4/23/21 Update: Well, well. It would appear that either WagerBop is cursing the women’s international field, or we just know exactly the wrong time to put out IIHF predictions.
The Women’s World Championship was cancelled just a day after an expansive 2021 IIHF WWC preview below was posted on the blog, echoing all-too-well what happened in 2019, when our preview was immediately followed by the Canadian Women’s Hockey League closing its doors.
Cancelling a World Championship isn’t quite as big of a bummer as a pro hockey league folding and erasing years of championship games in the process. But it’s still another belt to the jaw taken by the IIHF, which has scarcely been able to plan its Olympic qualifiers, let alone its usual lineup of gala world events since COVID-19 struck in early 2020. Obviously, the fact that the Women’s Worlds in Nova Scotia are off the calendar means that the 2021 IIHF World Championships in Latvia could be on life support. The men’s tournament has already been moved out of Belarus.
Is it time to retire the “find silver linings” motto and admit that coronavirus has wiped out the coolest sports events? Maybe it would be, except the “cancellation” of Canada’s WWC may just be a semantic trick to save the Habs a little face (as opposed to saying, “alright, we’re gonna hold Canada’s upcoming world hockey event in Tampa Bay, everyone bring your sun-tan lotion”) while in reality the 2021 women’s tournament is simply getting postponed to another date and moved to another place. Then again, a 2021 Women’s World Championship could still be held in Canada. IIHF President Rene Fasel’s open letter (in which the most milquetoast, diplomatic, and non-confrontational hockey official of all time actually throws some shade at the Canadian government) concerning the “cancellation” says as much. WagerBop’s best guess is that a federation-sanctioned women’s tourney of some sort will take place in the United States by a date in the summer or early fall.
Watch this space and the NHL section for more news on the Stanley Cup Playoffs, IIHF Men’s Worlds, and women’s pond shinny…whether further events take place as scheduled or not. Or, simply enjoy the content below as a special months-ahead preview of likely rosters at the next WWC.
One of the subtle ways sports journalists exhibit sexism is by reporting on championship female athletes in relation to famous men, with headlines like “Daughter of Ric Flair Wins WWE Title” or “Women’s Soccer Team Owned By (insert celebrity male footballer) Qualifies for UEFA Event.”
Such malfeasance is especially rotten in the hockey world, since women’s ice hockey is a different sport with different rules, rendering all comparisons between male and female skaters meaningless. For instance, women such as Kendall Coyne-Schofield of Team USA can out-skate and out-finesse 75% of the players in the NHL, but still tend to struggle when given ice time in a minor league men’s game. That’s because distaff skaters specialize in a non-contact version of pond shinny and are overwhelmed by the sudden presence of brute force body-checking, like world-class Judo fighters forced to compete in MMA.
WagerBop has to violate the above taboo in today’s introduction, but not to tout the NFL credentials of Coyne-Schofield’s spouse, or brag on the blithering buffoons in charge of USA Hockey. Instead, comparing the 2021 Women’s World Championship to the subsequent men’s IIHF World Championship can illuminate why the 2021 WWC is an event that every fan of ice hockey should be talking about…and why it’s a shame that not everyone will be.
The 2021 Men’s Worlds could suffer from a severe lack of superstar talent. NHL regular-season schedules are ending later than usual, and there’s a question of how many National Hockey League players can be convinced to brave a worldwide pandemic and travel to Latvia for an alternate postseason. Russia has been having trouble convincing its top KHL skaters to go in the first place, and the problems and restrictions of the trip could make that problem worse in 2021. Bluntly speaking, the men’s tournament will probably involve a whole lot of pedestrian rosters and sleepy rinks, even in hockey-crazed Latvia.
In contrast, the 2021 Women’s World Championship is an All-Star tournament, a collection of each nation’s finest players in a gender-division that’s taken a rapid turn toward competitive parity in the past few years. Like many classic international hockey events, the Women’s Worlds will be held in eastern Canada, an easy hop for elite skaters of the NWHL and NCAA. Will there be issues in getting all of the top overseas players to the WWC in 2021? Maybe, but given the sterling track record of the IIHF women’s game in this regard, you can wager that the best national teams will be stacked as of May 6th, hell or high water.
