Three players in the women’s tournament arrived in Korea fresh from playing U18 World Championship hockey last month. We caught up with the stars of the future.
Playing at the Olympics is always huge, no matter whether it’s your first tournament or your fifth. But for three Winter Games debutants in PyeongChang, gracing the biggest stage in the women’s game comes barely a month after representing their countries in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship.
Swedish blue-liner Maja Nylen Persson captained her team to a historic silver medal in Dmitrov before joining up with the senior squad to come to Korea, while Swiss duo Lisa Ruedi and Stefanie Wetli helped the Alpine nation survive a relegation round showdown against Germany. Ruedi also finished as the leading scorer of the tournament in Russia, with 11 (6+5) points.
In Korea, Nylen Persson has impressed again. Starting on Sweden’s top line, alongside Johanna Olofsson, a 26-year-old returnee from Sochi, the 17-year-old Leksands IF player potted her first Olympic goal in the 8-0 rout of Korea before assisting on Anna Nordqvist’s goal in the 1-2 loss against Switzerland. She’s also made a big impact on her colleagues on Leif Boork’s roster, as Pernilla Winberg explained.
“Maja’s an awesome player,” said Sweden’s assistant captain. “She’s already so important for this team. She’s always relaxed, she’s not bothered by anything. It’s good to have a cool younger kid on the team who can do the unexpected.”
After an early taste of Olympic action, the potential is there for Nylen Persson to go on and become a mainstay for the Damkronorna – potentially for several more Olympic cycles. Winberg, now in her fourth Games, certainly sees a long career ahead for the rookie defender.
“She has a lot of confidence, especially considering how young she is,” added Winberg. “And, of course, she’s such a good defender and we need more good defenders in Sweden. I think the future looks really bright for her.”
Winberg and Nylen Persson have a few things in common. Both started young: Winberg was just 13 when she made her senior international debut and took her Olympic bow in the month of her 17th birthday in 2006. In that tournament, Sweden became the first European nation to win a silver medal in women’s hockey – Winberg’s vital goal sinking the USA in the semi-final in Turin. Only one other European team has matched that in any major championship – Nylen Persson’s U18s, last month in Russia.
So the experienced forward is well-placed to understand the pressures of coming into the Olympics at such a young age. Her advice is simple – just be yourself.
“The harder part is mostly off the ice,” Winberg said. “On the ice, you just bring out the best of yourself whenever you come to a big stage like this. My advice is just to have fun out there, and do what she does best. That’s the way to shine.”
The Swiss duo also had a chance to make an impact. Ruedi started out on the first line, alongside Phoebe Staenz and Evelina Raselli, before Alina Muller’s blistering form pushed her up the order. Along the way, the youngster claimed an assist in the opening day rout of the Koreans. Wetli has been used more sparingly on defence, with half-a-dozen shifts against Korea but no ice time in the 3-1 victory over Japan.
Considering Ruedi was playing in front of crowds of a couple of hundred in her last international engagement at the U18s, she’s adjusting to a very different environment in all areas. But the experience is one she’s relishing.
“It’s just so exciting to be here,” she said. “Going from the juniors to the Olympics like this is very special. We’re having a great time with the girls and the team here, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
And facing the kind of enthusiastic crowds that have come to the Kwandong Hockey Centre this week? “It’s exciting! Our team spirit really comes together through a crowd like that.”
Ruedi has spent much of her time in Korea playing on the same line as Phoebe Staenz, and she’s made a big impression on her more experienced team-mate.
“I think she’s adjusted really well,” Staenz said. “Lisa’s the youngest, but you don’t notice it. She’s done a tremendous job fitting in, playing up to this level and standing out on the ice. And it’s the same off the ice, she’s integrated really well with the rest of the team.”
Those three are not the youngest players on view at the Kwandong Hockey Centre, though. Korea’s Suyeon Eom only celebrated her 17th birthday on 1st February, while team-mates Eunji Lee and Heewon Kim are still just 16 years old. However, the Koreans did not enter a team in the U18 Women’s World Championship program that were played last month; these youngsters must wait until April for a shot a World Championship action with their country’s senior roster.