After two years, two pandemic cancellations, and with a lot of effort and work on the part of the entire women’s hockey world, the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championships begins Friday in Calgary, Alberta.
I am not an expert on the women’s game, but I have watched world championships and Olympics dating back to 1998. This is our chance to learn together about the game, so we can enjoy watching a little more.
In 1998, in Nagano, Japan, one of the seeds of the modern women’s game was planted. The IOC had agreed to add women’s hockey to the Olympics after the games had already been awarded. Japan’s women’s team was not very good, so to get Japan to agree to make the women’s game part of the Olympics, they were promised help in developing their team. This was the same thing done for Korea at the last winter games.
Japan’s team still wasn’t very good in a limited tournament of only six teams, and they stood out as the team playing over their heads in a way that would have not been so obvious in a bigger field, but that seed planted then has helped produce one of the teams that can now realistically challenge for the top five in the world. Last time I saw them, Japan played a technically solid game, but lacked talented shooters. Their infrastructure and interest in other skating sports shows up on the ice in quality of athlete, however.
In that first Olympics, China was the fifth ranked team, and they should have been able to build off of that the way Japan did. They also have infrastructure and a deep field of athletes in short-track speed skating. but they have faded back down the rankings over the years. Their team, KRS Vanke Rays, formerly of the CWHL, and now in the Russian women’s league, is where they’ve put their efforts into growing the game. They’ve had to play out of Russia for another year, but this investment could make future women’s hockey tournaments much more Asian than the men’s are. Prominence in men’s hockey won’t tell you for sure which countries are on the rise in the women’s game.
The structure of women’s worlds is different to some of the other IIHF tournaments we are used to. They have 10 teams in two Groups of five, and each group plays a round-robin within the group, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Group A is the top tier group, and all teams in that group advance to the quarterfinals. They are joined by the top three teams in Group B. The first three finishers in the Group A play the Group B teams. The crossover is A1 vs B3, A2 vs B2, A3 vs B1 and A4 vs A5.
The semifinals are re-seeded based on Group finishing place, and then the medal games come about as you’d expect. There is no relegation in this year’s event because the lower tier tournaments have all been cancelled.
There used to be a clearer line between the top three teams and everyone else in the women’s game, but the “everyone else” segment is gaining more parity within themselves, and that means upsets, drama and new teams pushing at the heels of the top teams.
This year’s Group A are:
- Russia (playing as ROC under the Olympic flag)
Goup B are:
- Czech Republic
Some of those teams are a surprise, as is the absence of Sweden. They have gone through a lot of off-ice issues dating back to before 2020 when this ranking of teams resulted from the last tournaments played, and they fell down a level.
USA and Canada, by virtue of the opportunities offered in NCAA hockey, are the top ranked teams by a meaningful margin.
Finland, who won the silver medal in 2019 have been the perennial number three team, but their greatest star, goalie Noora Räty is not on the team this year.
Russia, whose women’s league has played regularly through the last years while many players in North America have not had league play at all, is a team to watch. They are scrappy and tough, and they really wanted a medal last time.
Switzerland, where there is a good women’s pro league, are also a team who likely believe they can win a quarterfinal if they get lucky at the right time and get a good draw.
Germany can be very similar to Japan, technically good — although they rely on size a lot — and lacking in star power. Denmark has one of the highest rates of participation in hockey by women in the world, but they are a very small country. This is their best chance to really shine, and we shouldn’t be surprised if their goalie is their strength. I know nothing about Hungary or Czechia, and we’ll find out if they can grab a top three spot in Group B.
North American League Play
The CWHL is no more, and the NWHL is not a league with players at the elite level, and no players on team USA or Canada are currently in the NWHL. Most of the players on those two teams are members of the PWHPA, the union who have been playing matches to raise the profile of the women’s game as they seek a professional league that is sustainable in North America.
For the last two years, most of the hockey played by elite women’s players in North America is either NCAA league play or PWHPA exhibition games.
There are Europeans in the NCAA as well, but like the North Americans still college-aged, they’ve had disrupted or truncated seasons. There are also North Americans playing in Europe, and this all leads to big disparities in the competitive playing time these elite athletes have had in the last two season. This might show up as some rustiness on the USA and Canada as well as a heightened desire to finally get in a game that really matters.
Alex Carpenter, on Team USA, played 28 games this season in the Russian league for KRS. Her teammate, Amanda Kessel last played league hockey in 2018, and that was only 13 games in the NWHL. She’s been playing PWHPA games for two years now.