It’s worth noting that the Women’s World Championship in Nova Scotia is the maiden international hockey event since Finland won Cinderella gold and silver in the 2019 cycle. But even that narrative misses the point to an extent. The WWC will be more than a cathartic ceremony for Canuck flag-wavers – it’ll be the strongest pound-for-pound ice hockey showdown until Beijing in 2022.
2021 Women’s Worlds: Line-Forecasting Gold Medal Futures
There are (to this blogger’s knowledge) no odds out of Las Vegas or London for a gold-medal winner on May 16th, and probably won’t be until bookmakers see the tourney beginning its broadcasts on NHL Network. Rather than join the ice hockey publications (even some dedicated to women’s hockey) that preview the WWC at the very last moment for some reason, we’ll take the opportunity to line-forecast potential odds on a gold medal before looking in-depth at each 2021 squad.
Women’s Worlds Gold Medal Futures (Forecasted)
Team USA (-125)
Team Canada (+225)
Team Finland (+800)
Ice Hockey Federation of Russia (+2000)
Team Switzerland (+4000)
Uncorked: USA Hockey’s Latest Embarrassment
Team USA has won gold at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in every cycle since 2013, an argument for why the Yanks’ betting line should be forecast at shorter odds than displayed here. But there are reasons why the United States probably ought not to be shorter than 1-to-1, beginning with the fact that the team’s head coach just quit under a cloud.
Former USA women’s head coach Bob Corkum stepped down late last week without making any statement. Bare-bones AP reporting indicates that Corkum had grown “uncomfortable” with the planned COVID-19 safety protocols in Nova Scotia, but various sources (and Corkum’s own comments in the past) point to a more-troubling truth – that the ex-skipper wasn’t comfortable with the strictness of COVID-19 safety rules as outlined by IIHF and Canadian officials.
Um, sorry, but that sounds an awful lot like disloyalty toward an exceptional group of decorated athletes. Any coach who isn’t
Bobby Petrino a dirt bag knows they’re supposed to stick it out with their players through thick and thin, changes and inconveniences be damned. Maybe Corkum thinks that Team Canada is somehow rigging the circumstances to create an unfair advantage on home ice. But if that’s the case, walking out on his team with just weeks to go before the tournament is still the worst possible decision he could make.
A deeper deception could be behind the move. Corkum has been touted as a top candidate for open NCAA Men’s Hockey coaching jobs, including a position at the University of Maine. COVID-19 politics could be as handy of an excuse as any for ducking out of the Women’s Worlds in time to assume a chair with a men’s college team. If so, then it’s a disgrace that Team USA has been coached by someone who views even a low-key men’s hockey job as preferable to leading a squad that’s won 7 gold medals in 10 years and which hasn’t finished lower than 2nd place since the IIHF and IOC began hosting women’s events in 1990.
If Corkum was in the head coach’s chair despite not really giving a whit about women’s hockey or his own athletes, then we can mark this spring’s tumult as yet another black mark for USA Hockey, among the most hapless and tone-deaf organizations in all of sports. USA Hockey’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is highlighted by the men’s national squad winning 1 gold medal in about 40 international tournaments since 1980. The federation’s record in women’s hockey is worse on a whole other level, to the point of nearly inspiring a 2-team boycott in 2017 through unfair treatment of the USNWHT…its most-successful team by a wide margin.
Former assistant coach Joel Johnson has stepped into the Team USA head coaching position. Hopefully, he won’t quit on May 5th because his french fries arrive overcooked on DoorDash.
Thankfully, the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team is so skilled, so fast, and so experienced that the women could stand a cardboard cut-out behind the bench and still win prestigious medals.
