Sweden wants to get back
by Liz Montroy|10 NOV 2021
For goaltender Sara Grahn and defender Johanna Fallman the Final Olympic Qualification will be a hometown tournament in Lulea.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Imges
The road to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games is looking a little bit different than normal for three-time Olympian Sara Grahn. Sweden’s long-time national team goaltender, who first represented her country internationally in 2007, is preparing to compete in an event unknown to the Swedish women’s program: the Final Olympic Qualification tournament. 

Having received a berth for the six previous Games through their IIHF ranking, Sweden has never before had to go through the Olympic Qualification tournaments – but due to a ninth-place finish at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships and relegation down to Division I, this is the route Sweden must take in order to compete in Beijing in 2022 and be back with the top nations of women’s hockey.

“For the past year, we’ve been focused on our foundation, how we want to play,” said Grahn. “All the players on the team have a schedule for how they’re going to practise shooting every day. We are focused on what we are doing in our home teams to get even better.”

Over the last year, Sweden’s players have been honed in on personal training plans designed to enhance the skills they need to score more goals. But one of the biggest changes since 2019 that has the players excited about what they believe they can achieve. The fresh faces on the roster create a new team environment.

“It was obviously a huge disappointment for everyone involved in that [2019 World Championship] tournament. I’m not going to lie, it was really tough mentally for a lot of us,” said Johanna Fallman, Sweden’s veteran blueliner. “But I think with our new coaching especially, I think they have brought almost a different mindset to the team. Our collective confidence is a lot better now than it used to be.”

Sweden brought in Ulf Lundberg as head coach of the Swedish women’s national team in the spring of 2020, signing him to a two-year contract. He’s joined by assistant coach Andreas Spangberg. 

“It was really good that we got new coaches. They’re bringing a lot of positivity to us,” said Grahn. “We talk a lot about our mentality and how we can handle the stuff that happened in 2019, so we are mentally ready for everything that can happen.”

With a number of key players having retired after the 2019 Worlds, including Fanny Rask, Pernilla Winberg and Erika Grahm, several emerging young players have been added to the roster, bringing a new dynamic.

“I think that makes a difference, having a bunch of girls that weren’t there [in 2019],” said Fallman. “We have a very nice mix in the group, with some older girls still on the team and then a bunch of these new youngsters who are very skilled. I think that combination of a new coaching staff and bringing in some young energy has helped a lot. And obviously just processing it and accepting it and letting it go.”

Sweden will face France, Slovakia and Korea in Group E from 11 to 14 November, with the winner of the round robin tournament booking a ticket to the 2022 Olympics. Sweden beat France 8-0 in a pre-competition game on 7 November, and will face them for their final game of the tournament on Sunday. If successful, they will join the USA, Canada, Finland, ROC, Switzerland, Japan, China, and two other qualifiers in Beijing in February.

As for the World Championships, Sweden’s next shot at earning promotion back to the top division will be at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A tournament in Angers, France in April. For now however, Sweden is focused on the Olympic Qualification, which they are hosting in Lulea, Grahn and Fallman’s hometown. 

“It’s special for me, it’s my home arena,” said Grahn, who, along with Fallman and a number of other national team players, competes for the SDHL’s Lulea HF. “That’s the most exciting thing I think, to play with the national team in my hometown.”

“You can tell by the energy that something special is about to happen,” said Fallman. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to play in a tournament that actually means something. Everyone is really excited and pumped to get started.”