Championing women’s hockey
by Risto Pakarinen|06 OCT 2018
Michelle Karvinen celebrates with the Swedish championship trophy with her team and many Lulea Hockey fans in the background.
photo: Robert Hedlund / Lulea HF
Recently Swedish women’s hockey champion Lulea Hockey beat the Metropolitan Riveters, champions of the U.S.-based professional league NWHL, 4-2 in a winner-take-all game in Princeton, New Jersey. 

It was a huge symbolic win for Lulea in a clash between the champion from one of the best European leagues and one of the best North American leagues but the story doesn’t end there. In fact, Lulea Hockey is just getting started.

Three years ago, Lulea joined forces with Munksund-Skuthamns SK in Pitea, a 45-minute drive from Lulea to help women’s hockey take another step in northern Sweden. 

“The board made a decision to invest in women’s hockey but since there was an elite league team in the region, Lulea wanted to tread carefully. Once MSSK came to a point where further development seemed difficult, for organizational and financial reasons, they approached Lulea,” says Fredrik Glader, head coach and GM of Lulea’s team. 

At the same time, the Lulea board also made another decision and it was the acknowledgment that the organization now had two top teams: one in the SHL, the men’s league, and another in the SDHL, the women’s league. 

“I’m sure many organizations have also decided to invest in their women’s teams but if you’re going to talk the talk you also have to walk the walk. In our case, everybody, from the board to the GM to the marketing to the coaches to the restaurant staff to arena staff know that the women’s team is a natural part of the organization,” Glader says. 

One immediately visible sign of the fact that women’s team is an equal part of Lulea comes on their website where all teams share the latest news flow.

“That doesn’t even cost any money. All it takes is some energetic and engaged people,” Glader says. 

The 41-year-old head coach is a former Division 3 player who turned coach six years ago, and then, after just one year with Kalix in men’s Division 1, he got a call from MSSK who wondered whether he’d be interested in coaching a women’s team. 

After some thinking, and a phone conversation with Ylva Martinsen, his former teammate and currently the head coach of Sweden’s women’s team, he took the job. 

“Coaching here has been one of the best things I’ve done. It’s given me so much, and I’ve become a better coach and person,” he says. 

As MSSK became Lulea, the team’s games were moved to Coop Arena, the arena where Lulea’s SHL team plays. 

“Our SDHL team’s game have the same production value as the SHL team’s games. We have the same intro, the same arena, the same jumbotron, and we market the games the same way we market the SHL games.

“When they come to the arena, our SDHL players get the same respect as the SHL players,” he says. 

And the region has responded. While at some other venues in Sweden or even in the top North American leagues some dozens or in the best case some hundred of people watch games, they started the season in front of over 1,000 fans. 4,550 and 3,475 spectators came to the two home games of the final series where Lulea beat Linkoping 2-1 in the best-of-three series. Numbers normally unseen elsewhere in the world for a national women’s ice hockey championship.

The local media also treats the SHL and SDHL teams and players equally, writing profiles and game recaps. Now, Lulea Hockey is one of Sweden’s biggest clubs on the girls’ and women’s side, with hockey school, a girls’ team, a development team, a Division 1 team, and the SDHL championship team.

It shows, sometimes in unexpected places. 

“The other day, I was visiting a school and saw kids, all boys, actually, play road hockey. And as kids do, they did their own play-by-play, and one of them was [Lulea’s SHL goalie] Joel Lassinantti but then suddenly, I heard another boy say that he’d be Michelle Karvinen and a third one Emma Nordin,” Glader says. 

“When boys pretend to be our female players, I guess we’ve taken some strides.”

Everything Lulea does includes every team in the organization, including their sponsorship income which is distributed among the different teams. Thanks to their extensive corporate network in the region, Lulea has been able to offer import players work outside hockey. This year, Lulea even compensates its senior SDHL players financially, and twice a week, the team can now hold practices in the morning. 

Another step forward. 

“I’ve been around for a while now, and this feels fantastic. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that wants to take women’s hockey forward,” team captain Jenni Hiirikoski told NSD in mid-September. 

Of Lulea’s 22 players, eight are non-Swedes, including Finnish Olympians Hiirikoski, Karvinen, Noora Tulus, Ronja Savolainen and Petra Nieminen. 

Critics point to the number of imports as a weakness of the league, but Glader chooses to look at it from another angle. 

“I think it shows that we have an attractive league and we welcome all good players, regardless of their passport. Now, maybe things will be different in ten years and we’ll have a good junior league that will develop players, and we’ll only have 3-4 imports. We’ll see,” he says. 

“A dream is to have young Swedish players challenge for roster spots,” he adds. 

After that, another dream: Professional female players.

“That’s what we work toward and maybe in five years, we’ll have players who play hockey for a living,” Glader says.

But first it’s time for the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend where Lulea hopes to not only create a fun event for new female players but also build the future. Lulea will be one of hundreds of organizers world-wide from 42 countries including 55 from Sweden.

Click here to access the #WGIHW tracker with more stories from the World Girls' Ice Hockey Weekend.