Month: March 2017 (page 1 of 4)

USA Hockey, USWNT reach 4-year deal in time for worlds

By Navin Vaswani – The Score

USA Hockey and the U.S. women’s national team have reached a four-year agreement “that will result in groundbreaking support” for the program, USA Hockey announced Tuesday.

The deal ensures the national team will compete at this year’s women’s world championship, which begins Friday in Plymouth, Mich.

“Today reflects everyone coming together and compromising in order to reach a resolution for the betterment of the sport,” USA Hockey president Jim Smith said. “We’ll now move forward together knowing we’ll look back on this day as one of the most positive in the history of USA Hockey.”

The team planned to boycott the world championship unless a deal was struck, citing unfair wages and a lack of support for the players. While negotiations and dialogue between the two parties were ongoing, time was fast running out for an agreement to be reached, especially with the U.S. hosting the tournament.

The team will practice Thursday, and will host Canada on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

ESPN’s Johnette Howard has a number of reported details on the deal:

  • Compensation per player will rise to $70,000.
  • The women’s team will now earn performance-related bonuses for the first time, and players could see their incomes reach six figures with world championship and Olympic titles.
  • A gold medal is worth $20,000, and a silver $15,000.
  • Each national team member will receive a $2,000 monthly stipend, regardless of experience. Before this agreement, newer team members were earning between $750 and $2,000, based on experience.
  • Travel, insurance, and per diem amounts will now be the same for the women as they are for the men’s team.
  • Committees will be established for marketing, scheduling, and public relations recommendations, and a foundation position will be created to focus on fundraising, which pales in comparison to the U.S. boys’ developmental team and the USHL.

“Our sport is a big winner today. We stood up for what we thought was right and USA Hockey’s leadership listened,” captain Meghan Duggan said. “I’m proud of my teammates and can’t thank everyone who supported us enough.”

The dispute became a major story in hockey circles, with NHLers chiming in, and support for the team coming in droves on social media.

“I’m glad we could come together and reach an arrangement that will have a positive and lasting impact,” forward Hilary Knight said.

Women’s World Championships 2017 Preview: Czech Republic

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When assessing European women’s teams, there are some that are always penciled in as medal contenders—Finland, Russia, Sweden. Then, there are some teams that play with a different, yet no less important measure of success in mind—not getting relegated. This year, the Czech Republic is one of those teams. The Czechs first reached the top level at Worlds in 2013, and were promptly relegated again that tournament. They came back up in 2016, so this is their third time participating at the top level of IIHF Worlds. Last year, they finished second in Group B and got to move onto the quarterfinals for the first time (where they were promptly handed a 5-0 loss by Finland, but, progress!). This year, they’ll be in Group B again, along with Sweden, Germany, and the Swiss team that just beat them in Olympic qualifications.

Why Should I Watch Them, Then?

Because they’re a developing team, with some young, fun forwards who might do cool things.

More than most teams in the tournament, the Czechs will be relying strongly on their youth. There are only two players on the roster born before 1990, and they have seven current NCAA players, more than any other country. They also boast the youngest player in the tournament in defender Adela Škrdlová, who was born in February of 2001 and barely slides in under the age requirement of sixteen years old. She skated for the Czechs in Olympic qualifiers, so hopefully she’s able to take care of herself when playing with grown women.

They’re bringing a trio of NCAA standouts in Michaela Pejzlová, Denisa Křížová, and Tereza Vanišová. Pejzlová just won a national championship in her freshman year at Clarkson University, scoring 32 points in 37 games on a very good college team. Vanišová, a freshman at the University of Maine, also ended her year with some hardware, albeit on a team at the other end of the standings. Despite Maine finishing last in Hockey East and only winning ten games, Vanišová was awarded Hockey East Rookie of the Year after scoring 28 points in 28 games. It’s easy to see why, watching her—on a Maine team that often struggled to get out of its own zone, Vanišová’s speed and offensive instincts stood out.

This is her first goal in the NCAA, and it’s gorgeous, for the pass to herself through the defender’s legs alone. Group B should watch out—she’s fast, agile, and (as obvious above) a major breakaway threat.

Křížová might not be as offensively flashy as Vanišová, but she’s been a consistent producer as a forward for Northeastern University, scoring at over a point per game all three years of her college career. This past season as a junior, she put up 45 points in 34 games, good for first on her team and fifteenth in the NCAA. To put that in context, she scored at a higher point-per-game pace than Emily Clark, who’s representing Canada. Don’t let the lack of hype and Czech flag next to her name fool you into thinking Křížová’s not highly skilled.

