This past week, amidst the balmy, unseasonable April-like temperatures here in America’s northland, a significant anniversary of sorts quietly passed. Tuesday, February 21st marked one year since the completion of an incredibly successful 2016 Women’s Bandy World Championship, in Roseville, MN.
The 2016 Women’s Bandy World Championship was an enormous success story for hundreds of people who came together and pulled off a first-class international event, seemingly against all odds. From months of planning and aggressive fundraising campaigns, to hammering out last-minute logistical dilemmas, it took an incredible group effort. All of the US players’ families stepped up, and countless other volunteers also came through in the clutch to make the tournament a reality. The end product was something that was a shining moment for not just the USA Women’s program, but for ALL of the American Bandy Association family. Let’s take a moment to look back on four days of celebration of sport that took place, right here in the Twin Cities.
WELCOME TO THE BANDY FAMILY, TEAM CHINA!
The very first game of the 2016 Women’s Bandy World Championship also signified another important “first” as Team China made their international bandy debut, against the hometown USA. The Chinese were a late addition to the party, but certainly a very welcome one. Having never played organized bandy prior to stepping into the bright spotlight of a highly competitive World Championship competition, the newcomers did a remarkable job holding their own against the six veteran bandy nations. They showed outstanding skating prowess, and goalie, Zhang Xiaowen proved to be a Great Wall of China, as she made several unbelievable saves while under siege for virtually the entirety of the round-robin portion of the tournament. Off the ice, Team China brought joy to all who crossed their path; they came to America bearing gifts of pins and candy and were eager to share the love with others from all parts of the world. It was a wonderful debut for bandy’s newest member of the family, and the world can’t wait to see what’s in store when China hosts the next Women’s Bandy World Championship, in the city of Chengde in January, 2018.
OH, SAY DOES THAT STAR-SPANGLED BANNER YET WAVE
The 2016 Women’s Bandy World Championship not only served as an opportunity for the American Bandy community to play host to the visitors from six other nations, but it also was a chance for the US team to have a coming out party of sorts, on their home turf. Having struggled mightily in previous World Championship competitions – in 2012, the team scored a collective three goals in the entire tournament, and in 2014 the Americans didn’t win a single game – Team USA was on a mission to take advantage of playing in their home venue. They came out flying in their first game to the tune of a 9-0 victory over China. US forward, Allie Thunstrom, playing in her second World Championship, led the way with four goals. Veteran player, Sarma Ozmen also added a goal, and three World Championship rookies scored, as well: Meagan Wanecke (2), Kari McClintick, and Tara Rueping. Briana Carlson, the team’s sweeper, picked up an impressive two assists in the match.
Later that night, the home team was matched up against a much more formidable opponent, in perennial World Champion, Team Sweden. But unlike other matchups against the mighty Swedes, this time the US did not back down. Under the glow of a sensational sunset, the Americans put on a show for the large crowd that gathered at the Guidant John Rose Minnesota OVAL to cheer their girls on. Many in attendance were former USA Women’s Bandy players, and it was almost as if the current team could feel their presence with them on the ice. US goalie, Sarah Ahlquist-Schneider stood tall in the first half of the match, making several outstanding saves to keep it close for her team. Sweden was up, 3-0 at the half, but the Americans were skating with them and there wasn’t that overwhelming feeling of intimidation that used to come along with playing the Swedes. In the game’s second half, the Americans’ newfound confidence shone brighter than ever when they broke through and scored a goal on Team Sweden for the first time in Women’s World Championship history. On a goalie throw opportunity, Ahlquist-Schneider launched the ball down the ice to Thunstrom, who used her incredible speed to crash the Sweden net and then dish a perfect pass to Wanecke, who buried it into the back of the net. It was a beautiful play and a memorable moment for the home team, as the crowd erupted into a thunderous cheer. Ultimately, the Swedes proved to still be quite powerful, and they skated on to a 7-1 victory over the hometown girls. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic game and proved that USA Women’s Bandy is headed in the right direction.
Perhaps building on the momentum generated by the emotions of the Sweden game, the second day of competition was the most impressive for the Americans. The US opened up play on Day Two of the World Championship against a Norway team that was essentially a mirror of themselves. Indeed, not only were the two teams sporting the same colors in their uniforms, but they were also very evenly matched, talent-wise. As the second half of the game started, the score was knotted at 0-0 and a gentle misty rain began to fall at the OVAL. Soon, Norway struck first on a beautiful shot by Nina Marie Dybwad to go up, 1-0. For the next 15 minutes the teams traded chances, but nobody else could solve either of the teams’ goaltenders, as Ahlquist-Schneider and Norway’s Mathilde Hveding Langmo matched each other, save for save. Finally, just as the rain intensified and it seemed hope was lost, lightning struck as US rookie, Margot Fleming picked a great moment to record her first-ever international goal with about six minutes left to play. The game ended in a 1-1 tie, officially, but went into penalty shots to decide which team would have the advantage in the tournament standings. Again, Ahlquist-Schneider and Hveding-Langmo put on a show; the American goalie allowed only one penalty shot to get past her, and the Norwegian stopped all five American attempts! It was a well-played game, all around, and both teams hoped that they would see each other again in the medal round.
