Back to work in Sweden
by Risto Pakarinen|21 JAN 2023
Swedish players salute their fans after an upset win against the U.S. in the semi-finals of the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship.
photo: Andrea Cardin / IIHF
In a way, a bitter loss in the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship may have been a blessing in disguise for girls’ and women’s hockey in Sweden.

Since the surprising relegation of the women’s senior team in 2019, and a delayed promotion caused by tournaments wiped out by the pandemic, this tournament proved that the country still can and does produce great female talent. The lopsided loss in the final works well as a symbol for the fact that there is still work to be done. 

“A little more than two years ago, we re-started our work with girls’ and women’s hockey, and there are three areas we need to focus on. We need to grow the number of players, focus on player development, and get results,” the Swedish Ice Hockey Association’s general secretary Johan Stark told 

“[The silver-medal team] ticks the last two boxes. They’re proof of player development, and they got results,” he added. 

There were a few years of turmoil around the women’s team. The players were unhappy with the association’s focus - or lack thereof – on the women’s team, several players’ careers ended in feuds, and then came the relegation in 2019.

Stark says that when he took over as general secretary in 2020, there was a lot of resentment in the air, and in-fighting about what should’ve been done. 

He wants to look to the future instead. 

“Getting more girls to play hockey is our most important task. We’ve grown by thirty per cent in the last two years, but we want to grow even more,” he says. 

“A challenge that we have on the development side is that there are too few developmental stages on the girls’ side. We’d like to go over the series system and add a few steps there,” says Stark, who’s also a member of the IIHF Women’s Committee. 

Currently, once a player graduates from a regional under-18 league, the next step is a women’s league. Many of the talented players skip the last years of the under-18 league and enter the SDHL or the second tier NDHL as teenagers. 

“I wish a 16-year-old girl could play against other 16-year-olds around the country, and then take the step up,” Stark says. 

“I often compare it to school and leapfrogging from Grade 1 to Grade 5 and then to Grade 9. The girls miss several, important developmental steps,” he adds. 

Also, some, or many, of the talented girls choose to play with boys until their teens, for developmental reasons, or because there’s no girls’ team nearby. 

“We can already see that the clubs who have hockey schools especially for girls also have girls’ teams,” Stark says. 

In all the chaos around the women’s team in the late 2010s, some people may have missed that Sweden won silver at the U18 Women’s Worlds in 2018, too. 

Those players – and the players on the 2023 team – will form the core of the women’s national teams in the next few years. Of the players on the 2023 tournament roster, only eight do not play in the SDHL. Seven plays in the NDHL – or Division 1 – and one, the third goaltender Lovisa Lundstrom, with under-18 boys. 

It also showed in the tournament as mature play. 

While Stark praises the SDHL as a great league, he wouldn’t mind seeing more of the talented Swedes take a detour via a U.S. college. That’s the step that’s missing in Sweden now when players enter the SDHL in their late teens. 

“The U.S. college hockey comes at exactly the right time, when the players are 16 or 17 to 23. Today, a 23-year-old SDHL player has already played six, seven seasons in the league.

“If a player takes college route, she’ll enter the SDHL at 22, and can then begin her pro career,” Stark says. 

The SDHL has become an attractive league to top players in Europe and there are currently more than 30 Olympians from countries other than Sweden in the league. While there has been a lot of pushback against the number of import players in the league, the Swedes believe a good league will also help develop young Swedish players.

“We need the import players to raise the standard,” Stark says. 

“We now have the best Finnish and Swiss players, and it must be great for, for example, Brynas’s Maja Nyhlen-Persson to get to play and practise with some of the best players in the world.”

Or, take the 2023 WW18 silver medalist Astrid Lindeberg, whose colleagues on the Lulea blueline include Jenni Hiirikoski, named Best Defender in seven Worlds and two Olympics, and Daniela Pejsova, the Best Defender of the 2022 Worlds. And Swedes Johanna Fallman (seven Worlds and two Olympics) and Anna Kjellbin (three Worlds and one Olympic tournament). Lindeberg’s sometime defence partner, Ronja Savolainen, has played for Finland in six Worlds and two Olympics. 

Stark also brings up the Premier Hockey Federation in North America as another positive in women’s hockey, even if it’s out of his control. 

“The players need something to aspire to, otherwise, if you’re 23, what’s your next goal, besides the national team? In other sports, you can play abroad,” he says. 

All that takes time, says Stark. The Swedish association’s current strategy is set at 2030. 

“Things are moving in the right direction, but we still have work to do. We can’t just put lipstick on a pig and pretend things are great,” he says. 

“But this is important for us, and everyone knows it,” he concludes.