Another young, talented forward for the Czechs is Kateřina Bukolská, who hasn’t even hit the NCAA yet—she’s a Merrimack commit, as what I can only assume is a slow Czech takeover of Hockey East continues apace. She spent the last year playing for the Ottawa Lady Senators of the PWHL, and while she only had 14 points this year, that was good for second on her second-to-last-place team. Bukolská led the Czech team in scoring at the Nations Cup this year—please enjoy this (helpfully highlighted!) recruiting video that shows off her skills in a game against France, particularly the nice point shot at around 0:50.

What About Defense and Goaltending?

Their defense, as one might guess from the sixteen-year-old, also skews young—they’re bringing four defenders from the team that won the bronze medal at the World U18 Championships in 2014, including the University of Vermont’s Samantha Kolowratová and Dynamo St. Petersburg’s Aneta Tejralová. Vanišová and Pejzlová were also on that team, as well as the Czechs’ oldest goaltender, Klára Peslarová. Peslarová had an uncharacteristically poor performance in Olympic qualifiers, but her stats for her SDHL club SDE HF were decent (0.926 SV%, good for sixth in the league), so it’s possible she’ll be sharper this tournament.

The most exciting thing about the Czechs, right now, is where they sit in the process of developing an national women’s hockey program. Bukolská, the top scorer on their development team, hasn’t even started her NCAA career. Křížová, who led the team in points in the Olympic qualifying round, is only 22. Like in men’s hockey, women’s hockey players don’t usually peak until their mid-to-late 20s, so we’re not even close to seeing what these women are capable of.

The Czechs might not be in serious medal contention, but that’s also not really what they’re aiming for—they’re trying to maintain their position in the top level at the World Championships while their players get international experience. They don’t have a jaw-dropping superstar like Lara Stalder, a world-famous goalie like Noora Räty, or a history of senior-level international success like the Swedish team. They do have a core of young women who’ve played together since the Czechs’ first trip to the World Championships in 2013, and who are only going to improve in the future.

Who knows? In five years, you might be able to say that you liked Tereza Vanišová before it was cool.

Women’s World Championship 2017: Team Sweden

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The team arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan last week and got to work:

Before we look at this year’s team, let’s look at their history in the tournament. You know that Sweden is one of the powerhouse hockey countries, but the history of women’s hockey in Sweden is one of a struggle not just to close the gap on Canada and the USA, but to keep pace with Finland and, increasingly, Russia.

In 1990 when this tournament began, Sweden came fourth behind Finland. In 2005, they won their first bronze medal, and it looked like they were the team to challenge Finland as the usual third-place finisher. This was a time of marked shrinking of all the skills gaps in the women’s game and Sweden, Finland and some other countries started to catch up.

Sweden won their second bronze in 2007, finished fourth the next time the event was held in 2009, and they’ve never been in contention since. Not even as host in 2015, have they finished as high as fourth. The surge of the Russian team has left them looking like they are standing still in this race.

The second most popular sport in Sweden after hockey is the one where everyone asks, “What’s wrong with Swedish hockey?” A situation that is familiar to many Canadians. The answer is likely very complicated and is partly about money devoted to the sport but also simply a numbers game. Sweden has a tiny population compared to Russia. But their even-smaller neighbour Finland can’t count on the bronze medal without a heavy fight anymore because of the growth in Russia and other countries.

It’s a whole new world in the women’s game.

It’s not clear that the governing body of Swedish hockey is entirely comfortable in that new world. For the third year in a row, the head coach of the women’s team is Leif Boork, who is 67 and a veteran of SHL coaching in prior decades. And while the most important and talked- about member of the team should be the women playing on the ice, Boork is always at the centre of the story with this team.

Two of the women most people think we should all be talking about are Jenni Asserholt and Emma Eliasson, two top players in the women’s league, the SDHL. Asserholt was captain of the national team the last time Boork allowed her on it. Because of his personal feud with these two women, he will not consider naming either of them. And yet, he continues as head coach and is expecting to be extended and to coach the team through the Olympics next year.

