Vanisova brings excitement
by Lucas Aykroyd|23 NOV 2018
Czech star Tereza Vanisova tied for the tournament lead in goals at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship.
photo: Minas Panagiotakis / HHOF-IIHF Images
David Pastrnak isn’t the only swift, skilled Czech forward tearing it up in North America right now. For a change of pace, flip over to women’s hockey and check out Tereza Vanisova.

It’s not hard to see why this University of Maine Black Bears forward tied with U.S. superstar Kendall Coyne for the most goals at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship (five) in Plymouth, Michigan.

A YouTube glance at Vanisova’s first career NCAA goal with the University of Maine Black Bears on 25 September 2016 eloquently tells the tale. She splits the RPI defence with puckhandling reminiscent of Connor McDavid’s dazzling solo tally against the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier that year, kicks the puck up to her stick (thank you, Pavel Bure), and then scores stick side.

This season, the 22-year-old Strakonice native is off to a hot start, as she leads Maine with nine goals and four assists in 13 games.

Internationally, Vanisova also has her sights set on big things. She set a good tone when the first women’s Euro Hockey Tour launched in August. She scored the opening goal in a 6-2 win over Russia, and the Czechs finished third behind Finland and Sweden.

“I really like it,” Vanisova said of the Euro Hockey Tour. “It’ll help us get better. We need these teams to play with. I think it’s a good idea.”

The six-year agreement finalized in May sees the top six European nations – the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Switzerland – facing off in various combinations at Four Nations tournaments in August, November, and December. The Czechs and Swiss were the additions to the previous four-team format. All six nations will compete in the tournament in February, with Dmitrov, Russia (the site of the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship) serving as the inaugural 2019 host.

That’s a lot of action leading up to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Espoo, Finland (4 to 14 April).

Vanisova had an active off-season on many fronts. In addition to playing tennis and hitting the gym, she suited up for the Czech inline hockey women’s national team. The Czech women settled for silver with a 3-2 final loss in Asiago to the defending champion Americans.

“It was sad – we won 5-0 against the U.S. when we played in the group, but then we lost to them in the final,” Vanisova said. “We were not lucky in that game, and we couldn’t score. That’s pretty much it. But we have a good team. in the future I hope we’ll get better and get some gold medals.”

Czech men’s ice hockey has a long history of overlapping with inline, as stars from Ales Hemsky to the late Karel Rachunek have played for the national team. For Vanisova, what were the advantages of participating in this off-season sport for the second straight year?

“I think inline hockey is more technical than hockey. It’s not that much about skating and stuff like that. In inline, you have more time to stickhandle and pass and see who’s open. You get more comfortable with the stick. I think it helps me.”

Vanisova, part of a strong 1996-born contingent on the Czech team, has come a long way since making her U18 Women’s Worlds debut on home ice in Zlin and Prerov in 2012. She captured a U18 bronze medal at the 2014 tournament in Budapest, Hungary.

Sitting ninth in the IIHF Women’s World Ranking, the Czechs will need Vanisova’s offensive help again at the senior Women’s Worlds. They were heartbroken after a 4-1 loss to host Switzerland in the 2017 Olympic women’s qualification tournament ended their hopes of going to PyeongChang. They were also disappointed with their eighth-place finish at the 2017 Women’s Worlds in Plymouth, Michigan.

Vanisova admitted that apart from the U.S.-Canada final, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the 2018 Winter Games: “I was sad that we were not there. I wasn’t really excited about the whole Olympics.”

However, in Espoo, which will feature 10 national teams for the first time, there may at least be a chance for revenge on the Swiss.

The Swiss team has experienced significant turnover since the Olympics. 2014 Olympic MVP goalie Florence Schelling, 2018 Olympic defence points leader Christine Meier, and reliable forward Sara Benz have all retired. And Vanisova can, of course, draw on positive memories from the 2016 Women’s Worlds in Kamloops, where her two goals led the Czechs to a 3-1 upset over Switzerland.

Just where does Vanisova see her Czech team in the international hockey pecking order?

“I think we have a team that is able to win against many teams. I think we can beat Sweden, Switzerland, and teams from the same level as us. I think the top four teams are U.S., Canada, Finland and Russia. Maybe we would be able to beat Russia more than Finland. I think Finland is better. It’s hard to say. It depends.”

As the 173-cm, 63-kg forward continues with her third year at Maine, it’ll be interesting to monitor her production. She scored 16 goals as both as a freshman and sophomore, but jumped from 12 assists in her first year to 30 last season. 

“I definitely had to change my play,” Vanisova said. “When I was in my first year, no one really knew me. They didn’t know that I’m able to do certain things, and they didn’t focus on me that much. In the second year, some teams put more pressure and more players on me. So I had to figure out what to do. I think that was the main reason [for the increase in assists]. We also got a better team. Some freshmen came and we got stronger. We improved a lot.”

She relishes the challenge of battling the top Hockey East teams, including Boston College. The Eagles boast the dynamic duo of Daryl Watts (Canada), who became the first freshman ever to win the Patty Kazmaier Award as college hockey’s top female player in 2018, and linemate Caitrin Lonergan (U.S.).

“Every time we play Boston College, it’s a little bit different than other teams. It’s faster. They’re good players and they pass to each other so well. [Watts] is a really good player. I really like to play against high-skilled players. It provides motivation for me to play against them.”

With the influx of Czech players into NCAA women’s hockey, Vanisova enjoys having contact with her fellow countrywomen. The kinesiology major, she’d like to do a Master’s degree in the U.S., recently chatted with Denisa Krizova, the sixth all-time leading scorer in Northeastern history, about the latter’s signing with the NWHL’s Boston Pride for 2018/19. And having national team peers like forward Vendula Pribylova and blueliner Anna Zikova as Black Bears teammates is also a boon. (Even if they have yet to find a Czech restaurant in Maine.)
“We actually were living together last year, so we were very much together all the time,” she said. “We have different school majors, but it’s definitely helpful to have someone who speaks your language. You can tell them other stuff. Sometimes you don’t really know how to express yourself in English. It’s fun to have someone from your country.”

In 2017, Vanisova was named the Czech female player of the year. The male honours went to Pastrnak. Playing just a four-hour drive from her college digs in Orono, Maine, the 22-year-old Havirov native, who currently leads the NHL with 17 goals for the Boston Bruins, happens to be Vanisova’s current favourite NHLer.

But Pastrnak isn’t her favourite New England resident. Her beloved dogs in Maine top the list.

“We have three boxers right now. Our female dog, Elise, is four-and-half years old, and she has a puppy named Arny. Buffon is 12 years old, so he’s pretty old.”
In less than four years, something is coming up that Vanisova definitely doesn’t want to miss.

In July, the IOC Executive Board approved the IIHF’s proposal, supported by the Beijing Organizing Committee, to have 10 women’s teams at the 2022 Olympics. For up-and-coming nations like the Czech Republic, the news couldn’t be better. Vanisova was a two-year-old girl when the Czech men made golden history at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but she should be in her athletic prime in 2022 as a 26-year-old woman.

“Of course I was happy, because this is a huge opportunity for us to play in the Olympics,” Vanisova said. “We just have to work hard, play against good teams and get better. I think we should be there.”

And if Beijing proves to be a highlight in Czech women’s hockey history, odds are good that Tereza Vanisova will chip in some highlight-reel goals.