What we learned at women’s world championships: Canada-USA intensifies, tournament format and more

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UTICA, N.Y. — The Canada—USA rivalry has been ongoing for decades now. But they’ve never played each other quite like they did on Monday night.

“That might be one of the fastest and most physical games we’ve played against them ever,” Canadian defender Renata Fast said on Wednesday afternoon. “It was a really fun game to be a part of.”

The game was much more entertaining than a 1-0 score would suggest. It was fast-paced, each team was trading high-danger chances, there were big hits, great defensive plays, and the goalies were going save-for-save until Kirsten Simms beat Ann-Renée Desbiens in overtime.

The way the game was played can be credited to a few things. First and foremost, it’s the best rivalry in the sport. There’s also a ton of elite young talent on both teams now (from Simms to Caroline Harvey on the U.S., and Sarah Fillier and Danielle Serdachny on Canada) that are pushing the pace. And of course, there’s the start of the Professional Women’s Hockey League.

“I think we kind of knew that was going to happen,” said Canadian forward Jamie Lee Rattray. “Now that we have the PWHL, we’re coming into events at the top of our game.”

It’s been a common takeaway from the start of the 2024 women’s world championship: That the PWHL, three months into its inaugural season, has already raised the game at the international level.

For several years after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in 2019, most of the top Canadian and American players were not consistently playing or training during the season. They’d play exhibition games as members of the barnstorming tour (then called the PWHPA) or against each other in the rivalry series. Games at world championships were still good, to be clear, but having consistent training environments and meaningful games for dozens of top players has appeared to amp up the quality.

“It’s increased the level of hockey that everyone is playing,” said Swedish and PWHL Boston goalie Emma Söderberg. “Now Canada and the U.S. compete every day at a high level, and I think that pushes the pace for everyone. It makes a big difference.”

There are several European players in the PWHL this season, too, representing Sweden (Söderberg), Finland (Susanna Tapani), Switzerland (Alina Müller), Czechia (Denisa Křížová, Tereza Vanišovâ, Aneta Tejralová), Japan (Akane Shiga) and Germany (Abstreiter).

“We see a lot European players in the league and how strong they are, and then they go back to their countries and help carry those countries to really good tournaments,” Rattray said. “I think it will just continue to grow as girls start to see how good (the league) is and how good the hockey is.”

Söderberg said there has been “a good amount of interest” from players in Europe who want to join the PWHL next season. When the league first launched, some players already signed contracts with teams in Sweden, Finland or Switzerland. Others wanted to take some time to monitor the early days of another new North American League.

Söderberg is hopeful more players make the jump because it would help raise the game for all teams, not just the North American powers. “Otherwise it could be that Canada and U.S. gets more ahead,” she said.

It’s expected that some top players from Finland and Czechia will declare for the PWHL draft, but not everybody. Finland’s Petra Nieminen signed a contract extension to stay in the SDHL with Luleå, for example. Others are still under contract with their current professional teams.

But it’s clear that the PWHL has been a big topic at the tournament, for its impact now, and how it might help grow the sport in the long run.

“I truly feel that the more players that can all play in the PWHL together — if we can get some of the Swedish players, and the Finnish players — the women’s game is just going to continue to get stronger, for every country,” said Fast. “And that’s what you want, you want everything to be a close match and that’s the direction it’s going.”

Before the semifinals on Saturday, and the gold and bronze medal games on Sunday, let’s empty the notebook from the first nine days of women’s worlds.

The semifinals are set

The United States, Canada, Czechia and Finland are moving on to the semifinals of the tournament after each respective quarterfinal match on Thursday.

Top-ranked Team USA beat Japan in a 10-0 blowout. Japan, with an eighth-place finish in the tournament, will stay in the top division of women’s worlds for another year, which did not look like a certainty after three straight losses to start group play.

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After being forced to overtime last year, Canada beat Sweden 5-2 in a quarterfinal rematch. The Swedish team will finish the tournament in seventh place. It will not have the opportunity to play in any placement games to move up into Group A. Sweden has an excellent — and young — roster. Still, there is certainly disappointment in the loss, and that the team will spend another year in Group B next season.

The Czechia match against Germany was the best of the day, a tight game between the back-to-back bronze medallists (Czechia) and the top team from Group B (Germany). Sandra Abstreiter was excellent for Germany, making 23 saves on 24 shots. She’s been one of the best goalies, and most valuable players in this tournament with a .075 goals against average and 96.94 percent save percentage. Only Desbiens has better numbers among goalies in the tournament.