We can’t know until they get playing how this will affect the various teams. But Russia, Switzerland and Finland all have full squads, particularly the goalies, who are game ready and have been game tested for the last two years. The European season did end months ago, and this is deep into offseason, however.
The IIHF brought out a new rule book for 2021-2022. They consolidated all their rules into one document to be used by all tournaments under their umbrella. For the women’s game, the rules are the rules, the same as a men’s game, with the exceptions listed separately.
The exceptions are mostly about equipment: they must wear full cages or shields, and are recommended to use things like mouthguards and neck protectors. There is one major rule difference regarding bodychecking.
You might be under the impression that women’s hockey has no bodychecking or physical contact. That’s not quite how it works. The section in its entirety is meant to explain this difference in the game:
101.1. ILLEGAL HIT IN WOMEN’S HOCKEY
In Women’s Hockey “bodychecking” is allowed when there is a clear intention of playing the puck or attempting to “gain possession” of the puck with the exception from the situation described in the rule “illegal hit”.
If two (2) Players are in pursuit of the puck, they are reasonably allowed to push and lean into each other provided that “possession of the puck” remains the sole object of the two (2) Players.
A Player that is checking an opponent described in this rule will be assessed one of a:
(I) Minor Penalty (2’)
(II) Major Penalty (5’) and automatic Game Misconduct Penalty
(III) Match Penalty (MP)
If two (2) or more Players are competing for “possession of the puck”, they are not allowed to use the boards to make contact with an opponent to eliminate her from the play, push her into the boards, or pin her along the boards.
A Player, who is stationary, is entitled to that area of the ice. It is up to the opponent to avoid body contact with such a Player. If that Player is stationed between the opponent and the puck, the opponent is obliged to skate around the stationary Player.
If a Player with the puck is skating directly at an opponent who is stationary, it is the obligation of the puck carrier to “avoid contact”. But, if the puck carrier makes every effort to “avoid contact” and the opponent moves into the puck carrier, that opponent will be assessed at least a Minor Penalty (2’) for an “illegal hit”.
Players are allowed to “hold their ground” any time that they have established their position on the ice. No player is required to move out of the way of an oncoming player to avoid a collision. Any move by a Player to step or glide into an opposing Player will be assessed at least a Minor Penalty (2’) for an “illegal hit”
If that seems clear, congratulations, you can explain it to me. What we have always had, in effect, is referees who call penalties in almost every scrum along the boards. They call interference for almost any physical contact, and things that aren’t hits are called, while things that are are ignored.
The refereeing has dramatically improved in women’s hockey over the years, and it bears no resemblance to what it once was, but the standard from game to game can vary a lot. How this new format of the rule book will impact what referees actually do is a question we’re about to discover the answer to together.
All teams chose their final 25 rostered players early so they could quarantine at home, before coming to Calgary for a five-day isolation in the hotel. On August 16, it was reported that all Covid tests were negative, and practices could begin. Testing protocols will continue through the tournament.
The official schedule has you covered for games and times. If all you’re in it for is the big grudge match between Canada and USA — there’s nothing wrong with that, rivalries are fun — the day to remember is August 26.
Canada opens the tournament against Finland on Friday, and the quarterfinals are on August 28.
How to Watch
TSN is covering the event, and has all the games listed here with channels and times. Online subscriptions to TSN are $20 per month, so it’s a very affordable thing to watch if you don’t have a TV subscription already.
Who to Watch
Team Canada has a lot of forwards from the PWHPA Toronto squad to cheer for. Sarah Nurse, Natalie Spooner, Victoria Back, Brianne Jenner and Kristin O’Neill are joined by a Toronto-centric defence featuring Erin Ambrose, Renata Fast, Jocelyne Larocque, Ella Shelton and Claire Thompson.
The Canadian goalies are Emerance Maschmeyer and Ann-Renee Desbiens from the PWHPA Montreal team, as well as Kristen Campbell from Calgary.
There are a few skaters not on the Toronto team. You might have heard of Marie-Philip Poulin, one of the greatest players in this country, or Rebecca Johnston, another standout performer.
TSN has a lot of coverage and player profiles from Team Canada if you want more depth.
Team USA has familiar names like Kendall Coyne Schofield, Dani Cameranesi, Hilary Knight, Kessel and Carpenter, as mentioned above, as well as Megan Bozek (another KRS player) and Brianna Decker.
I don’t think this year is a tournament for the bronze and a two-team contest for the gold and silver. I think this year is one where anything can happen. And with the Olympics only a few months away, it’s a great start to the rebirth of women’s hockey.