The official list of players as announced on March 14 included some surprising names:

Goalkeepers:

Sara Grahn , Brynäs, Lovisa Berndtsson , Djurgården, Sara Berglind , Modo

Defenders:

Anna Kjellbin , Linköping, Johanna Fällman , Luleå, Johanna Olofsson , Modo, Annie Svedin , Modo

Jessica Adolfsson , Brynäs, Emilia Ramboldt , Linköping, Maja Nyhlén-Persson , Leksand

Fowards:

Sara Hjalmarsson , AIK, Sabina Küller , AIK, Lisa Johansson , AIK, Pernilla Winberg , Linköping

Anna Borgqvist , Brynäs, Emma Nordin , Luleå, Olivia Carlsson , Modo, Hanna Olsson , Djurgården

Erika Grahm , Modo, Erika Uden-Johansson , Sundsvall, Fanny Rask , HV71, Michelle Löwenhielm , University of Minnesota-Duluth

Maria Lindh , Univ. of Minnesota-Duluth

As you can see, the majority of the team is from the SDHL with only two US College players. The SDHL champions, Djurgården, are not well represented, however, their head coach, Jared Cipparone, 31, is the assistant coach, leading some to hope that he brings a more modern approach to the team. Maria Lindh has also signed to the team for next year, leaving college hockey behind her.

Boork has been criticized for playing a defensive style that stifles offence, but he sees their struggles to score in recent national team matches as a problem of injuries:

We’ve had some problems with the scoring. Emma Nordin , Anna Borgqvist , Erika Grahm and so on. We have had several of those supporting offensive players away. Maybe not at the same time, but from time to time. This has meant that we have not been able to transform the team so we have the really aggressive quality.

There are very few new players on the team since last year, but one that stands out is Maja Nyhlén Persson, a 16-year-old defender who has never played on the women’s national team, but has been a regular on an SDHL team. It is really difficult not to see her inclusion on this team in the same light as Rasmus Dahlin’s turn on the recent Swedish WJC team at the same age. That move garnered a lot of buzz while he didn’t add a lot to the play on the ice.

Given that Emma Eliasson scores at over a point per game in the SDHL as a defender (and was tied for second in defender scoring in the World Championships last year) and Nyhlén Persson doesn’t quite hit .5 points per game, this exchange of the veteran the coach can’t get along with for a budding young future star seems like it isn’t doing the team any favours.

The rest of the defence corps are seasoned SDHL veterans and most are national team and World Championship veterans who will carry the team with the bulk of the ice time.

The expectation from Boork is that two forward lines will produce for him:

Now, I think we have two lines that have offensive qualities. Lisa Johansson , Anna Borgqvist and Emma Nordin, we have a line. Pernilla Winberg and Hanna Olsson is another line.

A surprising omission from Boork’s analysis of where his offence will come from is Fanny Rask. She is coming off the best year of her career at only 25, and looks to be in peak form. She led HV71 in points and goals by a massive margin this year, and led her team to the finals losing only to the champion Djurgården. Of course, HV71 is Asserholt’s team, and Rask is a close friend and supporter of her teammate and captain.

Rask (#49 in white) is shown here, first in the corner digging for the puck, then out in the slot and then she drifts away like a leaf floating on the current, only to zip in and grab the goal when everyone’s lost track of her.

Lisa Johansson is Rask’s equal in points this season, as is Erika Grahm. Pernilla Winberg, however, has played at the World Championships since 2004, and is not having a great year at the net. She does bring a wealth of veteran experience, however. And that’s how this team has been built with a mix of youth and experience.

Sara Grahn is expected to start every game as the main goaltender. She has a .934 save percentage in four games with the national team this year, and is the strength they will be relying on in tough matches.

Sweden plays in Pool B, which means they have to outplay only two of the Czechs, the Swiss and the Germans to get into the quarterfinals. That part should be a given. It’s the next step that looks difficult for this team, and one they’ve done poorly at in recent years. Last year Russia thumped them 4-1 in the quarterfinals, and they do not want a repeat of that performance.

Women’s World Championships 2017 Preview: Finland

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In our second installment of What’s Up With Team Not-North-America, we turn our attention to one of the Nordic countries, specifically Finland. Last year, Finland had a good showing at the World Championships, even giving Canada a bit of a scare in the semifinal round before eventually losing 1-0 to Russia in the bronze medal game. Coming so close to a medal has to sting, but since then, Finland had an undefeated showing to win gold at this year’s Nations Cup. After a near miss in 2016, they’re angling to come home from Plymouth with some hardware.

What’s different this year, you might ask? Well. This year, Noora Räty is back on the Finnish national team.

