STOCKHOLM – With already a lot of talk about women’s hockey’s position on the global sports map, the Swedish Olympic Committee did the sport or the country’s women’s team any favours when it let it slip that there was a chance they wouldn’t send a team to Sochi at all.
“We wanted to send them a signal that we want to see improved results. We usually send teams that have qualified into tournaments, but I can’t say what our position will be,” Peter Reinebo, the Swedish Olympic Committee’s director of operations said as late as early November.
The team had just lost to Finland and the U.S. – 2-0 and 10-0, respectively – in the Four Nations tournament in Lake Placid. However, they put up a good fight in their game against Canada, still a losing effort, 4-3, before losing their game for third place to the Americans again, 8-1.
“Our focus has been on developing our work. We’ve been out of the medals for a long time, and we’re more than aware of that, so as the first step forward, we’ve done everything to improve our play so that we can challenge the other teams in the future,” head coach Niclas Högberg told IIHF.com.
“In the Olympics, the two preliminary groups are so different, as only half of our group can take it to the quarter-final, so our goal is a little different from what it would have been had we been in the other group,” he added.
Then again, the teams in the Group A are ranked 1-4 in the world, so obviously their goals are different.
Still, the teams are close, said Högberg.
“Japan, who qualified for the Olympics via a qualification tournament, is not far behind us, and we, on the other hand, beat Switzerland – ranked fourth – in a tournament recently,” said Högberg.
“We’ve beaten Finland and Russia this season, so we know what we’re capable of. The teams are so close that anything is possible,” he added.
If Canada has had their share of turmoil while getting ready for the Olympics, the Swedes haven’t had it easy, either. Högberg has been criticized to the point in which the Swedish federation had a separate press conference about the team and the players on it, in which the team’s consultant Leif Boork – former men’s team’s head coach – defended the coach and the team.
“We did raise the bar last spring, and we do demand more of the players. The players have known this for a long time, and there haven’t been any conflicts inside the team. When we got together in May, we told everybody that we have to do everything we can to get better,” he added.
For the players, that meant getting in shape. Harder work, and an even more no-nonsense attitude than before.
But now the team’s ready, the players are good to go, and Högberg is optimistic about his team’s chances in Sochi.
“I think we’ve prepared ourselves well. We need to be ready from the first game on, every game is important,” he said.
The team has great goaltending in Sara Grahn, Valentina Wallner, and Kim Martin Hasson, Sweden’s hero in 2006 when the team went all the way to the final. Martin Hasson has only played two games in the national team this season – 105 minutes – but has an impressive 97.37 save percentage. Sweden also won both of those games.
And if there’s something Sweden needs, it’s good goaltending. The team’s leading goal scorer this season is Pernilla Winberg, who’s got five goals in 17 games.
“I really appreciate our captain Jenni Asserholt’s work morale, the way she works in every single game, in all situations. She’s a great role model for the other players on the team,” said Högberg.
“I think it’s important to give praise for players like Jenni as well. She always leaves everything on the ice,” he added.
Asserholt is also second in national team scoring this season, with four goals and seven points in 15 games. She will also reach a major milestone, as her national team game marker will hit 200 in Sochi.
When Sweden hits the ice in Sochi, it’ll build its game on the traditional Swedish way of playing. That means puck possession and patience.
“We’d like to play that way, but there are many elements that need to be considered. You can't be afraid to play that way,” said Högberg.
Sweden will have to finish in the top-2 in its group, and they should be able to do that, and get to the quarter-final. However, the top-4 teams are strong at this point, maybe too strong.
Kim Martin Hasson is back after some health issues, and the net is probably hers to lose. Experience counts in big tournaments. She posted the best save percentage in the Swedish league, 94.95.
Pernilla Winberg leads the national team in goal scoring this season, with eight, and she was also seventh in goal scoring in the Swedish league, with 15 in 26 games.
Jenni Asserholt is the team’s captain, and a leader that will be relied on heavily in Sochi. Also a top-10 scorer in the Swedish league.
In 2011, Erika Grahm’s future as a hockey player looked bleak as she was hit by Guillain–Barré syndrome, a nervous system condition. She recovered, and was fourth in scoring in the Swedish league, with four game winners, second in the league.