LULEA, Sweden - With 3,150 turning up at a home match this season and a steady stream of youngsters taking up the sport, women's hockey is making up for lost time in Sweden's far north.
Covering one fourth of the geographical area of Sweden, its northernmost county, Norrbotten, roughly equals that of Austria in size. While the pride of its county capital, Lulea Hockey, for long labelled itself as the team of Norrbotten, it was only as of last season that they fully started to live up to their slogan with the emergence of a women's hockey team.
With a mix of top international quality such as Finland's Michelle Karvinen together with hard-grafting regional talent such as Emma Eliasson in their team, Lulea rushed ahead to win the Swedish championship in their debut season. Toppling Linkoping in the final series in March this year they did so with the nod of approval from the locals who turned up in droves, including a record-breaking crowd for Swedish women's hockey of 4,179 to cap off the perfect start for hockey in the northern coastal town.
A well-trodden path in Swedish hockey of late has seen traditional powerhouses step in to take over the reins of a local women's team. In Lulea's case, the club came to rescue when Munksund-Skuthamn SK, who valiantly had competed in the top division with minimal means for years from their base in nearby Pitea. Morphing into Lulea-MSSK ahead of the 2015/16 season and moving its headquarters 55 kilometers northeast to Lulea, it changed the playing field for women's hockey in the region overnight.
Having added further gloss such as Finland blueliner Jenni Hiirikoski to a multinational roster hailing from a dozen countries ahead of this season, Lulea is very much firm favourites to defend their title in the re-named domestic women's top flight, SDHL, this season. But while the first team embarks on yet another trophy hunt, the key for a sustainable future for the game up in the north will be to attract the next generation to discover the delights of hockey.
The initial signs are promising. Roughly 100 girls between the ages of 5 to 11 took part at the World Girls' Ice Hockey Weekend in Lulea last month with many of them being in attendance a few days later when on 12th October. Lulea stormed to a 6-2 home win against MODO Ornskoldsvik in front of a bumper crowd of 3,150 inside the Coop Norrbotten Arena.
One of the instructors during the World Girls' Ice Hockey Weekend event was Lulea's team captain Emma Eliasson. Voted as Sweden's top female player last season she played an integral role steering Lulea to gold combining defensive duties with offensive prowess from the blueline. Still only 27, her trials and tribulations throughout a career spent entirely in the northern part of Sweden is one to inspire the next breed of talent.
Hailing from the Norrbotten mining town of Kiruna, where fellow blueliner Borje Salming also got his esteemed career underway, Eliasson started out locking horns against boys out on the ice since an early age. In order to push ahead with her development, she began commuting from Kiruna to Ornskoldsvik, a round trip of 1,416 kilometres, combining studies with playing for MODO. At the tender age of 14 she had already made her senior national team debut and two years later she had an Olympic silver medal hanging around her neck as Damkronorna become the surprise package in Turin 2006.
During what has been a meandering playing career at various northern teams, which during the off-season was spent underground, working in the mine in her native Kiruna, it was the emergence of Lulea that kept her in the game.
"Lulea entering women's hockey meant a lot for my own career as I had more or less started to wind it down a bit," said Eliasson. "When such an opportunity appeared, I didn't hesitate to jump into the challenge and try to contribute to the development of Swedish women's hockey, which I felt I had a responsibility to do."
Lulea's approach to the game stands in sharp contrast to her experiences in the past and given her a new lease of life. "Resources and facilities has been the biggest difference, but also the arrangement surrounding our home matches. Lulea wants to create an interest for women's hockey which is taken very seriously," Eliasson said.
That feel-good factor is shared by Lulea's head coach Fredrik Glader. A relative newcomer to the women's game, he jumped at the chance to take charge of Lulea in a challenge he calls "a once in a lifetime opportunity". Now in his second season as head coach of the club, and with the club firmly rooted at top of the table, Glader feels the backing offered by the entire organisation has played a very important part in the club's recipe for success.
"We have two teams at this club and they both represent us at senior level, one that plays in the SDHL, and one in the men's top division, SHL. We are all very proud of that and we push on both teams relentlessly for further success," Glader said.
With the building blocks for a successful women's team being put to place, Lulea will try and spread their appeal further afield playing some of this season's home games in towns such as Pitea, Malmberget and Kiruna to try and make hockey to become the natural choice for girls across the region.
Trying to boost the development even further, Lulea with a municipality population of 76,000 also hopes in due course to become one of the education centres for girls officially endorsed by the Swedish Ice hockey Association. With currently four such centres up and running across Sweden, Lulea's geographical location with its strong ties and proximity to Finland, but also to northern Norway could also be instrumental as a catalyst for the overall development for the sport across the northern region.
Charging ahead and currently being eight points clear at the top of the SDHL standings, Lulea has already come a long way in a very short time. As the development of women's hockey continues to gather pace and spreading further down the ranks, it is worth reminding that Lulea's men's section was also once upon a time a late starter and founded as recently as 1977. Now with the women being on the forefront, the two sections spur each other on in their quest to add more silverware come the end of this season. All in this together.