2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship Schedule
(All Times Atlantic Daylight Time (ADT))
3:30 PM Switzerland vs United States
7:30 PM Canada vs Finland
7:30 PM Ice Hockey Federation of Russia vs Switzerland
3:30 PM Finland vs United States
7:30 PM Canada vs Ice Hockey Federation of Russia
7:30 PM Switzerland vs Canada
2:30 PM United States vs Ice Hockey Federation of Russia
7:30 PM Finland vs Switzerland
3:30 PM Ice Hockey Federation of Russia vs Finland
7:30 PM United States vs Canada
1 PM Germany vs Japan
7 PM Hungary vs Czech Republic
7 PM Denmark vs Hungary
1 PM Czech Republic vs Germany
7 PM Japan vs Denmark
7 PM Hungary vs Japan
1 PM Czech Republic vs Denmark
7 PM Germany vs Hungary
1 PM Japan vs Czech Republic
7 PM Denmark vs Germany
Note: The top 3 teams in Group B standings will advance to the Q-Final round. Group A teams are battling for medal round seeds when competing in the opening round-robin.
Quarterfinals – May 13th
Noon: Team TBA vs Team TBA
2:30 PM: Team TBA vs Team TBA
5 PM: Team TBA vs Team TBA
7:30 PM: Team TBA vs Team TBA
Semifinals – May 15th
2:30 PM: Quarterfinal Winner vs Quarterfinal Winner
7:30 PM: Quarterfinal Winner vs Quarterfinal Winner
Bronze Medal Game: May 16th 3:30 PM
Gold Medal Game: May 16th 7:30 PM
WWC Team by Team Analysis and Predictions
Another reason a Team USA gold medal isn’t a sure thing in 2021 is that the Yanks almost had their streak broken in 2019. Arguably, they did have it broken by a homestanding Team Finland, only to be saved by a video-replay official who overruled the 2 referees working the championship game.
Finland and USA flag-wavers are already familiar with the clip of United States goaltender Alex Rigsby leaving her crease to impact Finnish skater Jenni Hiirikoski in overtime of the gold medal game, allowing Petra Nieminen to score an apparent golden goal that was overturned about 10 minutes later, after the Lady Lions had stripped off their jerseys and collapsed in a celebratory pile near center ice.
To say “opinions were mixed” on what the correct ruling should have been is misleading, because as you might expect, Team USA supporters thought the goal was illegal and close to 100% rival fans thought it should have counted.
In any case, the fact that the 2019 GMG came down to a controversial call involving Team USA and any team not called “Team Canada” was a sign of progress in women’s hockey. The Women’s World Championship round-robin and elimination round are no longer academic, not simply formalities to enjoyably pass the time while Americans and Canadians prepare to play for the title. There are at least 3 genuine gold medal contenders in the field now.
Team USA’s roster is aging, at least relative to the median age of women’s hockey standouts across the globe. Hilary Knight is 31. Fellow star forward Amanda Kessel is 29, and Coyne-Schofield is 28. It may be time for the youngsters to start taking top-6 minutes away from some of the veterans, putting a spotlight on new faces like Grace Zumwinkel, who scored nearly a goal per game for the Minnesota Lady Golden Gophers this season, and 21-year-old center Britta Curl.
Whether young D-women Cayla Barnes and Caroline Harvey can eventually contribute as much on the blue line as veterans like Kacey Bellamy is up for debate, but it’s the goalies who face the most pressure to keep Team USA’s streak alive. Opponents are forced to play so cautiously against the Yanks that netminders don’t often see a lot of shots, meaning that a bout of “cold legs” in the medal round could doom the Americans to a silver or bronze medal.
Risgby has married into the Cavallini family since 2019, so don’t be tricked into thinking “Alex Cavallini” is a brand-new goalie. But neither of the team’s backups have extensive IIHF experience under their belts, and there might not be a lucky escape-hatch next time Rigsby/Cavallini makes a bad blunder in OT.
Most of the missing roster-additions in the Women’s World Championship won’t be big names, at least not when compared to excoriated rosters at the Men’s WC in Latvia. But there’s at least 1 women’s hockey celebrity, a pillar of the sport, who could miss the upcoming tournament in Canada – and such a loss could crush Team Finland’s bid to reach a 2nd-straight gold medal game.
