Business as usual
by Erin Brown|08 JAN 2023
Canada's Jocelyn Amos, who delivered the gold-medal winning goal in 2022, will captain this year's squad.
photo: Micheline Veluvolu / IIHF
Photo day at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship tends to be an event unto itself.

In addition to the required headshots and team photo, players gather for selfies, fun poses and well-coordinated dances. Photos are double-checked and re-shot if slightly off. Videos might require several takes to be acceptable for posting on social media. With even coaches taking part, the fun can often eat into the final practice before games commence.

But defending champion Canada approached the obligation a bit differently.

The six-time gold medalists at this event headed straight for the on-ice setup, snapped their team photo and spent only a little time getting the essential snapshots with teammates and the environment here at Östersund Arena before focusing on practice.

The message is clear: Business first, then fun. After all, the Canadians know the world is coming for them.

"Everyone's always coming for us," said Canada head coach Courtney Birchard-Kessel. "It's great to see the competition rising. Women's hockey is growing tremendously around the world and it is amazing to see these countries put together great programs and helping develop (the game).

"There's always business to be had, but there's definitely a lot of pleasure and fun to have as well."

After the 2022 bronze-medal match, then-Sweden coach Madeleine Ostling and Finland’s Mira Kuisma noted a shift from North American dominance in women's hockey may be near.

“I think the U.S. and Canada feel that they need to push a little bit,” Ostling said at the time. “Otherwise, we're coming.”

Added Kuizma: “We know now that we have a chance. We're going to continue our work.”

Just seven months since the Canada and U.S. last battled for gold, 2023 may end up delivering surprises. Even players sense the adjustment in parity.

"We just might be coming up to their level," said Slovakian defender Lily Stern. "I think there is going to be more even (competition) in the coming years thanks to everybody just meeting the level, seeing other teams play and trying to achieve that, working hard to be as fast as strong as Canada and the U.S."

Heading into this tournament which begins Sunday, the North American powerhouses fell in exhibition matches to Finland and Sweden, respectively. And taking into account a broader view of women’s hockey including the senior level, other nations such as Switzerland and Czechia are finding their way onto the medal stand.

For Slovakia, which earned its first trip to the quarterfinals at the 2022 U18 event, the mindset is now focused on taking the next step.

"Right now, our goal is to get above sixth place, to (at least) get the same place we got to last year or better. We don't want to get relegated — no way."

Returning to the top division for the first time since 2019 is Japan. The Japanese earned a promotion by sweeping the 2022 Division I-A U18 Women's World Championship, outscoring opponents 26-0. Among the players who will skate for Japan is defender Kohane Sato, who gained experience with the senior team at the 2022 Women's World Championship.

Sweden, meanwhile, finally gets the opportunity to host the U18 Women's World Championship after the COVID-19 pandemic interfered in back-to-back years. Linköping and Mjölby were scheduled to host in 2021, but the event ended up being cancelled. The cities stepped up again to host the return-to-play tournament in 2022, but conditions forced its move to Madison, Wisconsin in the United States. The Swedes last hosted the tournament in 2011 in Stockholm.

Östersund, a city located in central Sweden, is a fitting landing spot. With a long history and love of winter sports including biathlon and cross-country skiing, it has made attempts to host the Olympic Winter Games no fewer than four times. It lost final-round bidding to Lillehammer, Norway for the 1994 Olympics.

"I think it's going to be amazing hockey, phenomenal for Östersund, this country," Birchard-Kessel said. "Hopefully we can get a good turnout and show these young girls what it's like to play on a professional stage."

Games will be televised in North America and Scandinavia for the second year in a row. TSN and RDS will provide coverage in Canada; NHL Network in the U.S.; SVT in Sweden; and Discovery in Finland.

The round-robin portion of the tournament runs from January 8 to 11. The top two teams in Group A — Canada, Finland, Sweden and the United States — automatically advance to the semifinals. The top two teams in Group B — Czechia, Japan, Slovakia and Switzerland — advance to the quarterfinals.

The playoff round begins January 12. The tournament concludes with bronze-medal and gold-medal matches on January 15.