The day before, team captain Jenni Hiirikoski left the game on a stretcher, having got her neck cut by an opponent’s skate, in a very dramatic fashion. Hiirikoski was operated and she could return to the rink for Game 3, now behind the bench.
“We did this for Jenni. She’s my best friend, and yesterday’s events were horrible, I’m so happy she’s OK,” said Lulea’s goaltender Sara Grahn, after her third shutout. In the playoffs. Grahn played seven games and allowed only seven goals.
“It was the greatest hockey game I’ve ever seen, but we did it together and everybody gave their all,” Grahn told SVT after the game.
Few teams in hockey have ever created dynasties as strong as the one Lulea’s women’s team. The 2023 title was their sixth since 2016, and fifth consecutive. In 2020, too, they had secured a place in the final when the playoffs were suspended due to the pandemic.
The last time Lulea didn’t grab the SDHL championship was in 2017, the first year after the league’s name change.
They only lost two games in regulation in the regular season, while scoring 140 goals and allowing 39 goals in 32 games. And since Lulea went through the playoffs with a perfect 8-0 record - the quarterfinals were played in a best-of-three format, the semis and the final were best-of-five – those two losses were the only ones the team suffered in 2022-23.
The team kicked off their season with 12 straight wins and never looked back, winning the regular season title with an eight-point lead over Brynas, last season’s regular season winner – and the team Lulea beat in the final both in 2021 and 2022.
And, unfortunately for Brynas, in 2023.
Petra Nieminen (Lulea) led the league in playoffs scoring, with teammate and fellow Finn Noora Tulus second, and the regular season leading scorer Lara Stalder third. In the Top 15, there was only one player outside Brynas and Lulea, Modo’s Jennifer Wakefield.
That’s not surprising, but it does make a nice symbol for the SDHL. The league has taken big strides in recent years, but on the downside, HC Goteborg threw in the towel in early November, cutting the number of teams from ten to nine, and handicapping the schedule.
Lulea and Brynas were in a class of their own, then, after a 20-point gap in points, came Djurgarden and Modo, followed by SDE, another Stockholm team, ten points behind Modo. HV71 managed to claw their way out of the basement thanks to a strong end to their season, but the eight-placed team were almost twenty points behind SDE.
On the upside, one of the two teams that secured a spot in the SDHL next season is Frolunda, a true giant in Swedish hockey, managed by Kim Martin Hasson, with Michelle Karvinen and Hanna Olsson as their two big stars. The 32-year-old Karvinen scored 114 points in 20 games in the second-tier NDHL while Olsson amassed 15 points in the four games in the qualification tournament as Frolunda earned promotion to the SDHL.
Frolunda’s arrival will certainly give the league more attention, and spectators. In 2002-23, only Brynas and Lulea averaged more than 500 spectators in the regular season, and unlike in 2022, the finals weren’t a sold-out success, even if both Brynas and Lulea averaged around 2,000 and the Game 3 attendance was an impressive 4,828.
Attracting more fans to the stands is one of the priorities for the SDHL next season. For example, each team is asked to identify four games that are especially interesting and then get 1,000 fans in the stands. The goal is to increase the average attendance by five-fold by 2026.
If they build it, the fans will come? There’s no reason to doubt it. The league is in a good shape, the hockey is entertaining and only getting better.