Lara Stalder writes history in Sweden
by Martin Merk|11 MAR 2020
Lara Stalder has also been among the best scorers in her last Olympic and Women’s Worlds participations between 2016 and 2018.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
For Lara Stalder, the season ended earlier than she hoped with the cancellation of the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. But on a positive note, it ended with the 25-year-old Swiss forward receiving the golden helmet as the first female hockey player to be voted Most Valuable Player in Sweden.

Stalder was honoured on Saturday before her club Brynas Gavle hosted the men’s SHL game against Leksand where almost 8,000 fans in attendance applauded her for her accomplishment.

“It was very special. It was before the men’s game, a derby, almost sold out. It was incredible with the fans and to hear my name. It was nice to experience something like this and that the club organized it,” Stalder said.
Some days earlier she had received the phone call from the Swedish women’s hockey league SDHL, which for the first time elected its MVP. Each player was able to choose three names. Stalder selected her teammate, Czech forward Katerina Mrazova, as well as Canadian forward Kennedy Marchment (HV71) and Finnish star Petra Nieminen (Lulea). But the woman who got most votes was Stalder, who led the regular season in points (71) and goals (42) after her 36 games. She also had four goals and eight points in five playoff games.

“The golden helmet was only in the men’s league before. Every player had to vote and that makes it even more special to win this prize,” said Stalder.

“It was a special season. Last year I had a shoulder injury. Then I wanted to play a full season without injury. I changed the team and I had great teammates here. To play and practise with the team has been a lot of fun. It was a great season. Too bad that we lost in the semi-finals.”
Stalder played her club hockey in Switzerland until 2013 when she moved to the University of Minnesota-Duluth where she scored high numbers as well and was a top-3 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as top female NCAA hockey player in her fourth and last year in 2017. Then she moved to Sweden where she played her first two seasons for Linkoping before moving further north for this season to compete in Brynas’ jersey.

Her league SDHL – Svenska damhockeyligan – has become a magnet for top European hockey players from Central and Northern Europe. While the Swedish women’s national team has been struggling, many top national team players from other countries went to play for Swedish clubs. Of the top-13 scorers in the SDHL, five were from Finland, three from Canada, two from the Czech Republic, one from Switzerland, one from the United States and only one from Sweden. In the net it was similar. Of the top-five goalies in save percentage, only two were Swedish and the others from Canada, Finland and Spain.

For senior players after the college career, Sweden together with the NWHL in North America and the WHL in Russia have become a top destination for national team players in Europe. 

What makes the SDHL so attractive for foreign players?

“Every team I’ve been is very professional. They are part of a big club where we’re at par with the men, also in social media. They are pushing women’s hockey,” Stalder said. “It’s great to play and practise at such a high level. That’s why so many top players play there and that makes it so competitive. No team has been bad here this season, so you have to play your best in every game. For me it’s the best league in Europe although I can’t compare that easily.”

Later this month there’s even a chance that another Swiss player could win a similar award. Stalder’s teammate on the Swiss national team, Alina Muller, is having a strong season in U.S. college hockey and is among the three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, together with Elizabeth Giguere and Abby Roque.

“I hope she will do it. I would be really happy for her. She’s been a raving success and now her team is better too. I love to play with her and to see her succeed,” Stalder said.

Unfortunately for Stalder, the season is over for her. Brynas was third in the regular season and lost to defending champions Lulea in the semi-finals. It will be a final between regular-season winner HV71 and Lulea for gold. And the bad news continued few days later when the 2020 Women’s World Championship was among a second wave of IIHF tournaments cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak around the world.

“It’s a pity. I hoped until the last moment that it won’t be cancelled because I was really looking forward to it, also when we lost the semi-finals. But when it became clear the disappointment was big,” Stalder described her feelings while understanding the decision.

“Health is the top priority in this situation with this virus spreading around the world. It was surely the right decision but it’s a pity that it affects so many sporting events. But health is the top priority, so it’s understandable,” Stalder said.

For her and many of her teammates in Sweden and Switzerland it’s an abrupt ending of the season that has also affected other international women’s, men’s and junior tournaments scheduled in March and the first half of April. There’s nothing else for it but to look to the future and work on a new season. One that will see Stalder return to the Brynas roster for the second year of her contract with another chance to battle for gold medals and the golden helmet – and another chance for Stalder to shine in the Women’s World Championship.