Sunday, 9 November 2008

Hockey History In New York

The image to the left, taken by Todd Bissonette of the Associated Press, should be remembered by a lot of international hockey historians. It's a common sight to see teams piling on one another after scoring a big goal, but Sweden had extra motivation to do so. Last night in Lake Placid, New York, the Swedish women's hockey team defeated Team Canada for the first time ever in international play by a 2-1 overtime score. Being that this is Hockey Blog In Canada, you might expect me to brush it off as an anomaly for the Team Canada women. You might expect me to make excuses about being tired with Team Canada having battled Team USA the night before. You may even expect me to say that the result was meaningless as Canada had already secured a berth in the finals of the Four Nations Cup.

But I will not.

Of course, it's a huge step forward for Team Sweden. They beat the four-time defending Four Nations Cup champions which will only go towards boosting their confidence at the 2010 Olympics and the Women's World Championships when meeting up with Canada again. However, Sweden's victory should be a knock on the door for both Team USA and Team Canada.

The world is catching up.

"Finally," sighed defenceman Gunilla Anderson, a 17-year veteran of the Swedish team, speaking to The Toronto Star. And that statement says so much about the state of women's hockey for so long. It was always known that when you ran into either Team Canada or Team USA that you would be taught a lesson in hockey. Canada and the US have dominated women's hockey from its humble beginnings, but the landscape is changing.

The closest that Team Sweden had ever come to beating the powerhouse Canadians was way back on February 4, 1998 in a pre-Olympic exhibition game where the teams battled to a 1-1 tie. Aside from that, there had been no other team beside the USA to expose any holes in the Canadian team's armor.

However, Sweden has been steadily improving over the last six years, and they pulled off their biggest upset in Torino, Italy at the 2006 Winter Olympics to that point. In the biggest tournament on the face of the planet, Sweden upset the American women in the semi-finals, winning 3-2 in shootout to advance to the gold medal game. It was the first Olympic women's hockey competition that didn't feature the North American rivals in the final. Ironically, the word "miracle" in Swedish is "mirakel".

"It's hard to believe. When it was over, I had to ask people what had happened. We were the only ones to believe in this result," Swedish forward Erika Holst said after her team's victory over the Americans.

That moment was the first crack in North American dominance in the sport. And, with Sweden's victory last night, that crack is opened a little wider now. And that's what makes this sport so exciting. The victories are remembered by many, but the "upsets" are remembered by more. Ask any Swedish citizen about Salt Lake City Olympics and men's hockey, and they'll remember Tommy Salo's blunder against Belarus that cost them a shot at the Olympic semi-finals against Canada.

Erin Holmlov had both Swedish powerplay goals while Meaghan Mikkelson had the lone Canadian goal. Sweden's Sara Grahn will be remembered for her historic game while Kim St-Pierre took the loss in the Canadian net.

In Torino, after their historic win against the Americans, Sweden head coach Peter Elander had said, "We have to thank the U.S. and Canada for the possibility of playing against them. Sweden is now part of the league of top women teams", a sign of his appreciation of the top two women's teams for inviting Sweden to play against them in international competitions and exhibition games.

While he was right on his account, there is absolutely no doubting the Swedish women's hockey program now. Granted, their record against the women's hockey powerhouses is still grim, but they should be able to build on the momentous victory and attract more female players to the game. Sweden has already established a six-team women's league this season, and are backed by the Swedish Elite League men's teams such as Modo and Jokerit.

When asked for her reaction to the American loss in Torino, Canadian Cassie Campbell told's Scott Burnside:

"We needed one of our countries to be knocked off at some point. We did. Whether it was ourselves, the United States, we needed something like that to happen. I know how [the American women] feel because we lost last year [to the U.S. at the World Championships], but it's a good day for women's hockey.

"I think people were tired of U.S. and Canada finals, and quite frankly, although I love playing against the United States, it's refreshing to be playing against another team in the final and it's refreshing to know you can't take anything for granted. We've been saying that all along and now it's been proven."

Hockey in Sweden is growing, and every victory over the Canadians and Americans will help the Swedish program immensely. Not only that, but teams like Russia and Finland should continue to improve as well, knowing that it will be their day one day.

"The game of hockey, if you don't play 60 minutes you can lose to anybody and that's what happened today," said Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser to The Toronto Star.

And that's why I love this game. On any given day, anyone can beat anyone. When upsets happen, you just hope it isn't to you. The fact that Sweden now has beaten both the Americans and the Canadians makes you realize that the gap between women's hockey elite teams and second-tier teams is a lot smaller than some people in North America would like to believe. So I give my heartfelt congratulations to Team Sweden for being the better team last night. They deserved to win, and they deserve the limelight for a few moments while they bask in their historical achievement. Well done, ladies, from a Canadian hockey blogger!

Ain't this sport great?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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