Five Reasons to Love the Women’s World Championships

There are plenty of reasons to love hockey in general, and women’s hockey specifically. Here are five great reasons for fans to tune into the latter, from the recently-concluded 2013 Women’s World Championships.

5. The Canadian Crowds of 18,000-Strong

In a sport with as much room to grow as women’s hockey, it’s not just the players who have the potential to shatter records; the fans can make history as well.

With this year’s tournament being held in the capital of pretty much the most hockey-crazed country in the world, and the best teams playing their games at an NHL Arena (ScotiaBank Place, home of the Ottawa Senators), it was all but certain that the 2013 World Championships would garner sizable crowds. But for Canada’s final game of group play, a Friday night contest against Finland, 18,013 fans showed up to break the attendance record for a women’s hockey game.

All of Team Canada’s games drew big crowds, and the tournament as a whole was well-attended. Over 98,000 people were in attendance for the entire event, which ranks second all-time behind the 2007 tournament in Winnipeg for total attendance at the Women’s World Championships. But there was just something special about the atmosphere for that game between Canada and Finland.

With Ottawa also playing host to the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association’s provincials that weekend, ScotiaBank Place was packed with Canadian women’s players of all ages for Friday night’s tilt. All 18,013 of them jubilantly and whole-heartedly sang along to “Oh, Canada” after the game ended, and the sound of it was chill-inducing even if you heard it over the television or webcast. There are no words fitting enough to describe a moment like that, but it was definitely one of the coolest parts of this exciting tournament.

4. Florence Schelling’s Skill and Attitude

Swiss goaltender Florence Schelling is one of the best in the world at what she does. In 2011-2012, her senior season with the Northeastern Huskies, she broke a Hockey East record for highest save percentage in a single season of conference play (.956%). She followed that up with a .931 save percentage at the 2012 World Championships to lead the upstart Swiss team to a bronze medal. Although she could not perform the same kind of heroics this year, she showed countless times just how good she is, making a number of spectacular saves all throughout the tournament.

Schelling’s a fantastic netminder, but it’s not just her talent that sticks out. It’s the way she plays the game. Because there are other great goalies in the world; Shannon Szabados, Noora Räty, and Kim Martin are just a few. But none are quite as…well, refreshing to watch as Florence Schelling. She always looks 100% focused; you can see in her eyes that she’s completely in the zone at all times. But you can also tell that she just has so much fun whenever she’s on the ice. No matter how the game is going, no matter how badly Switzerland is getting blown out, when she makes an incredible save, she’s almost always got a huge grin plastered on her face. It makes for an uncanny mix of pure joy and intensity that lacks any kind of cockiness and exudes all kinds of love for the game.

3. Everything About Marie-Philip Poulin’s Four-Goal Game Against Switzerland

…from the sensational display of skill and class on Poulin’s part to the fact that she wasn’t even named Player of the Game afterwards. Her linemate Jayna Hefford was awarded that honor after making several great feeds to set up Poulin. Because hockey, after all, is not just about scoring goals. There are a million and one other things that players have to do well in order to win games, and it’s nice to see that fact recognized at the Women’s World Championships.

But Poulin summed up in one game’s performance exactly why women’s hockey is worth watching, for a number of reasons. First off, her offensive ability makes her one of a handful of players that can make such a convincing argument for the game. She’s a world-class talent, and though still a rising star, she has perhaps the highest offensive ceiling of any player on the planet. All four of her goals showed why she’s the total package: she drives to the net, she’s got a wicked shot, amazing puck control, and an undeniably elite finishing ability.

It wasn’t just Poulin’s skill that was on display in that game against Switzerland. She also showed an incredible level of modesty, a rarity in star athletes in any sport these days, by keeping the celebrating to a minimum. After former NHL player Georges Laraque tweeted at Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados and jokingly hinted that Poulin’s lack of celebration was “a little cocky”, Szabados refuted that claimed by responding, “she has no idea how good she is”. That’s not the first time we’ve heard a teammate of Poulin’s make a comment like that, either. But it’s not that she doesn’t know how good she is; that’s irrelevant to her. It’s that she doesn’t care how good she is that’s the truly amazing thing.

2. Finland’s Inspiring Performance Against the U.S. in the Semifinals

In 15 IIHF Women’s World Championship tournaments and four Olympics, Finland has never been able to knock off either the U.S. or Canada to advance to to the gold medal game. But for 54 minutes of their semifinal against Team USA this year, their hopes of playing for gold remained very much alive, growing stronger with every save made by goaltender Noora Räty to keep the game scoreless.

Unfortunately for the Finns, though, it was not meant to be this year, as Hilary Knight, Monique Lamoureux, and Brianna Decker would all net goals in the final six minutes to give the U.S. a 3-0 victory. Räty obviously was great in net, but all of the Finnish players were completely committed to stifling the U.S. attack as much as possible, leading to an awe-inspiring defensive performance by the entire team.

Noora Räty (HowlingMad/Flickr)
Noora Räty (HowlingMad/Flickr)

Women’s hockey takes a lot of heat because no one has really been able to regularly compete with the two North American powerhouses. It’s a pretty big problem as the sport is in danger of being dropped from the Olympic ballot because of the lack of parity. But while the U.S. and Canada enter every game as huge favorites when they’re not playing each other, upsets are still possible, a great example being the 2006 Games in Torino. In those Olympics, Sweden upset Team USA and made it to the gold medal game. The real issue is increasing the parity so that upsets will be more and more likely. Finland’s performance in the semifinals this year gave us a glimpse into a future where that rings true. They did more than just show the world who they are as a team; they showed that this sport as a whole is going places.

1. The Incredible U.S.-Canada Rivalry that Never Disappoints

The rivalry between the United States and Canada exists at all levels of hockey, and in other sports too for that matter. But none can really compare to the one between the American and Canadian women’s hockey teams. Most fans who only pay attention to the men’s game might be inclined to disagree, but I can say with confidence that right now this is the best rivalry in hockey right now.

A huge reason why it’s such a great rivalry is because both teams are so good. Maybe Canada was favored to win every game in the past, but that’s history. Nowadays, one team is only ever really marginally better than the other. Both rosters are stocked with all-world talent, meaning that the hockey played between the two is almost always excellent. And body-checking might technically be against the rules in women’s hockey, but there’s never a shortage of grit and physicality in games between Canada and Team USA. No matter where or when these two teams are playing, it is worth it for any hockey fan to watch.

But the big thing that really helps to separate this rivalry from all the others in the entire world of hockey is the pure emotion that’s visible every game. That might seem like a baseless claim; after all, isn’t hockey an emotional sport? And further, aren’t all sports emotional? These two teams, though, they do it right. Their games are always intense, but the respect that both teams have for each other is apparent. Players from each country are in each other’s faces all the time, without there being any cheap shots or dirty plays. No one on either side ever backs down out of pride, but it rarely ever gets out of hand. Despite the stakes, despite the talent, and despite the narratives and backdrops, this rivalry successfully balances itself between tenacity and respect, ferociousness and dignity, fervency and regard. And that’s a beautiful thing in sports.