Noora Räty, long considered the top netminder in women’s hockey and a foundation-stone in Team Finland’s ascent over the past 5 years, has been rehabbing a ligament injury suffered in a Women’s Hockey League contest in Russia.
What’s worse, Räty’s injury isn’t the biggest factor working to keep her out of the Women’s Worlds. COVID-19 travel restrictions and the goaltender’s status as a green card holder could make an early-May transit to Halifax nearly impossible. Canadian and U.S. governments don’t look kindly on residents making a living in Russia, either, making it less likely that an exception will be made for Noora. Backup goalie Meeri Räisänen has played well in past World Championships but floundered in the NWHL, calling into question who could successfully backstop Finland against Team USA, Team Canada, or even Team Russia, which nearly upset the Lionesses for a bronze medal at the Olympics in 2018.
The wild card is how Finland’s skaters will perform. In 2017 and 2019 the Finns looked terrific, but at the Olympics in 2018, injuries and confidence issues slowed Suomi’s puck-moving attack to a crawl.
Center Susanna Tapati is a wonderful playmaker, and defender Jenni Hiirikoski is still tearing it up in Europe after leading Team Finland with 10 points in the 2019 Worlds. But if Räty arrives jet-lagged or fails to make it to the tournament, there will be very little margin-for-error and a real risk of not winning a medal at all.
Finland isn’t the only nation facing upheaval between the pipes. NWHL and Olympic star Shannon Szabados hasn’t played hockey since having a child almost 2 years ago, and so the COVID-19 cancellation of the Women’s Worlds in 2020 means that 27-year-old netminder Ann-Renée Desbiens is likely to make her debut as #1 for the Habs.
Desbiens’ pro career has been in limbo thanks to signing with the PWHPA, a fledgling women’s hockey brand still trying to overcome the challenges of a pandemic. She did win 2 games while serving as backup for Team Canada in the 2015 Women’s World Championship, but there’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to stand on her head and steal a game, as Szabados often did, if the United States, Finland, or Ice Hockey Federation of Russia manages to produce 3 periods of pressure on 2019’s bronze medal team.
The Maple Leaf will need plenty of goals to win, and the good news is that the collapse of the CWHL (which occurred hours after WagerBop published its preview of the 2019 WWC) hasn’t affected the development of Canadian skaters as badly as some anticipated. Princeton product Sarah Fillier is expected to play at the Worlds and the Olympics after racking-up 57 points in her most-recent NCAA campaign. Left-winger Loren Gabel also adds punch to a lineup that continues to be built around top-line center Marie-Philip Poulin and talented RW Melodie Daoust.
Can a youthful defense corps (“defence corps” for Canadian readers) help Desbiens give the Habs a chance in every game? Maybe not in every game, but in most of them. We might not know much about Team Canada’s gold-medal chances until the squad takes on Team USA on May 13th, the final day of round-robin games.
Ice Hockey Federation of Russia
Those who followed the 2018 Winter Olympics will recall that Team Russia won a Men’s Ice Hockey gold medal while competing as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” a result of several Russian athletes being accused of PED doping. Russia continues to be punished by world sports organizations for
not supporting neoliberal politics allegedly failing PED tests and regulations, with the 2021 Women’s World Championship team performing under the slightly-less-embarrassing title “Ice Hockey Federation of Russia.” in North America and Europe
Would a Pink Machine by any other name smell as sweet? At 10-to-1 bronze medal odds, possibly yes. Russia’s overlooked WHL has become a handy “in-house” means of nurturing and developing young distaff skaters while allowing the national women’s team a hell of a lot more practice than Canada, Finland, or Team USA have been able to muster in the COVID-era.
Forward Anna Shokhina just had an exceptional WHL season, and her potential linemate Olga Sosina scored twice in the aforementioned Olympic Games. Team Russia is talented and deep between the goal posts, but the best reason to tout the Pink Machine as a dark-horse medal candidate is Russia’s rare team-cohesion (rare in 2021 anyway) afforded by the WHL and a solid pre-tournament camp.
