By Meaghen Johnson – TSN
When the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship begins on Aug. 20 in Calgary, there will be a noticeable absentee.
For the first time in the history of the women’s worlds, Sweden will not be participating in the top division. The team was relegated after finishing ninth in the 2019 world championship.
It’s been a remarkable downward spiral for a country that has consistently iced one of the top-four women’s teams in the world. Sweden was the first country not named Canada or the United States to play in the final of an international women’s hockey tournament when they earned silver at the 2006 Olympics. They also earned two bronze medals at the women’s worlds in 2005 and 2007.
So, what happened to the national team that upset the Americans in the semifinals of the Turin Games? Let’s take a closer look at what led to Sweden’s relegation.
START OF DECLINE
After picking up a medal in three straight major tournaments from 2005 to 2007, including the aforementioned Olympic silver, Sweden’s downturn began at the 2008 women’s worlds. The team lost 4-3 to Switzerland in the qualifying round, eliminating them from medal contention and earning them a fifth-place finish.
After bouncing back to play in the bronze-medal match in 2009, losing 4-1 to Finland, Sweden followed that up with two more fifth-place finishes in 2011 and 2012. The Swedes regressed further in 2013, finishing last in their group in the preliminary round after failing to win a game. They would win the best-of-three series against the Czech Republic to avoid relegation, but still finished seventh, the country’s worst result since 2001.
There was more disappointment on the Olympics stage, where Sweden ended up with back-to-back fourth-place finishes in 2010 and 2014. In the preliminary round of the Vancouver Games, the Swedes were demolished by Canada 13-1 and were outshot 52-13. They followed that up with a 9-1 loss to the Americans in the semifinal.
At the Four Nations Cup, Sweden has not won a preliminary round game since defeating Finland 2-1 in the 2009 tournament.
LEIF BOORK ERA
Sweden’s downward spiral was aggravated during the Leif Boork era, who was head coach from 2015 to 2018. Boork had little experience in the women’s game, spending one season as an assistant with the team before being named head coach. He had success as a coach in men’s hockey in the 1980s, winning a championship in the Swedish Hockey League in 1983.
At the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championship, which was held in Malmö, Sweden, the team ended up with another fifth-place finish after falling to Russia 2-1 in the quarter-finals. It was déjà vu in 2016, when Sweden once again lost to the Russians in the quarters, this time by a score of 4-1.
After the 2016 tournament, the fifth straight women’s worlds where Sweden failed to reach the semifinals, several players joined forces and asked to meet with the Swedish Ice Hockey Association (SIF) to convey their dissatisfaction with the direction of the team. SIF refused to meet with the players, asking them to submit their grievances in writing.
The players sent a letter petitioning for Boork’s removal, citing issues with training, tactics, and player treatment, including rules about how players should dress.
In the documentary film Underdogs, the specific contents of the letter were revealed, and the players wrote, in part, “There is a lack of an ounce of human value to be at national team camp.” But according to Swedish newspaper Sportbladet, SIF did not offer any substantial feedback.
In the summer of 2016, veteran defenceman Emma Eliasson, who was rumoured to be one of the driving forces behind the letter, was kicked off the team by Boork. Eliasson, who was 28 at the time, had been on the national team since she was 14, played in more than 200 matches for Sweden, helped lead her country to silver at the 2006 Olympics, and had just been named Swedish Player of the Year.
Boork told Sportbladet, “I think that too much has been compromised and that the leadership has been too weak.”
Eliasson would later tell Radiosporten that following the petition, she was summoned to a meeting with Boork, who asked her if she truly stood behind the contents of the letter, to which she said yes.
Roughly a month later, captain Jenni Asserholt abruptly retired at age 28. She would later tell the Swedish media that Boork had bullied her about her weight.
“It became a number on a scale. That’s what it’s about. He was pretty hard on me that you need to fix this. Somewhere I started to lose the desire to try to get back to the national team,” Asserholt told Radiosporten.
