It’s a friendly place, but it also feels strangely symbolic right now.
Hockey players, coaches, organizers, media, and fans are facing a huge, alien crisis. The coronavirus pandemic not only imperils people’s health worldwide, but has also led to the necessary cancellation of major sporting events, including much of the 2020 IIHF calendar.
While the men’s Worlds, originally scheduled for Zurich and Lausanne, and the Stanley Cup playoffs are front-of-mind concerns for most fans, it’s important to remember that our game grows from the grassroots up.
That’s why we’re flashing back to the atmosphere at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Group B in Katowice. Events like these that fly under the radar will help to chart our course in the decade to come.
The six-team tournament in January was a great example of the increasing diversity in women’s hockey. It had representation from Central Europe (Austria, Poland), non-EU countries (Great Britain, Norway), and Asia (China, Korea). A local company called Airbike even made a whimsical video promoting the event that featured Polish players riding public transportation in full hockey gear.
During a tournament reception at the Marriott hotel in January, worlds came together in the Silesian heartland. Susie Jo, who served as an assistant captain with the Unified Korean team at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, chatted about getting to know American stars like Hannah Brandt and Hilary Knight.
“I’d like to study sport management at Columbia University in New York,” said the 25-year-old, who was the second-youngest member of the U18 Korean staff after equipment manager Seungkeun Chun.
Organizer Marta Zawadzka, who serves on the IIHF Council, earned her own degree in sport management right here in Katowice. The former referee and current Polish Hockey League commissioner recalled how Knight sent an encouraging message to the Polish girls at another recent tournament.
Zawadzka juggles many duties. (At one point, she got a phone call and had to head to Spodek to get the locked-up pucks out for the senior Polish women’s national team’s 8pm practice.) The 37-year-old takes her multi-tasking cues from fellow Council member Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, who was Hungary’s first registered female hockey player and now heads up the IIHF Women’s Committee. “She is a role model for me,” Zawadzka said.
The Division I Group B tournament took place at the 1,147-capacity Jantor Janow Arena. It adjoins Nikiszowiec, a one-time coal mining district with purpose-built homes for workers.
Surprisingly, Nikiszowiec, featuring red-brick residences and arcades, is as picturesque as better-known Katowice landmarks like the Cathedral of Christ the King. (Canadian World Junior fans, who flocked to Katowice’s famous Pierogi Sviata for meat perogies on off-days during their team’s gold-medal run in nearby Ostrava, missed out if they didn’t also hit up Nikisowiec’s Michalski bakery for fresh-made jam doughnuts and coffee.)
“They move as a bloc and they block a lot of shots,” said tournament chairman Fabio Oetterli, who serves on the IIHF’s Finance Committee. “Technically, they are skilled.”
The U18 Norwegian girls, however, would bounce back to nip Austria 2-1 on the final day, thanks to Silje Gundersen’s two goals. With a first-place finish, Norway secured promotion to Division I Group A for 2021.
In general, Polish hockey still has a long way to go. The Polish men haven’t cracked an elite World Championship since 2002 with NHLers Mariusz Czerkawski and Krzysztof Oliwa in the lineup. For the average Polish sports fan, names like Bayern Munich superstar Robert Lewandowski and recently retired NBA journeyman Marcin Gortat are more familiar than those of any hockey players, male or female.
However, invigorating scenes from a U18 tournament like this remind us that there is always hope, whether you’re from Korea, Norway, or Poland.
When Spodek’s lights come on, the main musical theme from Steven Spielberg’s classic 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays. We are all looking forward to the day when close encounters with sticks, gloves, and pucks are back on the menu again.