“We were crazy right after the goal, I guess,” said 17-year-old defender Julia Zielinska, who was on the bench for the goal but had seen some ice-time during overtime while the teams skated 3-on-3. “We got so crazy and so emotional. We jumped on the ice and started screaming because we were so happy.”
Prior to the game against Italy, Poland had taken the maximum nine points against Kazakhstan, Slovenia and Korea, outscoring them 9-2. The Italians posed a bit more of a problem for the Polish women, who had to come back from 1-0, and 2-1 deficits in the second period to take the lead before allowing a late equalizer.
Indeed, that game on Thursday night, the last one of the tournament, will be all-important for both teams.
Prior to making her debut with the Polish women’s national team last autumn at the age of 16, Zielinska played in her first U18 Women’s World Championship in 2019 in Dumfries, Great Britain at 14. Her life then changed dramatically as she moved from her native Poland to Finland in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo.
“I had the choice between Switzerland and Finland, and I chose Finland because it seemed like it would be easier there for a young girl, which I was,” said Zielinska. “That was the thing that I wanted from the beginning when I started playing hockey. That was the moment where I knew that I was going to go further with hockey.”
After three years of living in Finland, Zielinska admitted with a laugh: “I’m still pretty bad in Finnish. It’s a very hard language and it takes a while. They have spoken and written languages which are completely different, believe me. But I’m not going to a Finnish school but an international school, so I’m studying in English.”
On the ice has been a pretty big adjustment as well. Finland is ranked third in the world of women’s hockey and the level of play was something new to her. Starting in the youth program of the Kiekko-Espoo club, Zielinska now plays regularly in Finland’s top women’s league, the Naisten Liiga. This past season she scored seven goals in 13 regular-season games as a defender and even recorded a hat trick a month ago.
Zielinska is one of seven teenagers on the team and one of two who plays abroad – the other being 19-year-old forward Wiktoria Sikorska, who plays in Sweden.
“They’re definitely key parts of the team,” coach Zbigniew Wrobel said about Zielenska and Sikorska. “These are the best two but there are others as well who play in Poland. Of course, not all of them play much because they’re not up to that level yet, but they are slowly coming along and eventually I think they will all become important players and help improve the overall quality of the team.”
Despite her age – she doesn’t turn 18 until December – Zielinska has already had some interesting experiences with the Polish women’s national team, starting with a second-round Olympic Qualification tournament in nearby Bytom last October. After comfortably defeating Turkey and Mexico, Poland rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the third period of the decisive game against the Netherlands to secure advancement.
“In the Olympic Qualifications we had fewer games, and the first two teams we played weren’t as hard as the games here,” said Zielinska. “I think at the World Championships, all of the teams here are pretty even, so we have to fight as hard as possible all the time.”
Poland then had a much more difficult task in the Final Olympic Qualification Round in Chomutov, Czechia, where they were over-matched against Norway, Hungary and the hosts Czechs, but gained valuable experience.
“I think it was pretty good practice for us because most of us had never played against teams that good,” Zielinska said about the games in Chomutov. “The scores weren’t the best for us, but that prepared us for these games and I think our opponent on Thursday is on a similar level to what we saw in Czechia.”
For comparison’s sake, Czechia beat Poland 16-0 last November in Chomutov but only beat China 3-1 at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February. The task at hand will be difficult but not impossible.
“Playing good defence and being disciplined in the defensive and neutral zones will be key for us,” said Wrobel. “We have a good goalie, so if we help her out by keeping the front of the net clear so she can see the shots and not let them get to rebounds, we have a chance. If we don’t do that, it could be a massacre.”
As a top-four defender on the team, Zielinska knows what’s expected of her in what might be the biggest game of her life so far. While she likes scoring – she was a goal and an assist in the first four games – she knows from experience that defensive mistakes against teams of China’s calibre can be very costly.
Trying to keep her emotions in check following Tuesday’s dramatic victory, she said: “Right now everyone in the dressing room is singing and we’re so happy, but we’re looking forward to Thursday’s game against China, so we still have to keep it calm.”
The Poland vs. China game for first place – and promotion to the Division IA – begins tonight at 20:00 local time (2am in China). Click here for streaming information.