Why You Should Know Her Name

Räty is one of the best female goaltenders in the world right now. A quick peek at Räty’s career stats is eye-popping, especially her NCAA career at the University of Minnesota. In her senior year she posted a 0.956 SV% and 0.96 GAA, leading Minnesota to a championship and the only undefeated season in women’s Division I hockey to date. She still holds the women’s NCAA record for most career wins (114). Like Canada’s Shannon Szabados, Räty’s spent the past few years playing in men’s leagues—after becoming the first woman to play in Mestis, she’s played the past couple seasons in the Suomi-sarja, the third-tier Finnish league. She’s currently with Nokia Pyry when she’s not playing for her country.

Since returning to the Finnish women’s national team for the 2016 Four Nations Cup, Räty’s played fourteen games for Finland and put up good numbers–0.927 SV%, 1.80 GAA. It goes without saying that having her back is huge for Finland; like Florence Schelling, Noora Räty is exactly the sort of goalie you want on your roster for a short international tournament. Finland is in Group A, with Russia, Canada, and the United States. If the US brings a scab roster, Finland has a great chance at finishing second in that group.

You Should Know These Names Too

While Finland’s strength is obviously in goal, Räty’s not the only player to watch. One of their more notable skaters is defender Mira Jalosuo. Currently a member of the Minnesota Whitecaps—an independent women’s professional team that includes several members of the US women’s national team—Jalosuo was also Räty’s teammate on that undefeated University of Minnesota team. Like Switzerland, Finland also has some current NCAA players on their roster. They include Saana Valkama, who put up 24 points in her sophomore season at the University of Vermont, and sophomore defender Anna Kilponen, who’s an assistant captain on the University of North Dakota.

On the off chance anyone has questions about team #leadership, they’re also bringing Riikka Välilä, who has played for Finland since 1988. Välilä is 43 and a member of the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame —she was inducted during her decade long “retirement” from playing hockey between 2003 and 2013. She is still averaging at around a point per game for both her country and her SDHL club, HV71. She scored six points in six games at last year’s Worlds, and only six players in the tournament scored more. And she is fourteen years older than her next oldest teammate. International hockey is awesome, and Välilä should hang out with Jaromir Jagr sometime.

Finland is always a legitimate threat for bronze, and if there’s any good news out of the USWNT strike, it’s that we might see medals for two European teams. The team that just missed the podium in Kamloops has only gotten stronger, and we can expect them to be a medal contender.

Women’s World Championships 2017 Preview: Switzerland

By SB Nation

As the 2017 Women’s World Championships approach, the question on everyone’s lips is, “who will play for the US?” Will it be the original roster? A scab team? This article…will not answer that question.

Instead, we’re going to begin a series talking about the European teams coming to this year’s World Championships, and we’re starting off with a country that just qualified for the Olympics last month—Switzerland. They were, as you can imagine, very excited about that.

But Annie, you might be saying, Switzerland won the bronze medal at Sochi. They had to qualify for Pyeongchang? Yes, yes they did, because international hockey is cruel. They did it in style, too, winning all three games of their qualification round, scoring fourteen goals and only allowing three. They’re bringing a very similar roster to Worlds, and have been put into Group B, along with Sweden, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The game against the Czechs will be especially interesting, as the Swiss beat the Czechs 4-1 in their final game of Olympic qualifications to advance. Knocking the Swiss out of the World Championships in return would, I’m sure, be fun revenge for the Czech team.

So, Who Should I Know On the Team?

Like most of the European teams, the Swiss roster is made up largely of women off teams in their home country or other European leagues, with a few NCAA players sprinkled in. The ZSC Lions have an especially nice showing. Unlike most of the European teams, though, the Swiss have Lara Stalder.

Here she is, batting a puck out of midair to score in double overtime and send her team, the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, to the WCHA championship final.

She’s okay, I guess!

In all seriousness, Stalder is exceptional. A top-three Patty Kazmaier finalist this year (the MVP award for women’s college hockey), she scored 56 points in 35 games playing in the toughest conference in the NCAA, and had eight goals and twelve points in three games for Switzerland in the final round of Olympic qualifications back in February. Switzerland only scored two goals that tournament that did not directly involve Lara Stalder. She scored over half of their fourteen goals herself, and had hat tricks in two out of the three games. Stalder is a one-woman offense, and one of the most talented forwards on any team this competition.

She’s got some decent offensive backup, including Alina Müller, the 19-year-old who pulled in 8 points of her own in Olympic qualifiers, and spends most of her time as the alternate captain of the EHC Kloten U17 boys’ team. Müller was on the Sochi bronze-medal team as a fifteen-year-old, which means she had an Olympic medal before the age most of us were allowed to drive a car. Switzerland’s roster also features the Weidacher sisters (there are three of them–Isabel, Monika, and Nina–and they all play on the ZSC Lions, which I’m sure isn’t at all confusing), and Phoebe Staenz, who had almost a point-per-game season at Yale this year. They are also bringing what appears to be the majority of the ZSC Lions defensive corps, which, if it ain’t broke, right?

