Worth The Wait

The IIHF Women’s U18 Worlds Returns To Global Stage Bigger And Better Than Ever
By: 
Greg Bates

 

It was a talk Katie Lachapelle didn’t want to have with her players.

Late last December just a few weeks before the U.S. Women’s Under-18 National Team was scheduled to head to Sweden to compete in the 2022 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship, the event was called off due to COVID-19.

There was uncertainty if the tournament would happen at all. Lachapelle, the head coach of the U.S. women’s team, had to break the disappointing news to a group of wide-eyed teenagers.

“I think the world that our young ladies are living in, that was really tough to find out,” Lachapelle said. “I know there were definitely some tears shed and I think there were a lot of parents that were trying to manage their daughters as best they could. At that point, it was weird. What do we do? Do we keep having conversations? Do we keep everybody connected? And I think they did in their team group chat. 

“But it was really hard, because I do think they felt like it just kind of got looked over. And we don’t know what’s happening above us, so we just kind of hope and have some faith.” 

A once-in-a-lifetime shot for some players to travel overseas and represent their country was going by the wayside. 

That’s when USA Hockey swooped in. It was determined to work with the IIHF to secure a host site for the annual event. 

“In the back of my head I always kind of had some faith that USA Hockey was going to do everything they could to make sure it happened,” Lachapelle said. 

Madison, Wis., was ultimately chosen as the site to hold the world championship, with the LaBahn Arena, home of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team, serving as the main rink; Bob Suter’s Capitol Ice Arena in nearby Middleton, home of the USHL’s Madison Capitols, being the secondary rink.

“We all got a little excited and we all kind of connected with each other and we were just hoping that it was going to work out,” U.S. alternate captain Kirsten Simms said. “Especially once we found out it was going to hopefully be in the U.S., that’s when everyone got really excited knowing that it was kind of a blessing in disguise at getting switched.” 

“In the back of my head I always kind of had some faith that USA Hockey was going to do everything they could to make sure it happened.” - Katie Lachapelle

The event was pushed from January to June. It was a long, agonizing five-month wait. Still, it brought the U.S. team members closer together off the ice and that translated into success on the ice. 

The U.S. cruised into the medal round in dominating fashion. However, the women fell short of their ultimate goal, losing the gold-medal game to Canada, 3-2.

“The team’s super close and we have a bond. It’s kind of like a family, that’s what we call it,” captain Danielle Burgen said. “We’re like sisters to each other and having the experience that we are doing together right now is great. I think us being such close friends and having the bond that we do helps us put that onto the ice as well and that’s how we succeed out there.” 

The U.S. players made the most of their home-ice advantage and were able to enjoy the comforts of their familiar surroundings. It marked only the third time in the event’s history it was held on U.S. soil, joining 2010 in Woodridge, Ill., and 2015 in Buffalo, N.Y.

It had also been 887 days since the U.S. U18 National Team had taken the ice against international competition. The last time was Jan. 2, 2020, when the U.S. defeated Canada 2-1 in overtime, to win the gold medal. The 2021 event was cancelled due to the pandemic.

“It gave us more of a sense of motivation and excitement going into this, knowing that it’s been so long since our last one, especially with such a heartbreak with the second year getting cancelled,” Simms said. “Just knowing that we were finally getting the chance to do it again, especially in such a big, nice area was a great feeling.”

The U.S. players tried to use the home ice to their benefit. 

Alternate captain Laila Edwards — who was named tournament MVP, tying for third with eight points (for goal, four assists) — competed in her first world championships. The Cleveland native was happy to have the event so close to home so her staunch supporters could attend.

“It’s super fun,” Edwards said. “Definitely an advantage to us, and I think it’s awesome. Sweden would have been nice, but this is so cool. No complaints.” 

 

Young Group Of Players

The U.S. silver-medal-winning team was a young group. With five girls being 16 years old, the average age barely eclipsed 17. 

Only two players, Burgen and Simms, had world championship experience coming in, both skating in the event in 2020.

Lachapelle banked on her two veterans to lead on and off the ice. When the team reunited in Blaine, Minn., to prepare for the tournament, Lachapelle had Burgen and Simms address the team and field questions about playing on the big stage. 

“We only have the two returners, so that was as a coaching staff a lot of our conversations of how do we make sure we get everybody right in and understanding what this tournament is,” Lachapelle said.

Playing in Madison was an extra special experience for seven of the 23 girls on the U.S. roster. Simms, Edwards and Claire Enright will all be playing at Wisconsin next season. The following year, Ava McNaughton, Laney Potter, Kelly Gorbatenko and Cassie Hall will skate for the Badgers. 

Those ladies got to compete at their future home at LaBahn Arena and in front of their future coach, 1980 Olympic gold medalist, Mark Johnson. 

“It’s kind of exciting to perform early in front of my coach at this kind of level, so he gets to see the different things that I can hone and stuff and he gets a preview,” Simms said. 

 

Exposure For The Women’s Game

Just having this year’s IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship in the U.S., helped showcase the increasing number of talented women’s players from this country and all around the globe. 

The event received plenty of airtime with ESPN+ and NHL Network broadcasting all five of the U.S. games. Giving young girls the opportunity to watch the U18 players do their thing is great exposure for the game. 

 “With how it’s broadcast this year and the amount of exposure we’re getting is insane,” Simms said. “It’s definitely good for young girls getting to see us play and that’s their next step and the next level they want to make it to. It’s definitely super cool for them to be able to get to do that and it’s definitely going to grow the game a lot.” 

The current U18 National Team players would have never expected the amount of interest in the women’s game even just a decade ago when they first laced up their skates. 

“I think it shows a lot, because all the fans out there, a lot of people, want to play on this level too and being able to us actually doing it and competing with all the other countries, it shows that women can do the same thing,” Burgen said. “I think that helps a lot and really opens peoples’ perspective on that — the girls’ game of hockey is awesome, too.” 

Added Edwards: “This is a great first step to women’s hockey becoming bigger.” 

 

 

Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wis.

 


Issue: 
2022-07

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