With the 1-0 win, Czechia has a chance to win a third-straight medal at the world championships. The goal is to move up the podium from bronze, but they’ll need to get by Team Canada to make it to a gold medal game, which will be a tough task. Canada beat Czechia 5-0 in group play last week.

Finally, Finland beat Switzerland 3-1 to make it to the semifinals against Team USA. The group game between the two teams was close after two periods (4-3) and will make for another interesting matchup. You’d think the U.S. will come out better than they did last time, and the team is coming off a big offensive game against Japan that might be a confidence booster for some young players who had previously been snake-bitten.

Finland is back in Group A after a few disappointing tournaments and is looking to win a medal for the first time since 2021. Switzerland, meanwhile, has not won a single game in the tournament and got outscored 18-3 in its first It’s been a disappointing tournament and now the team will need to fight to stay in the top-five in Saturday’s placement game against Germany.

The tournament format

Speaking of Sweden, the team is an excellent example of why women’s worlds might be ready for a new format when it comes to its groups.

For context: The women’s tournament includes two tiered groups with the top five and bottom five teams split up into two groups (A and B). Other IIHF tournaments — like men’s worlds or world juniors — have two equal groups, with top-ranked teams and lower-level teams mixed together.

The idea for the women’s worlds’ format — which was implemented in 2011 — made sense for a time. It encouraged equal games with the top teams — like Canada, the U.S. and Finland — in one group, and allowed the lower-ranked teams to play and improve against like competition. But there has been enough growth in the women’s game, and within Group B, that it no longer feels necessary.

Sweden was excellent in Group B, outscoring opponents 17-5, and only lost one game 1-0 to Germany. Germany will have an opportunity to move into Group A with a placement game against Switzerland, but Sweden is stuck in Group B for another year, likely destined for another strong tournament that ends in a quarterfinal matchup against Canada or the U.S.

After Thursday’s game, Sweden’s coach Ulf Lundberg said he’d only coached against Canada four times in the last four years.

How is a team to improve that way? How are teams supposed to grow to the point of being capable of beating the likes of Canada and the U.S. when they never really get the chance to play them until the medal rounds? Going to a more even group format would likely mean we don’t get a Canada-USA game in the preliminary rounds, which is always a huge draw. But that cannot be the only reason to stay in this current format.

Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, a longtime member of the IIHF council, and the chairperson of the women’s committee told The Athletic on Thursday that “we are having lots of discussions about the format,” and “when would be the right time to go back to snake format and have the two equal groups.”

There is real competition between the third to seventh-best teams in the world right now. The parity in women’s hockey is better than I’ve ever seen it. It might be time to make the change.

Catching up with IIHF women’s committee

Between Czechia and Canada’s quarterfinal victories, Kolbenheyer and Marta Zawadzka of the IIHF council sat down with The Athletic to discuss the tournament and the growth of women’s hockey. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

Questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: How have you seen international women’s hockey grow in the last several years?

Kolbenheyer: There is huge growth that we couldn’t have imagined compared to what we could see back to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Women’s hockey is now on a totally different level and I’m not only talking about the North American teams because all the other teams got better also. At the last few worlds, there are always teams who can surprise you. This time it’s, Germany. Three years ago, it was Japan who could beat Finland and get to the A Group.

The biggest challenge is the depth of the player pool. That’s where North America is far ahead of the European nations, but if you look at the players individually, you can find world-class players on all the teams. If we would create a team from all the other teams, then I’d guess they could challenge the North American teams.

Q: Kind of like the World Cup of Hockey with Team Europe in 2016…

Kolbenheyer: So that was on the table, but then COVID came and we had different priorities and challenges to handle. I hope that we could eventually have a best-on-best tournament with two mixed teams from Europe.

Zawadzka: I think it could be fun. Also, we are focusing on the top ten teams who are visible here at this tournament, but you could fish some players from Division 1A, too. In Hungary, Austria, Netherlands, Slovakia, and Norway, you can still find competitive players who could easily join such team and make an impact.

Kolbenheyer: I think that conversation will start again soon. The PWHL is great, but you still only have North American players, so how can we show that we have really great players in Europe too?

Q: This year’s tournament has had to compete with March Madness, the NHL and MLB seasons, and the Masters are this weekend. Have there been discussions about an ideal time to make women’s worlds more of a main event in the sports calendar?

