Swiss sweat in quarantine
by Martin Merk|14 AUG 2021
A Swiss off-ice practice through video call during self-isolation.
This story is also available in German language. / Artikel auf Deutsch.

Bringing teams from ten nations and three continents together for an event is not without challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic. For the teams that arrived in Calgary on Tuesday for the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship that means five-day single-room isolation at the team hotels before, after two more negative PCR tests, they can join their teammates and go onto the ice at WinSport Arena at Canada Olympic Park.

That’s the extra sacrifice teams have to overcome these days at the various World Championships when pandemic measures limit sports and travel and exemptions under strict health protocols are needed with various authorities at various levels from national border control to the local health authorities as well as the IIHF’s medical rules. But by sticking to these safety protocols players will be able to play in a safe environment so that we will soon see the new world champions in women’s hockey.

Lockdowns and quarantines forced hockey players to be creative the past 17 months to remain in game shape while playing was not possible at times. In many of the ten countries the top-level women’s league was able to operate with restrictions. Those players and teams who manage to make the best out of the five days in the hotel room will enter the Women’s Worlds with a moral boost.

But what does self-isolation look like for teams arriving before a World Championship? Yours truly had a look by joining the Swiss women’s national team for one day – of course virtually. That’s special for me because on one hand I was, apart from a few team staff members who support the team with great enthusiasm, one of the very few men in these video calls, and on the other hand because these amazing women are of course the much better hockey players than I am.

Before the sport part of the day began, it was time for a 7:30 good morning meeting moderated by video coach Michael Fischer, who announced a special guest. The players kept wondering who this Kurt Kneubuhler would be who tried to get into the call. Well, once his camera was on, it turned out that they would see his boss, Federal President Guy Parmelin. The head of state, these days busy with meetings related to the pandemic, took 15 minutes to talk to the surprised players in German and French and answer their questions. Talking about women’s hockey, he remembered how he watched the Swiss win Olympic bronze in Sochi 2014 on TV before asking about their situation in quarantine, the Women’s Worlds and the first opponent.

“Oh, USA, that’s easy. It will be a beautiful challenge for you,” he said with a smile and underlined the many medals especially women recently won for Switzerland at the Tokyo Summer Olympics that he called a result of hard work by the athletes and of good structures behind.

“I wish you only the best and will follow your performances. I hope you will have good results and that we can do a photo at the federal parliament building with you and your medals.”
Switzerland’s Federal President Guy Parmelin was a surprise guest in a morning session.
“How did you do that?” Lara Stalder asked after the chat with the President. “I just asked,” Fischer said before continuing a small presentation with the slogan “Overcome the fear, overcome the challenges” where he remembered Switzerland’s first-ever top-four finish at the 2008 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Harbin.

“We were in a similar situation. And we were in China, which was special. Two staff members arrived two days earlier to make sure everything would be ready for the team,” he said. Switzerland for the first time beat Sweden and then beat Russia to make the semi-finals. The Swiss also scored for the last time a goal against the United States. “Melanie Hafliger is desperately looking for a successor.”

“When the challenges are big, we are growing with them. Switzerland will go to the tournament stronger after these five days,” he said and the session ended with the players raising and singing to the national anthem they heard through their laptops and smartphones.

After breakfast it was time for off-ice Zoom training. The warm-up with physiotherapist Virpi Rajala was followed by upper-body strength exercises. With no gym access due to quarantine, the exercises happened in each player’s room and with the help of resistance bands that off-ice coach Tatjana Diener used for many of the exercises in the morning session while forward Lara Stalder doubled up exercising and taking care of the music. Over-head press, pull the bow, biceps curl or pull-downs with an anchor were some of the exercises with two types of bands. And after series of the nine exercises and stretching the players were released to wait for the knocking at their door that meant their lunch bag was ready.

“It’s the first time for me to practise like that,” said forward Phoebe Staenz, who with her club team in Sweden had the possibility to train at the gym in groups of five or outdoors during the most restricted periods. “It’s definitely different. But we have to do something. The main thing is we do something that is led. You don’t feel so alone when you see your teammates. It’s like group training and it makes a difference. I couldn’t imagine to just do nothing. But I’d love to be on the ice.”

The bands replace weights in the hotel room. “It’s a bit unusual with the bands, it feels different for the muscles than usual but we can also work with body-weight exercises,” she said.
If you look back at the development of women’s hockey during the last decade, a big difference is the athleticism of players competing at this level. It was a point of emphasis after criticism at the 2010 Olympics to reach more competitiveness outside of the two dominating women’s hockey nations from North America and many of the players here have gone through initiatives such as the IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp or similar formats in their home countries that focus on the training and lifestyle of athletes on and off the ice. To stay in shape during the hotel quarantine, the players also get stationary exercise bikes in their rooms.

When top players in North America came together to found the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association and strive for a better future in terms of professional league hockey on the continent, one slogan they used with a deodorant producer sponsoring the PWHPA was “equal sweat”. Players at this level have to work as hard as their male counterparts at World Championships and Olympics to be competitive at this level. This can be seen day in, day out even during quarantine.

Some time after lunch it was time for the next training session with Diener, this time with a lower-body workout. After a warm-up with rolls, the focus was on plyometrics. During the hour-long session the players worked in three blocks with three exercises each on different jumps. That sounds easier than it is as one or the other may have felt the morning after. During breaks they cooled down with some stickhandling or – especially for the goalies – juggling.

Towards the evening there was a team meeting with the coaches and a goalie talk for the trio in the net. But hockey is not just about sweating, it’s about having fun and great team spirit, being a family. That’s why in the evening the players had Zoom for themselves and organized a team event for the roster of 25 women.

Stalder and Lisa Ruedi were in charge for some evening entertainment and to hold team spirit high even in the days players are not allowed to leave their hotel rooms. They started with a pantomime game where players had to guess who or what is mimicked and later they had to hum songs and guess which one it was. Despite the physical walls between them, the players got a glimpse of the locker room atmosphere before they actually get there and will be some unusual experiences richer. Will they manage to see Parmelin again, in real and with medals? It would be the first after bronze at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

“Yes, this could indeed work out. We’re all in the same boat, all teams. In these five days we have the same circumstances, the same food. We all start from the same point and anything can happen,” said Staenz. “Against each opponent it’s only one game and in the final round anything can happen. It’s a matter of the game shape.”

Once the isolation period has been completed successfully also in terms of Covid-19 testing, the teams will have their first ice practice together on Monday. The 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship begins on Friday, 20 August.

Until then the players will continue to stay in game shape and good mood from their rooms. The equal sweat – it’s definitely there these days. For the players and, at least for one day as a guest, for yours truly.