Stalder, though, is not the only star the Swiss have to offer. In goal, they have Florence Schelling, another NCAA product out of Northeastern University. After college, she spent the 2012-2013 season in the CWHL with the Brampton Thunder, ranking third in the league with a 0.901 SV% for a mediocre Brampton team before returning to Europe for Switzerland’s Olympic centralization. She currently plays for the women’s Linköping HC club in Sweden, where she is teammates with current Canadian national team player Jennifer Wakefield. This season in Linköping, Schelling has posted a 0.963 SV% and 1.09 GAA over ten regular season games. In Olympic qualifiers, her save percentage of 0.941% was good for second highest in the tournament and first in Switzerland’s Group C. Like Stalder, Schelling is a top-level women’s hockey talent, and strong goaltending is of utmost importance in a short international tournament. Florence Schelling is the sort of goaltender who could steal some games.

This combination might not be enough to carry the Swiss through against some of the better teams–Canada would have them for lunch, on lack of depth alone–but they’ve already handled the Czechs once this year, and Germany’s hardly heavy competition. If they make it to the quarterfinals, I think they could give Russia or Finland a hard time. No matter what, we can count on a few highlight-reel goals from Lara Stalder.

Swedish Ice Hockey Federation wants NHL GMs to keep their prospects in Sweden rather than the AHL

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By SB Nation

As the GMs meeting wrapped up, plenty of information has come out about a number of things you’ll be hearing about in the next couple of days. One interesting wrinkle that’s come out for this is what the Svenska Ishockeyförbundet (Swedish Hockey Federation) wants for the NHL’s young swedish prospects.

Namely, for them to not play in the AHL.

….Well that kinda came out of left field.

Currently, Boston has two players from Sweden in their AHL affiliate, with a host of Swedes outside the semi-pro system (Oskar Steen, Johansson, Forsbacka-Karlsson) that, once they hit a certain level, have to make a choice in regard to their development. Move to Rhode Island, or return to their Sport Clubs in Sweden.

On the one hand, it’s not hard to understand why Sweden might want their young players to come home every once in awhile. The time difference to see these talents in their prime is sometimes very prohibitive, and having them playing on Swedish teams means more revenue for said teams. It also has precedent for the development perspective, as Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin took a season off from NHL play to return to their previous teams in Sweden, and both came back just as good, if not better, than they were. Sometimes players still need a better transition period that doesn’t always come with playing in the AHL. A more recent example that Swedish officials got word of was that of Alex Nylander (brother of William) struggling mightily in the AHL where he previously…didn’t. Artturi Lehkonen wasn’t exactly a bad player, but after a stint in Frolunda he came to the NHL and has been a promising (and infuriating) prospect for Montreal. There’s plenty of precedent for improvement being made from the SHL.

On the other hand…there are plenty of players who can say the opposite has been working out for them in the NHL because they went to the AHL instead of Sweden. Oscar Sundqvist in Wilkes-Barre has improved his point-getting immensely from any season he had at the highest level of play for Skellefteå in Sweden. To say nothing of course of Boston’s own David Pastrnak, whose currently blowing any previous season he’s ever had in Europe out of the water. His time in the AHL put him at a point-per-game no matter what sample size they threw him in. 25 games? 28 points. 3 games for conditioning? 4 points. Anton Blidh at the SHL level had less than 10 points in his 60+ career. In Providence? Much more consistent with at least 12-15 points a season.

On top of all of that there’s still that whole “North America doesn’t play on Olympic ice“ thing that can be kind of an issue sometimes? It’s not that much of one anymore, but it can still take some getting used to. The Bruins have gotten around this mostly by having players who’ve already made the transition to North American leagues by choice or have been playing on NHL level ice for awhile now. Oh…and probably a much more pressing matter: whole “Geography” thing. If you’d like to get a player called up? You’re gonna have to wait on a plane that at the absolute least 10 hours or more while they get on a flight.

Sweden didn’t come down hard on the NHL so it’s still up to player and team discretion to what comes next in their development before they have a chance to make the NHL roster, but it does leave one wondering who will take their home country up on the offer or what GM will consider the proposition.

