MYHockey News

The Long Journey to U18 Worlds Is Over & Now the Fun Begins

Hockey Canada Photo 

By Scott Lowe -

They come from all over North America, hailing from hockey-crazed Canadian locales such as London, Etobicoke, Kelowna, Halifax and Cornwall as well as American hockey hotbeds like Eden Prairie, Edina, Minnetonka, Plymouth and Detroit.

Five Canadian provinces – Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Prince Edward Island – are represented along with eight American states, including New York, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois and Montana.

As expected, the rosters are dominated by residents of Ontario (12 players) and Minnesota (seven) with a healthy dose of B.C. (six) and Michigan four) mixed in. 

One team has 14 players from its nation’s top under-22 junior league, six from its premier prep league and four from Canada’s first- and second-ranked U22 programs. The other has players representing 14 of the top youth hockey clubs in the United States. 

Indeed, they do come from all corners of the continent, and their paths to this moment also were slightly different.

One roster was announced in October, and although the team could only meet virtually throughout the year, it remained intact until finally being able to train together in Minnesota May 30. The other team’s final 23 players were chosen after a 40-person selection camp in late May before heading to Minnesota to train and play one game together before the long-awaited big event.

Despite their geographic differences and the diverging pathways they navigated to the opening day of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Under 18 Women’s World Championship, almost every one of the 46 players referenced here has something very important in common: At some point Monday, on the long-awaited first day of this IIHF event, they will be stepping on the ice to represent their home nations for the first time.

It's been a long-time coming. Far too long in fact.

When Canada takes the ice at LaBahn Arena in Madison, Wisc., Monday at 5 p.m. Eastern and the United States follows suit at 9 p.m., it will have been nearly 900 days since either country competed in the U18 Women’s World Championship. The last time they played, in January of 2020, it was with a gold-medal on the line (of course it was) and it ended in overtime (of course it did) with the U.S. prevailing, 2-1. 

In the wake of the standard thrilling, intense, excruciating and wonderful drama-filled experience that these two nations always provide when they compete in ice hockey, no one could have guessed what was in store for all of us over the course of the following two years.

COVID completely wiped out the 2021 U18 Women’s World Championship before the Omicron variant reared its ugly head just weeks before the 2022 tournament was set to begin in Sweden, threatening to do the same. In fact, the sudden Omicron outbreak and rapid spread of the variant worldwide forced the IIHF to “cancel” all of its January events, including the U18 WWC.

Not only was the timing of the announcement – Christmas Eve – gut-wrenching, but the fact that it came just days before the men’s World Junior Championship was slated to begin in Canada made it that much harder for the women’s participants to accept. (In all fairness, the men’s event also was shut down not long after it started).

When the 2021 U18 WWC was canceled, the men’s WJC carried on as scheduled in Edmonton, and It just seemed unfathomable and so unjust to any of us who are entrenched in the amateur hockey world that the IIHF could justify making that decision two years in a row. 

The public outcry from folks around the globe associated with both women’s and men’s hockey at the highest levels was swift, angry and widespread. There was no holding back. The response has been well-documented and does not need to be revisited here, but the outpouring left us with some semblance of hope that somehow, some way someone would do the right thing.

That hope became reality in mid-February when it was announced that USA Hockey, the University of Wisconsin and the Madison Sports Commission had stepped up and constructed an acceptable bid to host the tournament June 6-13.

“We reached out to the IIHF very quickly to ask if there was an opportunity to discuss postponing the women’s U18 tournament,” said USA Hockey Executive Director Pat Kelleher at the press conference announcing the new dates and venue. “We feel it’s very, very critical to the development of our players at the elite, the Olympic and the National Team level … We believed so strongly in this tournament, and I think our support and all we do in girls’ and women’s hockey show that as well. We just really felt it was important to the girls’ game and important to the players on our team as well to work to make sure this event happened.”

The event surely is happening, and it starts right now! 

Players such as Canadians Sara Swiderski and team captain Brooke Disher, defensive partners and leading scorers for their Rink Hockey Academy Kelowna team in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL), began the process of preparing for the 2021 tournament, which ultimately was canceled, during the summer of 2020. 

“It’s such an honor to put the {Canadian} jersey on and to be teammates with these girls,” Disher told Hockey Canada following that game. “I respect every one of them, and to have the opportunity to play a game ahead of the tournament was very special. I know we’re all really excited {after having} a good game today, and we can take a lot of things from our performance and apply them to our next games.”

Unable to bring its pool of prospective players together because of widespread COVID lockdowns, Hockey Canada set up a virtual training camp that lasted until the event officially was shut down. The journey for those two players took many twists and turns before 40 Canadian prospects finally were able to take the ice for a final selection camp just a few weeks ago. They have only played together once as a team, June 2 in a 3-1 pre-tournament loss to the U.S. in Blaine, Minn. 

“Our athletes and entire staff involved in our program have been looking forward to this opportunity,” said Hockey Canada Director of Hockey Operations Gina Kingsbury when announcing their 40-person selection-camp roster. “We had a short window last summer where we were able to gather to train, compete and play some games in a competitive setting. With the World Championship right around the corner, we will maximize our time together on the ice and put our off-ice work into practice, with a goal of representing Canada and competing for a gold medal.”

