One of the heroes for Canada’s women at the Vancouver Olympics last month was Marie-Philip Poulin. She scored both first-period goals to lead the home side to a 2-0 victory and claim Canada’s third successive Olympic gold.
Although Poulin doesn’t turn 19 until next week, her resume is already impressive. Prior to Olympic gold she helped the Montreal Stars to the Clarkson Cup in 2009, and before that she played for Canada at the first two U18 World Women’s Championships. She is the first Canadian to graduate from the U18 to the senior level and world-class proof that the U18 event is already an important phase of a player’s development.
The 2010 U18 tournament begins on Saturday, in Chicago, the third year the IIHF had run the event. It is intended to be for women what the hugely successful World Junior (U20) Championship is for men. The IIHF and member associations feel that because women mature more quickly and join the top level of play at a generally younger age, a U18 format is more appropriate than the men’s U20.
Like the men’s U20, of course, some players will appear at the U18 and never advance further, but for many others this is the first and critical step in playing international hockey at a world-class level.
Indeed, of all teams in Vancouver 2010 that had competed in the U18 WWC, every one except, surprisingly, the United States had graduates from the U18 in the lineup. The Finns, for instance, had forward Linda Valimaki; the Russians had forwards Olga Sosina and Ekaterina Ananina, while the Swiss and the Swedes, incredibly, had five players from their U18 teams in Vancouver 2010. This proves the value of the U18 WWC program, and the individual importance to player development in using the U18 as a steppingstone to success at the senior level.
Germany is another important marker for the event. While the German women were nowhere to be found in Vancouver, they finished 5th in the 2008 U18 and 6th in 2009, again suggesting that they will soon be a competitive force for, at the very least, the bronze medal at the top level in the near future.
Not surprisingly, the gold-medal games of the 2008 and ’09 U18 WWC were both played between Canada and the United States, the Americans winning both games. But perhaps what is a surprise is that Sweden and the Czech Republic have competed for the bronze medal each year, the Czechs winning in ’08 and the Swedes the next year. This bodes well for the Czechs as they seem to have a core of up-and-coming players ready to crack the traditional senior foursome of Canada, United States, Sweden, and Finland.
So, whether you look at the heroics of Olympic gold-medal winner Marie-Philip Poulin, perhaps the next Hayley Wickenheiser in the Canada lineup, or the efforts of nations such as Switzerland and Germany, it is clear that even if the U18 WWC remains a work in progress in international hockey, it is an important ingredient in the women’s hockey program. Watch the tournament over the next week, and you will see a slice of what the senior level will have in store in two or three years’ time.