Kolbenheyer: There are a lot of challenges with scheduling. For example, TSN covers both U18 and women’s world championship — they cannot set up two different crews to go to the under-18 and women’s, so they need to have separate dates. There’s also the rule that seven days before the men’s tournament starts, there can be no other top tournaments going on.

Having the tournament in August like we did in Denmark (2022) had some positives, but also some negatives. We cannot always play hockey in the summer because in some countries you don’t even have ice rinks open.

And now we’re having discussions with different leagues. In the European leagues, some would like worlds to be later, some want it earlier. Now with the PWHL, should we start later to let them finish the regular season and break before playoffs? There are several discussions about what would be the best for TV, for teams, and for the leagues.

Q: It’s my understanding there have been discussions with the women’s committee about women’s world juniors. Could this happen?

Kolbenheyer: I don’t think it will happen in the near future. I think it would be more reasonable to go to U22 or U23, because with U20, we would have almost the same players that are playing at the under-18 world championship, except for Canada and the U.S. If we did a world juniors, I’m 100 percent sure that we would have a lot of players, playing at all three tournaments (U18, world junior, and women’s worlds). Would it make sense to have players in all three? I think we need some more time to have more players in the European countries, and then they could set up a U23 team.

Canada’s MVP

Through five games, Renata Fast stands out as Canada’s most impactful player. She’s been on the national team since the 2017 world championships, and has taken on big minutes on the top pair with Jocelyne Larocque for years now. But I think we’re seeing another level of impact from Fast at this year’s tournament.

She seems impossible to get around, horrible to go into a board battle with, and is adding valuable offence from the blue line. Her three goals leads Canada in scoring; Her six points is third among defenders in the tournament behind only U.S. star Caroline Harvey and Finland’s Jenni Hiirikoski, who is destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In the quarterfinals, she scored two goals and was named the player of the game. She’s still eating minutes (22:14) and she’s been a physically commanding presence on the backend.

Fast really stood out in Monday’s game between Canada and the United States. The pace and physicality in which the games were played seemed to cater to Fast’s brand of hockey.

“I thought she was probably the best player on the ice,” said Rattray. “I think the way she played confident and fast and that’s built right to her game.

“I know playing against her in practice sucks, so I can only imagine being on the American side having to go against that every other shift. She’s just become this well-rounded, world class player that we’re really lucky to have.”

Kendall Coyne Schofield’s return

This is Kendall Coyne Schofield’s tenth world championship, and her first since giving birth to her son, Drew, on July 1, 2023.

“It was emotional,” she said about finding out she’d made the team. “This is the hardest team I’ve had to make.”

The transition back to hockey postpartum, she said, was difficult. When Coyne Schofield stepped on the ice for PWHL Minnesota on Jan. 3, she hadn’t played a hockey game since Dec. 2022. She had two goals and three points in the first month of the season, but her main priority in the early days was to just get her feet back under her.

“I wanted to give myself grace,” she said. “I was six months into becoming a mom, I was breastfeeding. I was by myself in Minnesota because my husband was in Detroit with his job, so I was just wearing a lot of hats. It was pretty hard to be honest.”

Minnesota coach Ken Klee was very supportive, and gave Coyne Schofield the kind of feedback that gave her confidence, but also didn’t make her feel rushed to perform to a certain level right away.

“There are zero guys in the NHL who could take a year off the NHL and come back and fit in right away, much less have a kid,” Klee told The Athletic this season. “She went through a whole thing in her life and didn’t play for a year, now she’s against the top players in the world. She’s going to get there because she’s an incredibly driven athlete.”

Coyne Schofield scored 11 points in the last 11 games of the PWHL season before heading into the international break. At women’s worlds with Team USA, she’s scored three goals and eights points and is third in tournament scoring behind her linemates Alex Carpenter and Hilary Knight. She looks like one of the fastest players on the ice again, she’s been hard on the forecheck and wins a lot of puck battles in the corners.

“As I’ve obviously progressed and been more comfortable and the pace of the game has slowed down for me I’m becoming more myself like I was pre-birth,” she said.

With two assists on Thursday against Japan, Coyne Schofield also moved into second all-time in assists at women’s world championships with 46 in 56 games. She’s only three behind Hayley Wickenheiser’s record (49 assists in 61 games), and would need four assists in Team USA’s final two games to break it.

“What I’ve gone through, to get to this point, has been hard,” Coyne Schofield said. “It’s hard to explain unless the other moms out there can relate to how hard it is to come back after having a child. But I know this (tournament) will definitely be the most special.”

(Top photo: Christinne Muschi / The Canadian Press via AP)

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