Belgian Blades humbled by historic campaign
by Christian Pierre|03 MAR 2023
Tournament scoring leader Lotte De Guchtenaere high-fives her Belgian teammates after receiving a Player of the Game award.
photo: Fuad Esack
The Belgian women’s national ice hockey team has written Belgian sports history. During the recent 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B, which took place in Cape Town, South Africa, from 20 to 26 February 2023, the ‘Belgian Blades’ took the gold through a clean sweep. All opponents were put aside. Without a doubt a remarkable achievement.

After all, following Division IIIA gold in 2022 and therefore promoted to this level, the Belgians started the tournament in the ice stadium at the foot of the Table Mountain as the underdogs against Croatia (10-1), Australia (1-0), New Zealand (4-2) and hosts South Africa (4-1). Türkiye was also seeded in this group but had to withdraw after the major earthquake in the country.

The Belgian team has returned home but players and coaches remain impressed with their achievement.

“We can only be very satisfied with the formidable performance of this great team,” said assistant coach Sven Van Buren. “At the same time, we wrote a bit of Belgian ice hockey history. No Belgian team has ever won back-to-back gold at an IIHF World Championship. That’s pretty cool. You can only be proud of such an achievement. It went very well, an absolute team effort. It was fantastic to experience this.”

Head coach Tim Vos agrees: “I am very proud of course. We arrived here in Cape Town with the main objective of staying in this division, with a slight hope of taking bronze. When you finally return home with gold... that’s every coach’s dream. We now must continue to build on this experience and next year in a higher division we will probably have to step it up a notch. The entire staff and all ladies are very satisfied with the result.”

The South African adventure couldn’t have turned out better for Lotte De Guchtenaere, who plays for Sportoase Antwerp Phantoms in the Belgian league and with the Mechelen Lady Sharks, a Belgian team competing in Germany. She is still impressed. Taking gold with the team, MVP of the game against New Zealand (4-2) – she scored the 4 goals –, top scorer of the tournament and voted best forward of the event. Her suitcase barely closed for the return flight, jamming in all the awards. “When we stepped on the plane to Cape Town, we left for the Worlds with the main goal not to finish last after promotion from Division III to Division IIB last year. In the end, we unexpectedly got gold as underdogs!” Scoring eight goals, De Guchtenaere was on fire in Cape Town. However, the top scorer gives a lot of credit to her teammates. “I scored eight goals, but it was only possible thanks to the good passes from my teammates. Obviously, you work together as one team, that is the only way to achieve results.”

The stress was very palpable. “I had a lot of stress prior to these Worlds and at the start of each game. We had a good feeling against Croatia. I scored four goals in that first game. That was fantastic of course. However, we had mixed feelings against favourite Australia. Nonetheless, due to the hard work of the entire team, we were able to score and hold off the Australians and continue to do so for the full length of the game. At the start of the match against New Zealand we had the same feeling as against Down Under. Winning meant gold. So, we did everything we could to enforce our game resulting in a 4-2 victory!”

In that game she scored all four goals. “I just finished, my teammates in my line set up the game,” she relates. “It was teamwork. The most important thing was that the gold was ours. As icing on the cake, we naturally also wanted to win against host country South Africa! And we did. Yet, we had to battle it out, no gift-wrapped victory though."

She had not expected the extra awards of MVP and 'Best Forward'. “I could hardly believe it at that moment and stood there for a while before it sank in! I certainly did not expect these accolades because there were so many good forwards in our own team and among the opponents. This World Championship is etched in my memory!”

Goalkeeper Nina Van Orshaegen turned out to be an almost impenetrable wall of the Belgian fortress. She therefore kept her team in the game against favorite Australia, beating the Aussies with narrow victory. A crucial win, after all, a match that opened the path to gold. How did she experience that thriller?