A few hours after the tie with Norway, Team USA was back on the ice to take on a water-logged Team Finland, who had the misfortune of playing their earlier game against Canada amidst torrential downpours. (Minnesota weather. You just never know what you’re going to get.) The Americans took advantage of their opponents’ unfortunate circumstances and pounced early. After the first half, the score was 4-0 in favor of the home team with goals coming from veterans Kelsey Kennedy and Amy Stech, and rookie, Mollie Carroll (2). Finland’s Katja Eklund scored on a fantastic shot in the second half, but the bigger story was that Carroll netted her third goal of the game to give her the hat trick that afternoon. The 5-1 victory over Finland marked the most dominating performance over a traditional bandy power, (a country that has medaled in previous World Championships) in the history of USA Women’s Bandy. As the girls skated off the ice that day, spirits were understandably high as the dream of becoming the first American team to medal in a Women’s Bandy World Championship were suddenly more real than ever before.
Day Three began with a challenge. Team USA woke up seeing red that morning as they had the assignment of facing Russia, the defending World Champion. The previous meeting between these two teams, (the 2014 World Championship, in Finland) was one of the most lop-sided losses that the Americans ever endured in a game, as Russia defeated them, 13-0. Things went much better in 2016, to say the least. The Americans showed no fear against the swift-skating Russians, as they sacrificed their bodies to block shots and consistently got in the way of their opponents’ advances. After the first half, Russia was up only 3-0, and the game ended 5-0 in favor of the defending champs. The US could certainly take pride in that result, and after the game the focus immediately shifted to getting rest for the nightcap game, which also turned out to be the most important of the entire tournament for the hometown team…
NORTH AMERICAN SHOWDOWN
It all came down to this. Of course. 20 of 21 round robin contests were in the books. Three nations, (Sweden, Russia, and Norway) had officially advanced to the medal round; two, (Finland and China) had been eliminated from medal contention. One open spot in the semifinals remained, and one game remained.
The US and Canada met at 8pm on Saturday night under the bright lights at the OVAL in front of the largest bandy crowd that ever assembled to watch a match at the venue. Heading into this showdown between the fierce North American rivals, Team USA held a slightly better round-robin record over Canada, and thus needed to either win or tie to move on and play for hardware the next morning. Canada was facing a must-win situation to move on. This was the moment that players had spent the past two years preparing for. And, fittingly, the drama could not have played out any more ridiculously than it did in this high-stakes match.
Within the first few minutes of the game, Canada was awarded a penalty shot, which was stopped by Ahlquist-Schneider, and the score ultimately remained tied, 0-0 after the first half. Ten minutes into what began as a very methodical second stanza, in which both teams looked frightened to make a mistake, Canada broke through on a sloppy, pinball-type shot from Reanne Wysocki that somehow made its way over the goal line and into the net.
1-0, Canada. The goal seemed to awaken everyone on the ice on both sides, and the competition level rose tenfold. With under ten minutes to play, the US found itself up by two skaters, as Canada started to get extremely aggressive in their defensive zone and began to take penalties as a result. Despite the two-man advantage, the hometown girls could not break through the Canadian defense, which clustered around its net like a flock of sheep at the trough. As time was about to expire, the ball bounced off of one of those Canadian defenders and crossed over the end line. The officials awarded a corner stroke to the Americans, meaning that the hometown team had one last chance to tie the game and send themselves into the uncharted territory of World Championship semifinals.
The American skaters lined up for the shot attempt. In the cool Minnesota air, chants of “USA! USA! USA!” echoed through the trees surrounding the OVAL. Then the whistle blew and a perfect pass came out to the stick of a US player. She lifted a beautiful shot up over the opposing wall of Canadian humanity…
The sound of the ball hitting the net’s metal crossbar rang out through the night, and a brief moment of complete silence followed. The collective disbelief and frustration of the Americans and their fans, coupled with what had to be an instant of indescribable relief on the part of the Canadians made for a surreal pause. It was a moment frozen in time.
The match officials blew their whistles and the Canadians exploded into jubilation. They had just beaten their bitter rivals and had advanced to the medal round. By less than an inch. For the US it was a gut-wrenching way to end what had been such an extraordinarily promising round-robin tournament. This American team – this group of people who had worked so hard to get to this point – deserved better.
TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY
Thankfully, the story did not end that night. Team USA returned to their home rink the following morning to play against Finland for 5th Place in the 2016 Women’s Bandy World Championship. Though the players entered the facility with downtrodden expressions and melancholy emotions, they left with huge smiles and an undeniable sense of accomplishment. The hometown girls again beat Finland, this time 3-1, to take 5th Place and end their tournament on a high note. Once again, speed skating sensation, Thunstrom led the way for her squad, as she recorded two goals in the victory. The crafty power forward Stech sandwiched a goal in between Thunstrom’s tallies, and Fleming and Ozmen each recorded assists in the match. As the group posed for one final team photo on the ice at the conclusion of the game, the smiles were authentic. Even though the 2016 squad just missed out on their goal of medaling in their tournament, they could take consolation in the fact that they were the best USA Women’s Bandy team ever assembled. And the notion that they were competing in a tournament that they made happen was also a reward in itself.
THE OTHER RED WHITE AND BLUE GETS BRONZE
As Team USA exited the playing surface after their final game, the Norwegian and Canadian teams were coming out onto the ice for the 3rd Place Game. Walking past the Canadians was no doubt a bitter pill for the home team to swallow, but Team USA’s Norwegian friends enacted a bit of revenge for their fellow Red White and Blue. In yet another nail-biting affair at the OVAL, Norway and Canada found themselves knotted, 2-2 at the end of regulation time. Norway had been up, 2-0 on goals by Martine Dohlen Holm and budding superstar, Charlotte Marie Selbekk, but Canada came roaring back with two goals by their own megastar: Swedish Elite League player, Chris Delisle-Nystrom. The first overtime offered no outcome, as each team had several chances but could not convert. The game seemed destined for a shootout, but just as the second overtime was about to expire, Team Norway was awarded a penalty shot in the 83rd minute. Selbekk, Norway’s most dangerous offensive player, stepped up to the dot looking to record her second goal of the game and in doing so, effectively place a bronze medal around her neck. She did not miss. The Norwegian sniper blew the ball past Canada’s Amy Clarkson and into the corner of the net. Norway was victorious! It was the first medal won by the Norwegians since they took bronze in 2010, and a well-earned prize for a very talented and amiable team.
HOW SWEDE IT IS
The grand finale of the on-ice action came with the match that all of the bandy world had eagerly anticipated: a gold-medal showdown between world powers, Sweden and Russia in the final game of the 2016 Women’s Bandy World Championship. Heading into this winner-take-all match, Sweden boasted a record of 7-0-0 with a goal differential of +37 thus far in the tournament; Russia was 6-1-0 with a +33 goal differential. They had met once, in round-robin play, with Sweden winning narrowly, 3-2. Leading up to this moment, these two nations had combined to win every gold and silver medal handed out since the inception of the Women’s World Championship, back in 2004. Sweden claimed the first six golds, before falling to Russia in 2014. No doubt the Swedes came to America on a mission to reclaim their place atop the pedestal of international women’s bandy.
The match was played in near perfect bandy conditions. After some swirling snow flurries had blown through during the 3rd Place Game, precipitation ended and overcast skies remained. The temperature was just right so that the ice would be fast, but the world-class players wouldn’t be too cold. These ingredients yielded a beautiful game. Each team had several excellent chances to score, but the only goal of the game came on a penalty shot strike by Sweden’s Hanna Brusberg at the 18-minute mark. Legendary Swedish goalkeeper, Linda Oden made that score hold; Sweden won, 1-0 and the ladies in blue and gold were again the bandy queens of the world.
THE STARS EARN THEIR STRIPES
This wonderful four-day celebration of bandy concluded at the Radisson hotel in Roseville, where a lovely banquet and awards ceremony was held to wrap up the event. At this ceremony, USA goalie, Ahlquist-Schneider was named “Best Goalkeeper” of the tournament. It marked the first time that an American player had taken home a major award at a World Championship, and served as not only a tremendous individual honor for the goalie, but also a symbol of how the USA Women’s Bandy program is on the rise.
Additionally, high-flying US forward, Thunstrom came within just a few points of leading the world in scoring. Her nine points, (6 goals and 3 assists) were the most ever by a US player in a Women’s Bandy World Championship competition, and placed her tied for third overall in tournament scoring.
Also most certainly worth noting was the work of Team USA manager, Katie Lundquist-Swor, who somehow in the midst of the planning stages of the World Championship got thrust into the role of Tournament Director. Katie took the assignment in stride and did an absolutely phenomenal job. It’s safe to say that this outstanding event would not have been nearly as great as it was without all of her hard work. Rightfully so, she was recognized and honored at the banquet – both by the Federation of International Bandy, and her own team – for her contributions.
The USA Women’s Bandy team finished the 2016 Women’s Bandy World Championship with a record of 3-3-1. They outscored their opponents, 19-16 over the four-day event, and for the first time in World Championship competition, really had a handful of individual players step up into the realm of FIB stardom. It was the best performance by an American team as of yet, without question. Also undeniable, is that the future will be even better.