Team Switzerland also includes a few forwards familiar to NCAA women’s hockey fans. Center Alina Müller has compiled 150+ points for the Northeastern Huskies over the last 3 seasons, and Rahel Enzler plays at the University of Maine, where her American-born teammates might get a nice opportunity to sock Bob Corkum in the mouth sometime soon.
The Swiss women’s squad does lack the world-class depth of its male counterparts, however, and faces its own roster turnover in goal. 23-year-old GK Andrea Brändli struggled at the 2019 World Championships but has shined for the OSU Lady Buckeyes since then, and an improved performance from Brändli in Nova Scotia could be the key to Switzerland remaining among the top 5 teams in 2022.
Not much roster info yet exists on Team Japan in 2021, though the team’s last performance at the WWC in Espoo, Finland confirmed everything we thought we knew about women’s hockey from the Rising Sun.
“Smile Japan” has a hard time scoring goals and must work methodically to create chances against pedestrian rivals, but Japan is far-and-away the most improved Women’s World Championship side in goaltending and defense. Losing 4-0 to the Americans in the medal round would have been a bummer for Canada or Finland, but it was another important benchmark for Japan. The team’s placement in Group B will only last as long as its forwards can’t capitalize on stubborn defending and produce 2-1 and 3-2 victories against similar squads.
The Germans mustered brave performances of their own in Espoo, losing to Canada just 5-0 in the medal round, and beating Sweden 2-1 in a round-robin shootout victory that helped to seal Tre-Kronor’s relegation to Division 1.
D-woman Tabea Botthof of Yale University is as determined as she is formidable at 5’10”. When the Ivy League shut down all sports competition in 2020, Botthof traveled home to Germany to win a club hockey title with ESC Planegg. Like the Russians, the Germans have held multiple camps for the WWC team and should arrive extremely well-organized in Canada, with the added advantage of playing Group Stage games against the weaker field of Group B.
Czech skating and netminding were exceptionally strong in Group B play in 2019, but when the Czech Republic lost to Finland 3-1 in the Q-Finals, it seemed as though the squad had lost out on yet another glowing opportunity. Little did we know that Finland would go on to earn a gold medal, if not actually win the gold.
Team captain Alena Mills will get a lot of attention in Nova Scotia after leading the Czechs in scoring last time around. But look out for teenage sniper Natalie Mlynkova, who scored 3 times in the tournament at the tender age of 17 and was rewarded with a scholarship to the University of Vermont.
It’s not a huge surprise that France has been relegated to Division 1, but it’s very strange to see Team Sweden replaced by anyone in the Women’s World Championship. Sweden is the women’s team that had an amazing Cinderella run to a silver medal at the Olympics in 2006, and finished in 5th place at the Worlds as recently as 2017. But the Swedes couldn’t hack in Espoo and didn’t get to play (along with everyone else) in 2020, opening the door for Team Hungary to ascend with brave 2-1 victories over Norway and Austria in Budapest.
The best thing you can say about Hungary’s 2021 roster is that the squad is young and has room to grow, though GK Aniko Nemeth has her work cut out.
Every IIHF tournament has its weak (excuse the pun) sisters, and Team Denmark will be a likely candidate for the role at the 2021 Women’s Worlds. Denmark lost to Austria by 5 goals and was lucky to advance with a promotion out of the Budapest competition in 2019, and only 2 of the team’s skaters, 21-year-olds Lilli Friis-Hansen and Amalie Anderson, have any significant experience playing against the best of North America.
But look on the bright side. Denmark and Hungary are 2 of the only teams we can say for sure have virtually no chance at a medal in 2021. Women’s international hockey has taken massive strides since 10 years ago when each tournament was a blow-out fest followed by a predictable Canada vs USA final.
The Habs and Yanks might meet again for the gold this time. But it won’t be because there aren’t hurdles along the way, and COVID-19 complications might turn out to be the least of each squad’s challenges given the strength of a burgeoning field.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.