Despite the players’ unrest, SIF president Anders Larsson reiterated that the federation had “full confidence” in Boork, telling Sportbladet that the players’ letter had been “handled.”
In early 2017, a Swedish newspaper, Norrländska Socialdemokraten, reported that Sweden’s men’s national team could earn a bonus of several million kronor for advancing to the finals of the world championship, while the women would receive nothing if they had the same success.
ROAD TO RELEGATION
The unrest off the ice continued to spill onto it. In the 2016-17 season, Sweden won just four international games, the team’s worst record since 2002. The squad finished sixth at the 2017 world championship, losing 4-0 to Finland in the quarter-final and then falling to Russia in a shootout in the fifth-place game.
Following the tournament, Boork took to Twitter and shifted the blame to the players, writing, in part: “One of the problems of Swedish women’s hockey is that they previously compromised with so-called star players.”
At the end of 2017, SIF announced that it would not be renewing Boork’s contract after the 2018 Olympics, but the damage had been done. Sweden finished seventh at the PyeongChang Games, a record low for the team. The Swedes were dismantled by Finland in a 7-2 loss in the quarter-finals, and then fell 2-1 in overtime to Japan in their 5th-8th place semifinals game.
That summer, the Swedish Olympic Committee announced that it was cutting all funding from the women’s national team.
Ylva Martinsen, a former player and an alternate captain on the silver medal-winning team in 2006, was named the new head coach. But even though the team was free of Boork, things would get worse for Sweden.
The team was given just five days of preparation before the 2019 world championship. The Swedes lost their first two games to Germany and the Czech Republic. After a come-from-behind win against France, Sweden needed to beat Japan to avoid relegation.
With the game tied 2-2, Ayaka Toko scored with 1:15 left in regulation to give Japan the win and seal Sweden’s fate: for the first time, they would be demoted from the top division.
Relegation proved to be the final straw for the Swedish team. In August 2019, all 43 players who were selected for camp announced they would be boycotting the upcoming team activities, including that month’s Five Nations tournament.
The players and their union, the Swedish Ice Hockey Players Central Organization (SICO), which they had joined in 2018, published a list of grievances, including:
· SIF’s withdrawal of all financial compensation for the women’s team
· lack of insurance for players
· limited ice time and poor travel conditions
· not being provided with uniforms and equipment made for women; instead, SIF supplied the team with the same equipment given to Sweden’s junior boys’ teams
· being provided supplements and nutritional products that were several months past their “best before” date
SIF said it was “surprised” by the players’ decision and added that compensation and insurance should be covered by an agreement with professional clubs in the country, which is the case for the men’s game.
Several big names in women’s hockey publicly supported the Swedish players, including Americans Jocelyne and Monique Lamoreux, who tweeted: “Proud of Team Sweden and what this will mean for their program and the next generation of young girls in Europe!”
Former player Eliasson also supported the boycott, telling Sportbladet, “It feels like there will be a lot of good from it.”
SIF responded by cancelling the 2019 Four Nations Cup, saying it could not guarantee Sweden’s participation. Klara Stenberg, who represented the players, told TheHockeyNews.com that the federation didn’t talk to the players before making its decision.
“The players did not tell the federation they won’t play. They just said they can’t give the federation an answer [right away], but the federation made the decision all by itself to cancel the tournament,” she said.
In October 2019, the players and SIF announced they had reached a deal, which included compensation for national team duties, bonuses for medals in international tournaments, and an additional bonus if the team rejoins the top division at the women’s worlds.
Forward Fanny Rask, who has since retired, said in a release, “For us players, we have always said that there is nothing greater than playing for our national team. It feels like we have taken important steps in the discussions and that we have now been given better conditions for playing [for Sweden].”
Last year, SICO announced the first-ever collective bargaining agreement between the players and the Swedish Women’s Hockey League (SDHL), which includes insurance to cover injuries sustained in either the SDHL or international play.
Unfortunately, Sweden will have to wait another year to work its way back into the top division for the women’s worlds, with the Division 1 tournament being cancelled the past two years due to COVID-19.