Teammates to Olympic opponents: Three area college women's hockey players head to SochiLara Stalder and Tea Villila insist they don’t yet have a side bet on the Switzerland-Finland women’s hockey game at next month’s Winter Olympics.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Lara Stalder and Tea Villila insist they don’t yet have a side bet on the Switzerland-Finland women’s hockey game at next month’s Winter Olympics.
But since one Minnesota Duluth teammate could parlay that Feb. 12 contest in Sochi, Russia, into an Olympic medal, it isn’t far-fetched to think the winner would make the loser buy a bowl of borscht or a dish of caviar or even make her carry her bags during their next UMD series.
“Even though you are playing against a friend, it makes it more exciting,” said Villila, a junior defenseman from Hyvinkaa, Finland. “You want to prove to them, ‘We’re going to be a better team.’ Those are going to be good games, I think.”
Before that game, however, Finland and Switzerland each must play gold-medal favorites Canada and the United States, meaning the top four teams in the world are all in the same round-robin group. All four are ensured of making it into the six-team quarterfinals.
“With the system that we have in the Olympics, you can win a (medal-round) game and be in the final two,” Villila said. “Our goal is the medal round. There a lot of teams battling for that bronze because every team has developed a lot.”
That includes third-ranked Finland and fourth-ranked Switzerland. The Finns are led by former University of Minnesota goaltender Noora Raty, a two-time NCAA Division I champion.
“The one team that could upset the apple cart would be Finland and that’s because of their goaltender,” UMD coach Shannon Miller said.
Stalder, a UMD freshman defenseman, and St. Scholastica junior forward Nina Waidacher made the Swiss roster. Waidacher, the leading scorer in Division III, is hoping to bring back a medal.
“Our goal is to get the bronze medal,” Waidacher said. “I don’t think we have any chance against the U.S. and Canada, but that’s OK.”
Stalder won a bronze at the 2011 World Championships but was injured a week before each of the last two world tournaments and didn’t participate. She says this is the ultimate for women’s hockey players.
“A world championship is never the same as an Olympics,” she said.
Stalder and Waidacher left for Switzerland on Wednesday and will fly to Sochi on Feb. 1. Games begin one week later. Waidacher’s younger sister, Isabel, was selected as an alternate and will not travel to Sochi unless another player gets hurt before the first game.
Villila left Thursday, meaning UMD is without its top two defensemen for this weekend’s series at Wisconsin, following series versus Bemidji State and North Dakota and, possibly, the regular-season finale against Minnesota.
“In the past they’ve gone for three weeks and this year they are going for five,” Miller said. “It’s very painful.”
Miller says she tried to bring in two defensemen this semester but it didn’t work out, leaving the Bulldogs with only four defensemen on the roster. That means, as in 2010 when Jessica Wong moved to defense and UMD went on to capture its fifth NCAA Division I championship, Miller has experimented with moving a forward back to the blue line.
“In the past, we’ve been fortunate to have recruited enough depth. This is the first time that we weren’t successful in that endeavor and we lack depth this year,” Miller said. “This is our reality, and we’re going to find a way to make it work.”
Miller, who coached Canada to a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Games, understands as well as anyone the perils of bringing in international players and is prepared to continue down that path.
“The pinnacle of women’s hockey is playing at the Olympics, so you need to support the players in their development toward their dream of being an Olympian as well as when that dream is realized — even if it hurts your team in the present or the immediate future,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do; it’s a global perspective.”
The women Olympians all said they will be closely following their teams from afar.
“It’s bittersweet,” Villila said. “I will be playing in the Olympics, which is sweet, but for sure I’m going to miss this team. But I’m positive their going to hit their peak and keep it going. I think we’re going to be fine.”
UMD a breeding ground for international Olympians
Seven of the eight Olympic squads have at least one former or current UMD player on it. Only Japan doesn’t have any connections to the Northland.