despite a failing to make it to Sochi.
The other thing which gave the Lionesses of Finland a big lift was beating the USA in Lake Placid back in November. Stellar goaltending from Noora Raty backstopped a 3-1 win and threw a serious gauntlet across the Atlantic in advance of Sochi. “It gives us a little bit more confidence when we’re out on the ice, but we still know that we can’t give the puck away cheaply against teams like the USA or Canada.”
For Switzerland, meanwhile, seeded fourth at the Olympics, another top-class goalie believes that the national team is close to making a real breakthrough of its own.
Speaking after a busy evening in the 5-0 loss to Canada – in which she faced 69 shots – Florence Schelling remained determinedly upbeat. It wasn’t just the improvement on the previous best result against Canada, a 6-0 loss in 1997 – it was also the scoreless third period which created history and offered some cause for hope.
“I see the game as an improvement,” Schelling said. “The girls battled so hard today and I don’t think we’ve ever had that many shots on Canada before. For about seven minutes in the third we were pressuring them and they had a hard time. That shows us that we have improved and we can play alongside these teams.
“Of course we can’t do it for 60 minutes yet but we’re getting closer. Playing the third period at 0-0 was big for us because usually we break down late in the game and can’t keep up with them.”
Playing against men in the third tier of Swiss hockey, where she’s made about 15 appearances for EHC Bulach, has also helped. “I think that made a difference against Canada,” she said after the game. “I got used to the power that the men get on their shots on me and the power that Canada brought down on me was pretty similar.”
The improvements weren’t lost on the opposition either. Following that win over the Swiss, Canada’s Louriane Rougeau had praise for the progress Switzerland had made.
“You can see the level of play getting better and better year on year,” she said. “The other countries are battling hard to catch up, but they’re doing a great job.”
Rougeau also promised another hard battle next time out against Finland, anticipating another clash with a “great team and another excellent goalie”. Europe’s female hockey players may not be quite ready to unleash a revolution in the global balance of power, but the effects of steady evolution are making themselves felt on both sides of the Atlantic.