The gap is closing
by Andrew Podnieks|16 APR 2023
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Matt Zambonin
The 2023 Women’s Worlds has been a revelation on many levels. Detractors gonna detract, there’s no doubt, and the journey is by no means done, but there have been many significant and tangible signs that the women’s game today is stronger than it’s ever been. Is it time for a gold-medal game without Canada and the United States? Probably not, but let’s look at the positives as we head into the medal games.

Consider goaltending. Right now, there can be little doubt that Canada’s Ann-Renee Desbiens is the best in the world. Her track record has no equal. But Aerin Frankel, the 23-year-old who had only one period of WW play to her name, has become the starter for coach John Wroblewski of the U.S. Blanka Skodova has played every minute for Carla MacLeod in the Czechia net and is proving more than capable for taking over for the injured Klara Peslarova. Andrea Brandli is clearly the number-one in Switzerland and has played well, and Anni Keisala remains a force for the Finns. In short, most all of the teams now have a reputable puckstopper who can give their team a reasonable chance to win most nights.

What an incredible success story Sweden has been. First, they were demoted in 2019 to Division I-A for the following year, but 2020 and lower levels in 2021 were cancelled because of COVID-19 and Sweden was re-promoted in 2022 after the expulsion of Russia. They finished last year and will finish 5th or 6th this year.

But more extraordinary has been the play of forward Hilda Svensson. She is 16 years old and is second in tournament scoring with eleven points. In fact, she and her linemates are 2-3-4 in scoring. Hanna Olsson also has eleven points and the third member, Lina Ljungblom, has ten. Svensson’s incredible play at the senior level is perhaps even more incredible than 14-year-old Slovak Nela Lopusanova at the WW18 level.

Leads are no longer safe. Historically, one of the criticisms of the women’s game was that the team that scores first generally wins. Don’t tell that to the teams in Brampton. Czechia led the U.S. 2-1 before losing a hard-fought game, 5-2. Sweden built up an impressive 2-0 lead through 40 minutes, only to see a determined Finland rally for victory in the third. Japan had Switzerland in a panic, up 2-0 in the second period and 3-2 in the third. It took another thrilling rally to give La Suisse the win. 

And then, of course, the most shocking comeback this year, which came in the Canada-Sweden game. Canada led 2-0 late in the second, only to see Sweden score one late in the middle period and tie it up with less than ten seconds remaining in relegation. And let’s not forget the battle of the giants. Canada was head of the U.S. 3-1 late, victory clearly in sight, but the Americans stunned the home side with two late goals. Yes, Canada won both games, but, wow, they were incredible games.

The vertical structure still helps the results a bit, and, yes, Hungary and France had trouble keeping pace. But there is a clear feeling that the days of Finland and Sweden being the only two teams to challenge for the bronze medal are over. Japan kept their scores close, as did the Germans, so there are now six teams that are proving capable and competitive against each other every night. And while the North Americans still dominate, they aren’t winning by double digits. 

Although scoring among those teams is still problematic, and Group B often has more goals than Group A, it is also curious that the top nine scorers are all from Europe. Only Canada’s Sarah Fillier cracks the top 10. There have also been only seven shutouts through 26 games, the lowest number since 2015.

But perhaps the greatest indicator of greater parity is the results from the quarter-finals. This is only the fourth Women’s Worlds where there are four QF games (previously the top two teams got a bye to the semis), but the combined scores of the North Americans was only 6-2 (US. 3-0 over Germany, Canada 3-2 versus Sweden). In 2022, it was 15-1; in 2021 it was 17-2; and, in 2019 it was 9-0. 

Yes, there is work to be done, but 2023 stands out as a turning point, a moment in WW time when “the gap” that so often has been referenced derogatorily can now have a new ending to the sentence—“is closing.”