Only two players on the U.S. roster – Minnesota-Duluth commit and team-captain Danielle Burgen and alternate-captain Kirsten Simms, who will be attending Wisconsin – have previous U18 WWC experience. They each played in five games and combined for three assists in helping the USA win gold at the 2020 event in Czech Republic. 

“This group has waited a long time to be able to play in this tournament, and I’m excited to be able to lead this great group of people both on and off the ice,” Simms told USA Hockey during pre-tournament camp. “I’m excited to get the opportunity to play in this tournament again, especially since we’ve had to wait over two years since the last one. Getting to wear a letter and seeing some of the people that I played with two years ago who I looked up to then = and now being in the same position – is something I don’t take for granted.” 

In most years the Canadian and U.S. teams are comprised of many more players with past U18 World Championship experience. While that should make for plenty of opening-day jitters, longtime Team USA star Brianna Decker, who has experience coaching the U.S. U18 National Team, said the circumstances make this year’s U18 WWC even more exciting than usual.

“These girls have an opportunity to wear that jersey, and it never gets old,” Decker said during the press conference announcing Madison as the host venue. “The first time you put it on, you definitely take it in and you’re nervous. You can’t get out there to warm up fast enough. I’m excited to see these girls. There are only a few returners because of COVID. Usually it doesn’t work that way. Usually there are at least about nine returners who make the roster the next year. They’re going to be ecstatic, and being able to play in Madison is going to be incredible for them.”

It will be incredible for the families as well as the players.  

Anyone with kids in the family who play travel hockey at any level is familiar with the commitment the sport requires from all family members as well as the crazy schedule, travel and other challenges that characterize the youth hockey experience. Family members live and die with everything that happens along the way, and the past two years have been particularly difficult.

“Looking back at coaching this team, the excitement on the girls’ faces is something that you can’t compare to,” Decker said. “It’s a way for them to develop and you start those rivalries against Canada and those countries when you are 16 or 17 years old, and it carries on to the National Team. This is an opportunity for these kids to represent the U.S. at an international level and I’m excited to see them.”

Unlike Canada, USA Hockey selected its U18 team in October following an August selection camp and kept the roster intact during the high-school and club seasons leading up to the decisions to cancel and ultimately reschedule the World Championship. The group was brought together for several virtual team-building events and many of the players were able to see each other while playing together or against one another during their seasons.

We hope most of the difficult times are behind these teams, however, and the real fun begins this week. If nothing else, the roundabout path we have taken to get to this point has brought more awareness to the sport of women’s hockey and more unity among those involved in both the men’s and the women’s games.

The NHL Network and ESPN+ are televising all Team USA’s games in the U.S., while Canadian networks TSN and RDS are showing Canada’s matchups and the playoff rounds. Play gets underway Monday with Canada taking on Finland at 5 p.m. Eastern and the U.S. facing Sweden at 9 p.m.

Canada, Sweden, Finland and the U.S. are in Group A, while Group B is comprised of Czechia, Switzerland, Germany and Slovakia. Group A will play at LaBahn Arena, with the Group B contests taking place at Bob Suter Capitol Ice Arena. The complete tournament schedule can be found by CLICKING HERE

Canada and the U.S. are the overwhelming favorites to meet in the June 13 gold-medal game. They have faced off in 12 of the 13 previous championship contests and met in the medal round all 13 years the tournament has been held. The Americans pulled out a 4-3 semifinal shootout victory against the Canadians in the 2018 semifinals before beating Sweden, 9-3, to capture gold.

That marked the only year the U.S. and Canada didn’t sweep the gold and silver medals. Overall, the Americans have captured gold eight times, while the Canadians have earned gold on five occasions. The two teams have split the last two gold-medal games, but the U.S. has won five of the past six U18 World Championships.

Russia has won three of the past six bronze medals to close the gap on Sweden, which leads all nations with five all-time third-place finishes. Finland and Czechia each has captured a pair of bronze medals.

The U.S and Canada’s 9 p.m. ET June 9 matchup likely will determine the order of the top-two playoff seeds. The first- and second-place Group A finishers receive a bye into the semifinals, with the third- and fourth-place teams from Group A taking on the top-two Group B finishers in the quarterfinals. The bottom-two from Group B will play a relegation game for the right to remain in the top U18 World Championship division in 2023. 

It would be easy to say that no matter how the 2022 U18 Women’s World Championship plays out, the U.S. and Canadian players will be happy just to have had the opportunity to represent their countries, an opportunity that was taken away from some of them last year and all of them for a brief time this year.

That would be a lie, however.

Of course they are happy to be there, but once that puck drops it’s still the United States vs. Canada in women’s ice hockey. It’s for bragging rights. It’s for international supremacy. It’s for gold. And that’s all that will matter for the 60-plus minutes (hopefully 120-plus minutes) they go toe-to-toe.

And that’s why we will tune in, thankful to have the opportunity to watch what we once thought had been taken away from all of us.


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