“A lot of things were buzzing through my mind while goaltending against Australia. My main goal was to keep that zero on the scoreboard, and this as long as possible because a lot depended on it. I was successful until the final buzzer. Simply, because the entire team had worked together to keep as many attacks on the outside as possible. This way every shot was visible to me and relatively easy to block,” she said. “I received the MVP of the match award afterwards, but this was clearly a team effort. If my defencewomen and forwards hadn't done their best, I wouldn't have gotten that award either. However, it is a nice crowning of this decisive match. This game is currently the highlight in my career. Maybe it won't become any better after this experience either. Especially the fact that we started as the underdog in the first face-off of that match and still win. Indescribable!”

“When the clock counted down the last ten seconds, it became clear to me: we really did this. In short, the road to gold was open. General amazement, our proper 'Miracle on Ice' moment. Together with the entire team, goosebumps, a genuine misty eyes moment!”

She likes the 'Best Goalkeeper’ award but considers it less important. “I don't necessarily strive for individual prizes. The gold medal with the whole team, that's what I value the most. Although I was happy to hear that the award was unanimously awarded to me.”

Petra Horemans was the veteran skater of the Blades. “Luckily, at 47, I was not the oldest player in this World Championship, the Croatian goalie was three months older,” she jokes. “Because we started in a higher series as a team that was promoted, we initially took part with lesser expectations. The assignment was mainly to remain in this higher division. However, after a win against top favourite Australia anything was possible, and we fully went for it. It is not easy to achieve gold two years in a row because there was a considerable difference in skill level between the two divisions. Since more girls start ice hockey in Belgium at a younger age now and play and train with the boys, there is currently an increase in young talent, which is very clearly noticeable with this team.”

Initially, this would be her last Worlds, but now... “Normally, after Cape Town, I was planning to ‘retire'. However, because we are now promoting to a higher division once more, I have decided to add another year. My experience as a veteran player will undoubtedly come in handy... if I am selected, of course,” adds Horemans.

Ans Van Hoof is one of the young rookies of the Belgian Blades. A few weeks earlier, the 16-year-old took silver at the U18 Women’s World Championship Division II Group B in Sofia. Her strong performance at the tournament in Bulgaria was confirmed by her selection for the senior team. Silver and gold in barely a month, how does a 16-year-old reflect on that?

“In any case, it was a great experience to be able to play with the seniors for the first time and immediately win gold,” Van Hoof responded. “A bit unexpected. We gave everything. I really loved it. Grabbing gold, we were the big surprise team. No one expected that we could win a medal with U18 either, because we also achieved a top performance with the girls there in Sofia. Then adding gold afterwards… yes, that is unbelievable. To be able to experience this and getting the chance to participate in both Worlds and then also achieve solid performances. That is amazing. Not many girls get that chance. I am therefore very grateful that I received it.”

Marc Verlinden, Development Director RBIHF, is pleased with the performances of both Women’s teams. “Ice Hockey is played in Belgium for more than a century and despite the limited number of ice rinks and non-existing government support we are growing year after year. As numbers in every club are increasing, the RBIHF is putting a lot of effort in the development and support of youth coaches. Increasing the fun factor at young ages, promoting the sport safety and age-appropriate player development are a base of our national development program.”

“In the past years, more female players are joining our clubs, making ice hockey now a contender for female sports. Ice hockey is so much more than looking cool! Until the age of 14 boys and girls play usually in one mixed team. The current growing numbers allow us now to create separate teams for female hockey in the older age categories. Today, these teams participate in joined competitions in the Netherlands and Germany, but recent local cross-ice 3-on-3 initiatives are providing weekly additional playing options also for younger female players. As a national federation we are currently looking into the option to promote this to a real national league.”

“This season the RBIHF introduced an additional female National Selection U18 on top of the existing Senior team. Our results at the IIHF World Championship for both teams were phenomenal, what proves that our efforts are paying off and female ice hockey in Belgium is on the right track with a huge potential. Bringing home a silver medal with the U18 team and a second gold medal in a row by our senior team is never seen before in our country. As we continue the path, we are convinced that this will grow the sport in Belgium a lot more.”
2023 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship Division II Group B