U.S. women’s hockey team expected to vote on tentative deal with USA Hockey

By AJ Perez – USA Today

USA Hockey and players for the U.S. women’s national team agreed Tuesday to a tentative four-year deal to avert a boycott of the IIHF Women’s World Championship, a person with knowledge of the deal told USA TODAY Sports Tuesday.

The person requested anonymity because the deal has not been finalized. The players were expected to vote around noon ET on the agreement. The financial terms of the deal were not immediately known.

If the players approve the deal, it would end their year-plus efforts to secure higher wages and other support from USA Hockey. The 23 players on the national team drew international attention when they announced March 15 they intended to forgo the World Championship.

Team USA’s first game of the tournament is against Canada on Friday.

Messages left with USA Hockey were not immediately returned. USA Hockey spokesperson Dave Fischer declined comment.

The players said in a statement earlier this month they were seeking a livable wage, although they strongly disputed the numbers put out by USA Hockey that they had asked for $237,000 each in an Olympic year and $149,000 in a non-Olympic year.

USA TODAY Sports reported Sunday that the board was scheduled to consider the same proposal that players and USA Hockey had tentatively agreed to after they met on March 20 in Philadelphia.

The holdout by the women’s team quickly turned into a referendum on equality. The players hit social media hard once they announced the boycott, using the hashtag “#BeBoldForChange.”

Sixteen Democratic senators released a letter Monday written to USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean.

“We urge you to resolve this dispute quickly to ensure that the USA Women’s National Hockey Team receives equitable resources,” the senators wrote. “These elite athletes indeed deserve fairness and respect, and we hope you will be a leader on this issue as women continue to push for equality in athletics.”

USA Hockey announced on Thursday that it would seek out replacement players, although dozens of would-be players turned down the offer to don red, white and blue. NCAA Division III, Under-16 girls and adult-league players were sought out after many of the nation’s elite players turned down USA Hockey in solidarity to boycotting players.

While the men’s team players don’t make any more than the women, the men do get upgraded flight and hotel accommodations. And, if you’re a member of the men’s U.S. Olympic teams since 1998, you’d be making more than a livable wage, since the teams have been comprised of millionaire NHL players.

New U20 coach for Latvia

By IIHF.com

The Latvian Hockey Federation (LHF) named Karlis Zirnis its new U20 national team head coach following a board meeting on Tuesday.

The 39-year-old has been working as an assistant coach with the men’s and U20 national teams at several occasions during the last five seasons including stints at the 2014 Olympics and the last four World Championships.

Zirnis grew up in Latvia and represented his country at the 1995 U18 European Championship C-Pool and the 1996 and 1997 U20 World Championship B-Pool tournaments shortly after the country’s independence. Since 1997 he has been living in North America where he played college and minor-league hockey (CHL, SPHL) in the U.S. until 2010. Afterwards he worked as a scout and coach. This season he has been the head coach of junior team Shreveport Mudbugs of the NAHL after three years as head coach of the Nashville Jr. Predators.

“Karlis Zirnis has for several years helped the senior and junior national teams and now quite successfully led a U.S. junior team in the NAHL. He has sufficient experience and expertise to lead the U20 national team to the World Junior Championship,” said LHF President Aigars Kalvitis. “I’m confident that the Latvian junior national team under Karlis Zirnis’ guidance will return to the top division.”

The Latvian U20 national team will play at the Black Sea Cup 2017 in Sochi, Russia, as kick-off for next season’s preparation. After a last-place finish at the recent World Juniors Latvia will compete in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A next winter and aim at promotion against Germany, France, Kazakhstan, Austria and Hungary.

NHL poised to enter China, hockey’s next frontier

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By Canadian Press

When Andong Song started playing hockey in China at age 6, he wore figure skates on his feet and had to use the straight parts of short-track speedskating rinks for practice.

His father brought back equipment from his travels one piece at a time, and his family moved to Canada a few years later so he could pursue a career in the sport. Song, the first Chinese player selected in the NHL draft, envisions a day when that sort of cross-global exodus is no longer necessary for kids growing up in China.

That could be coming soon with the NHL looking at China as hockey’s next great frontier. With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China is eager to step up its game and the league is intrigued by the potential of a new nontraditional market with 1.4 billion people that might take to hockey like it did basketball.

“It’s a place that hasn’t had that much of an opportunity to be introduced to what everybody acknowledges is a great game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because of the size of the market and the fact that lots of sports haven’t been developed there, it’s a good opportunity to expand the sport even further.”

