Swiderski shoots for success
by Lucas Aykroyd|12 JUN 2022
Hard-shooting blueliner Sara Swiderski (#4) has seen growth in her game as Canada gears up for a semi-final rematch with Finland on Sunday.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
On Team Canada’s first day off in Wisconsin, Sara Swiderski’s family went to see the new Top Gun movie. It seems like that may have rubbed off philosophically on the talented 17-year-old blueliner.

Swiderski was named Canada’s player of the game in Friday’s 7-0 quarter-final romp over Slovakia. She skated miles, picked up her first assist of these U18 Women’s Worlds, and led all Canadians with a +6 plus-minus rating. For coach Howie Draper’s group, it was a huge bounceback after the 7-0 loss to the defending champion U.S. less than 24 hours before and a major confidence boost heading into Sunday’s semi-finals against Finland.

“It feels great,” Swiderski told IIHF.com. “I think our team carried a lot of momentum today. I mean, yesterday wasn't the result we wanted. But I think we had a great team game and came back really strong.”

Partnered with assistant captain Sarah MacEachern, the 176-cm, 68-kg product of Langley, BC could have had even more points versus the Slovaks.

Swiderski hammered a couple of shots off the cross bar in the third period. She was credited with three shots on goal – her 10 total shots now rank second only to Ava Murphy among Canadian blueliners – but unleashed her cannon even more frequently than that. Like her Canadian teammates, Swiderski looks to be rounding into form at the tournament’s most crucial stage.

“She's such a skilled player,” said Canadian assistant coach Vicky Sunohara, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion. “We've been really trying to encourage her to shoot the puck, and that she did today. So I think that's something that will continue. She's really got a weapon of a shot.”

“I didn't have the best puck luck today, but I'm just going to keep shooting and have my teammates give me those amazing passes for opportunities,” Swiderski said. “I went into this game with a better shot mentality. And I'm going to carry that through on to the next games.”

Delaney Collins knows how hungry Swiderski has been to excel from a young age. A three-time world champion on defence with Team Canada and the head coach of the 2018 U18 Women's Worlds team, Collins coached Swiderski for two seasons with the Fraser Valley Rush AAA team.

“At the age of 12, she played major midget girls' hockey in BC,” recalled Collins, now a female hockey ambassador with the Nashville Predators. “We had to get special permission from BC Hockey for her to play. I remember her in tryouts. She came on to the ice and I kept noticing her, and I paired her with a player that was in Grade 12. She was in Grade 7. But I kept noticing her carrying the puck, making great plays, and I kept thinking she was on our team already. She had to miss the second day of tryouts, because she had her Grade 7 graduation!”

Swiderski was always a sponge for information.

“I would talk to her about the importance of making good mistakes as a young player and taking chances and working on development,” said Collins. “But at other times, it’s about recognizing that the game is more specific to puck management and knowing that if you're up two goals and there's 10 minutes left in the third period, you're not going to want to take a ton of risks. You have to be a little more humble. And I was able to have that type of conversation with a 13-year-old kid.”

Collins has likened Swiderski’s style to that of Canadian legend Laura Fortino, who set up Marie-Philip Poulin’s overtime winner versus the U.S. in the 2014 Olympic gold medal game, and Jaime Bourbonnais, whose latest highlight was winning gold with the 2021 Women’s Worlds squad in Calgary.

Swiderski put in a ton of hard work behind the scenes to make it to Wisconsin after the disappointment of not being able to suit up at the cancelled 2021 tournament slated for Sweden. During COVID-19-related shutdowns in the 2020-21 season, she ramped up her training. It was a lot even for a girl whose multi-sport background includes soccer, tennis, hurdles, shotput, and javelin.

As En Fuego reported: “She worked out five or six days a week, including thrice-weekly personal training sessions at Impact Hockey. At home, she used free weights and a TRX suspension trainer and transformed the garage into a hockey training center with shooting tiles and a net with targets. She swam in the family swimming pool, did 10-kilometer runs, and trained for the infamous 'beep test,' which is designed to test aerobic capacity.”

Swiderski has also honed her craft with the support of active and former NHLers. She worked on her shot with ex-Vancouver Canucks star Cliff Ronning, who featured her in a promo video for his Base Hockey custom hockey sticks company. She’s served as an instructor at Vancouver-area hockey schools with Brenden Dillon of the Winnipeg Jets and skated with Ty Smith of the New Jersey Devils.

“She knows how to use her skill in the right way,” said Jenna Buglioni, the leading scorer with both Canada’s 2020 silver-medal entry at the U18 Worlds and the Greater Vancouver Comets as Swiderski’s captain that year. “She's very offensive, likes to get up in the rush. I think that’s a really strong part in her game, how she can produce offensively for a team. And she’s a smart player, too.”

Swiderski is currently with Rink Hockey Academy (RHA) Kelowna, where she put up 34 points in 26 games this season, She relishes the opportunity to finally wear a Canadian uniform alongside fellow RHA skaters like captain Brooke Disher and Jade Iginla.

An upper-body injury sidelined Iginla through the group stage. However, the 18-year-old forward got back in the lineup against the Slovaks, notching an assist as her two-time Olympic gold medalist and Hockey Hall of Fame father Jarome Iginla looked on.

“I was psyched for her,” Swiderski said. “It was obviously not ideal for her to be out, but she's handled it really well. She's a really strong girl and I think she had a great game.”

Beyond the record-high six BC girls on this squad, Swiderski has left a positive impression with teammates from every corner of Canada.

“She's an awesome player,” said Murphy. “Honestly, like from day one, even off the ice, she’s just been an amazing person and great teammate. We're really proud of the way she performed today. She made a lot of nice plays. Super-happy for her!”

As Canada gears up for its semi-final rematch with Finland, which beat Canada (2-0) for the first time in U18 Women’s Worlds history to open the tournament, getting more offensive contributions from the likes of Swiderski will be essential. The Canadians had just three goals in their first three games, all coming in the 3-1 win over Sweden.

From the U.S.’s Sydney Morrow, who leads all tournament rearguards with seven points (0+7=7), to Sweden’s Jenna Raunio, who scored the last-minute 4-3 winner versus Finland and the deciding goal in the 2-1 quarter-final victory over Czechia, there’s no doubt defenders can be game-changers in the quest for the gold medal.

So it’ll be exciting to see what Swiderski does next on the highway to the danger zone – also known as the final at LaBahn Arena on Monday night.