BEIJING >> With a 7 1/2-month old baby at home, Maura Crowell often finds herself awake at odd hours. That wasn’t such a bad thing over the past two weeks, since she planned to be up anyway to watch the women’s hockey tournament at the Beijing Olympics.
The Minnesota Duluth coach has been cheering for 12 current and former Bulldogs playing for eight different countries. She was thrilled to see UMD senior Emma Soderberg step in as Sweden’s top goaltender, and to witness junior forward Kassy Betinol skate on home ice for China. Wednesday night, Crowell will stay up late for the gold medal game, as three past and present Bulldogs square off in another showdown between the U.S. and Canada.
Crowell is as excited as everyone else to see whether the U.S. can defend its Olympic title, or whether Canada will win its fifth Winter Games crown. But she’s been just as invested in watching the growth of other teams, fueled by the increasing number of women developing their game in U.S. college hockey.
“It’s been awesome,” Crowell said. “It’s so special as a coach to see this, and the hockey has been really good.”
While the U.S.-Canada rivalry continues to dominate the conversation, Crowell and others said several teams have shown a higher level of play at these Olympics. More than 100 former college players — including 48 from the WCHA — have been part of that. Half the WCHA players in the Olympics are playing for teams from Europe and China, which are trying to catch up to the North American superpowers.
There is still a wide gap between North America and the rest of the world. Canada has played for gold at all seven Olympics that included women’s hockey, facing the U.S. in six of those. The two teams outscored opponents by a combined 82-16 in Beijing.
Yet the U.S. was tested by the Czech Republic — an Olympic newcomer — in a 4-1 quarterfinal victory, and both its victories over Finland were hard-fought.
“That’s why the U.S. and Canada don’t talk about the U.S.-Canada rivalry until it’s time to play the game,” said U.S. head coach Joel Johnson, who also coaches the women’s team at St. Thomas. “There are a lot of good hockey players across the world, so we have to be focused on whoever we play next.”
Every one of the 10 teams in the Olympic tournament has at least one player who honed her skills in NCAA competition. The rosters of European and Asian teams include 17 players from Minnesota universities, with the Gophers, UMD, St. Cloud State, St. Thomas and Minnesota State Mankato all represented in Beijing.
Katie Million, director of women’s national team programs for USA Hockey, came to that job after three years as commissioner of the women’s WCHA. In Beijing, she’s seen lots of former league players in the hallways at Wukesong Sports Centre, bringing a dash of college-hockey camaraderie to the Winter Games.
“I was watching the Canada-Switzerland [women’s semifinal], and Emma Maltais had a goal against Andrea Braendli,” Million said. “They were teammates back at Ohio State.
“It’s awesome to see so many of these players. It speaks loudly to what the NCAA does for not just Team USA, but all these countries. Right now, it’s the best development tool for the Olympics, and for the sport.”
The U.S. and Canada have several advantages that have made it hard for other women’s hockey countries to gain ground. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have put more money into their national programs, and both nations have large numbers of girls taking up the game.
But having NCAA-trained players can make a big difference for countries with fewer resources. Michelle Karvinen, a forward for Finland who played at North Dakota, said there are more high-level women’s leagues in Europe than there used to be. She still views American colleges as the best place for players to develop.
“Things are improving,” she said. “There’s a good Swedish league now. But college hockey has had a huge impact on our team.”
Finland has seven current or former college players on its Olympic roster. The Czech Republic has 15, including two with Minnesota ties: current St. Cloud State forward Klara Hymlarova and UMD alum Katerina Mrazova.
Coach Tomas Pacina said the number of women playing hockey in the Czech Republic remains too low to sustain a women’s league, or even girls’ teams. Girls there “grow up playing with the boys,” Pacina said, leading the top talent to look for alternatives even before college. Czech girls as young as 13 now are coming to the U.S. to play in high school, then moving on to college hockey to continue their development.
“College hockey is getting better and better,” Pacina said. “For us, it’s very important. Most of our girls played college hockey, and it shows.”
Czech forward Michaela Pejzlova, who played at Clarkson, said the opportunity to get a college degree and play high-level hockey is a huge draw for young European players. The experience she got at Clarkson was invaluable for her growth as a player, with Division I hockey providing resources, game experience and training time that are hard to come by at home.
“College hockey plays a huge role. I can’t even describe how big it is,” Pejzlova said. “It’s nearly impossible to study and play hockey [in the Czech Republic]. At Clarkson, I gained confidence, strength and speed. I’m very grateful I had that opportunity.”
UMD was among the first programs to recruit outside North America. Crowell has continued the tradition started by former coach Shannon Miller, and she said more schools — in Division I and Division III — are discovering overseas talent, increasing the number of Olympians with NCAA backgrounds.
The benefits flow both ways. While Soderberg’s time at UMD prepared her for the Olympic tournament, she has helped the Bulldogs to a No. 5 national ranking, compiling a 13-7 record with four shutouts. Crowell also said the program is enriched by having players from different countries.
While college hockey is a good training ground, the gulf between North America and the rest of the women’s hockey world will not narrow without more funding. Million hopes some of the lopsided scores in the Olympic tournament are “a wakeup call” to countries that aren’t investing enough in their women’s national teams. She said Finland, Sweden and Switzerland do not have pre-Olympic residency programs like the Americans and Canadians do, a major factor in the divide between those nations.
Crowell believes other countries are trying, but she said the U.S. and Canada need to encourage them to increase funding.
“There’s going to be a gap for awhile, because North America has that edge,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be forever. I just saw a great U.S.-Finland game [Monday] morning. It’s definitely possible to compete.”
Karvinen was heartbroken after that Olympic semifinal, won 4-1 by the U.S. Her college hockey experience helped her get that far. Her college hockey friendships helped take away a bit of the sting.
“I’ve known some of those U.S. players for years,” she said. “I wished them luck after the game. It’s a small world.”