This week, Bettman is expected to announce NHL preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, along with grassroots programs to build a hockey foundation where the NBA has laid one for decades. It’s the first big step toward the NHL making inroads in China, whether or not players participate in the 2018 Olympics in neighboring South Korea.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said showcasing the NHL, running clinics and getting more broadcast coverage all figure into the long-term strategy. Even though Russia’s expansive Kontinental Hockey League now has a team based in Beijing, NHL exhibition games — and potentially regular-season games as early as fall 2018 — will have a bigger impact.

“Even with the KHL there, they know it’s not the best league,” said Song, a Beijing native and sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2015 who now plays for the Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League. “They know it’s not the NHL.”

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China only has 1,101 registered players and 154 indoor rinks. Despite having a quarter of China’s population, the U.S. has 543,239 players and 1,800 indoor rinks.

By October , 14 different NBA teams will have played 24 preseason games in greater China since 2004, so the NHL has some catching up to do. The Boston Bruins sent an envoy on a Chinese tour last summer that included players Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently said his team could be next after hosting youth players from China in January.

“There will be about 200 new rinks being built in China and we would expect China being a very, very formidable force in the Olympics,” said Leonsis, who called China the next great hockey market. “And also we’ll see that China will be producing players and I would expect that we’ll have NHL players that were born and trained, just like we’ve seen in the NBA, and China will be able to bring players here.”

The NBA gained popularity in China in part due to Yao Ming, the first pick in the 2002 draft. The NHL is going into China hoping to develop homegrown stars. Chinese broadcaster and producer Longmou Li, who has worked the Stanley Cup Final and helped families move to North America for hockey, said 500 to 600 new families are joining the Beijing Hockey Association each year, which could mean churning out an NHL first-round pick every five to six years.

Song said because the sport is still in its infancy in China and centralized in the northeast and in big cities, keeping the best players there instead of seeing them leave for North America is the biggest challenge.

About 200 Chinese hockey families currently live in North America, Li said, and the return of those players, coupled with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star’s presence and a commitment to skill development, will help the national team grow in preparation for the 2022 Olympics. With a broadcasting deal already in place to air four NHL games on state-owned China Central TV and 10-12 online through Tencent each week, his keys to the growth of Chinese hockey are players reaching the NHL and the national team competing at the top level of the world championships.

Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan was recently tapped to take over Kunlun and oversee the men’s and women’s national teams, so the process is underway.

“If NHL can help China to get that, I think we can at least get 100 million fans from China,” Li said. “Because hockey is just so passionate a game, is so fast a game, it’s so easy to get people to get involved. But they will need to attract them to watch.”

Although being awarded the Olympics was impetus for the Chinese government to pour resources into hockey, it’s getting some help from the private sector in the form of Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of of metal can manufacturing company ORG Packaging. The goaltender-turned-billionaire is at the forefront of hockey’s growth in China through NHL partnerships and sponsorship’s.

“As long as (TV networks) in China broadcast many more games in China, it will attract more people to notice the NHL, especially the youth hockey player,” Zhou said through an interpreter. “Because there are many Chinese kids that have started learning hockey there, and there is a good population of the people that will develop hockey in China.”

When Chris Pronger famously plastered Justin Bieber into the boards during a celebrity game at NHL All-Star Weekend in January, not only was Zhou playing goal but an ORG Packaging patch was on players’ jerseys. Talking about spreading the “gospel” of hockey, Leonsis called Zhou “the greatest evangelist.”

Zhou can’t do it alone, and NHL integration in China is also connected to the 2022 Olympics. After NHL players participated in the past six Olympics, there’s pessimism about the league going to Pyeongchang next year. Discussions about Beijing will happen later.

By then, the league should know if the experiment is working.

“If we can get in on the ground floor, help them with that (and) bring our expertise,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “You can’t argue with the population or the economy, so if we’re able to do that it could be a great opportunity for us.”

Ice hockey comes to Santiago

By Nicholas Siler – Santiago Times

It’s a typically chilly Saturday morning during an untypically warm week in early August in Santiago and the Cerrogrado ice rink in Mall Vespucio has opened its doors to the Yetis, the city’s only ice hockey team. The players take to the ice and warm up under the glow of dim ballroom lights and disco balls hovering over the rink. Later the rink will be filled with families grasping the last bit of winter fun. Fresh from winning the Copa Invernada in Punta Arenas in July, the team has its sights set on September, October and beyond. In Punta Arenas they fended off teams from Iquique, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia in Argentina and the Falkland Islands and came home with the trophy. Chile appears to be taking its first steps into the fast-paced and ferociously competitive sport of ice hockey, fueled by aspirations of a federation that previously paid attention only to in-line hockey, a variation of the sport played off the ice on roller blades. However, the Chilean Ice Hockey Federation faces limits and hindrances to funding and publicity.

