If you tell Tabea Botthof she’s too young to do something, she’s got plenty of proof that age is just a number. She’s already beaten the odds more than once.
Remarkably, the German defender made her IIHF Women’s World Championship debut at age 16 in Plymouth, Michigan in 2017. The Germans shocked the hockey world by finishing fourth, their best placement ever. They upset Sweden 3-1 and the Czechs 2-1 in the group stage, and then stunned Russia 2-1 in the quarter-finals.
Even though head coach Benjamin Hinterstocker’s team fell 8-0 to the Finns in the bronze medal game, their achievement was undeniable.
“I think we all thought we didn’t have a lot to lose,” Botthof recalled. “When we went to the tournament, we thought everything was possible. We just played hockey, played our best and came so far. For me, it was great. It was my first Women’s Worlds and we did exceptionally well. There was a lot for me to learn at such a young age.”
She has previously represented Germany a whopping four times at the U18 level, three times in Division I and last year in the elite division. The Landshut-born player’s next challenge will be impressing new head coach Christian Kunast at the pre-Women’s Worlds training camp in Fussen, which kicked off yesterday. The 48-year-old Kunast, who played goal at the 2001 Worlds and 2002 Olympics, earned a Winter Games silver medal last year as the German men’s team’s video coach in PyeongChang.
“I’m just going to try to do my best and help the team out as much as possible,” Botthof said. “I’ll take on whatever role the coach wants me to take on. We’ll see over the course of the pre-camp and the tournament what that’s going to be. I guess it depends on our system or what I can incorporate from my college hockey experience.”
“Obviously the chance to play Division I hockey is unique,” Botthof said. “Going to a place like Yale where you have this and also on the other hand really good academics, which helps you prepare for the future after your hockey career, is really nice.”
The Yale Bulldogs women’s hockey team still has room to improve. The “Elis,” as they’re nicknamed, missed the ECAC Hockey playoffs with a record of eight wins, 18 losses, and three ties. Botthof tallied three goals and five assists in 29 games as a rookie.
Asked to identify her season highlight, Botthof pointed to a 5-1 victory over the Clarkson Golden Knights on 17 November, in which she earned two assists. Clarkson won the 2017 and 2018 NCAA championships, and features top goal-scorer Loren Gabel, a 2019 finalist for the Patty Kazamaier Memorial Award as the best player in women’s college hockey, who will make her Women’s Worlds debut with Canada in Espoo.
“We definitely had a great game against Clarkson when we played them at home and ended up winning,” said Botthof. “That’s something to look back on.”
The 176-cm, 59-kg freshman also enjoyed getting to know her new Yale teammates, like leading scorer Rebecca Vanstone, who was just named to the ECAC Hockey rookie all-star team. At the same time, she appreciates how the university in New Haven, Connecticut encourages students to meet people from different walks of life by giving them roommates who are not pursuing the same disciplines. She roomed on campus with Alin Pasa, a coxswain with the Yale rowing team.
Botthof studied psychology in her first year and plans to make it her major. But while this Erding-raised girl is mentally tough, she naturally missed her family in Germany. She credits her mother Beate, her father Heinz-Josef, her brother Benedikt, and her sister Alisia for her athletic success.
“They’ve just supported me so much, all the way through,” Botthof said. “I couldn’t be more grateful for what they’ve done. My mother used to do track and field, my brother played soccer, and my sister and I did gymnastics when we were younger. So we’re a pretty athletic family.”
She aspires to make her family proud again when she pays her third visit to Finland in April. The Nordic nation, hosting the Women’s Worlds in Espoo (4-14 April), holds good memories for her.
In July 2015, Botthof took part in the Global Skills Challenge Summit in Vierumaki. Categories included Fastest Lap, Shooting Accuracy, Skating Agility, Fastest Shot, Passing Precision, and Puck Control. In Vierumaki, Botthof also made a Finnish friend in Kiia Nousiainen, a fellow 2000-born player who captained the youth-driven Team Kuortane in Finland’s Naisten Liiga this season. Botthof would qualify for the 2016 Youth Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where she placed eighth.
Additionally, in December 2018, Botthof suited up for the fourth-place German squad in the Five Nations tournament in Finland. Highlights in Vierumaki included an opening 4-2 win over Sweden and a 2-1 shootout victory versus Switzerland.
While Botthof enjoys plunking out Ed Sheeran tunes on the piano in her spare time, the song she most looks forward to hearing next month is the German anthem. Led by captain Julia Zorn, Germany will face Sweden, Japan, France, and the Czech Republic in Group B. Can this year’s Women’s Worlds team equal or surpass the success of its 2017 predecessor?
“That’s hard to predict, but the key figures are definitely going to be there and play a big part on our team. Besides that, no matter which players are on the team, I’m sure we will be competitive again. Our coach will make the best decisions and bring the best team.”
Botthof wasn’t on the German team that Japan edged out in February 2017 to qualify for the PyeongChang Olympics. Yet if she stays on track, she’ll have a good shot at playing in Beijing in 2022. She’s excited that the IOC Executive Board approved the IIHF’s request to include 10 teams at the next Olympics, a format that will debut in Espoo.
“I definitely think that shows how much women’s hockey has grown,” she said. “There are 10 competitive teams now. We'll see how it goes, but I think it has the potential to be a good change for women’s hockey.”
That’s a bang-on assessment from a young German player who is brimming with potential herself.