The Yetis took to the ice as an organized team in 2015 and became a recognized legal entity in 2016. Most of the Yetis had been in-line hockey players. In places like La Serena and Iquique, much of the players’ exposure to hockey came from foreigners – most often Canadians — working at nearby mines. Initially, hockey was played on roller blades on tiles of plastic flooring, since sustaining an ice rink was as good as impossible. Chile sent a national team to the 2000 and 2002 international in-line hockey championships and almost returned in 2015, but rival Argentina took the slot as the sole South American qualifier. Slowly many in-line hockey players became acquainted with ice hockey through media and trips overseas. However, there were very few opportunities at home. The Yetis third place finish in 2015 at the ice hockey Copa Invernada tournament and its title victory at this year’s contest have made Monica Arias, President of the Chilean Ice and Inline Hockey Association, cautiously optimistic.

An ice hockey team from Iquique regularly competes on ice with the southerly teams of Santiago and Punta Arenas. Those teams practice on ice rinks but the rinks are neither regulation-size nor freely available, as they belong to recreational ice-skating companies that operate them for entertainment at shopping malls. Arias points out that despite this handicap, media attention both abroad and in Chile has increased dramatically and she hopes that the Patagonia Challenge Cup (in which a team from Punta Arenas took part) and a potential Chile-only tournament, will increase the public’s interest. The association’s goal of sustaining two teams in Santiago (as is the case in Punta Arenas) will, she says, increase interest, as will its aspiration to field a national team for the Pan American Ice Hockey Tournament next year in Mexico City.

There is good reason for Chile to be hopeful. However, ex-Barcelona player and current Level 4 ice hockey coach Andrew Jasicki cautioned that without a regulation-size rink, none of Chile’s players would perform well in Mexico City. The Copa Invernada is a three-on-three tournament as only so many players can fit on a recreational rink. Full-game experience is severely lacking. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina practice on larger rinks than those in Chile. In fact, the Patagonian Argentinian town of Ushuaia has an Olympic sized rink as well as a team that competes with teams from Argentina. Additionally, Ushuaia plays host to the End of the World hockey tournament which involves full teams on a regulation size rink. Still, there are exceptions. Colombia, which lacks full-sized rinks, beat heavyweight Mexico twice in a row for the gold and claimed a bronze at three previous tournaments. It benefits from dual citizens with professional or semi-professional ice hockey experience.

Argentina and Mexico send two squads each to the tournament, bringing the total number of teams competing to six. Former Chilean national in-line hockey team member and hockey promoter Mauricio Vieytes told International Ice Hockey Federation reporter Andy Potts that the Chilean federation might look into doing the same as Colombia, drawing on Chile’s expatriate/dual-citizen community from the United States, Italy, and Finland.

There are many challenges. Arias says coaches base their training on anecdotal experiences. The small recreational rinks make training awkward and sometimes teams share space with the public out just to enjoy the ice. Also, the players pay their own way. Arias explains, “At this time, each athlete finances their own actions, such as activities, participation at international tournaments, travel etc. The Yetis are a new club with no external funding, nor has it been nominated for competitive funding projects in any category or institution. We have only been using our own resources. We are already pressed for time to be part of the selection process because our situation is complicated considering the distance players have to travel right now.” At a more fundamental level, there has been little attention given to the prospects of ice hockey in Chile by the organized sporting authorities in the country. Arias plans to hold a meeting with the general secretary of the Chilean Olympic committee hoping for more help, infrastructure, and funding. “The idea is to develop a presentation of hockey to submit to the community either on the municipal or state level. She considers Mexico 2017 a steppingstone to the Winter Olympics in China in 2022.

It will be difficult to get there. Chile has few full-time players and has only three mall-based recreational ice rinks for practice. More public interest is needed to sustain hockey and develop talent for future competitions. Also missing is official cooperation between Argentina and Chile to mutually improve the quality of the sport. But Arias notes that increasing funding for infrastructure alone will not be enough and that teams need to perform. Still, the recent dominance of the Yetis and the successful junior youth ice hockey tournament in Punta Arenas give hope for the future. Perhaps hockey in Chile is finishing the first period of a match to win the public’s attention, with two more to go. How that game will end remains to be seen, but the opportunity for success is there.

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