When the IIHF Women’s World Championship officially gets under way Friday in Calgary, the Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey program will be well-represented on the ice, with current and former players dotting rosters from North America to Europe.
Six former Bulldogs — down from seven after goaltender Maddie Rooney withdrew due to injury — will play for four different countries, including a pair of first-timers in senior defenseman Ashton Bell of Canada and sophomore defenseman Nina Jobst-Smith of Germany.
Bell and Jobst-Smith are joined on their respective national teams by a pair of former Bulldogs who are veterans on the world stage — defensemen Jocelyn Larocque (Canada) and goaltender Jenny Harss (Germany). Forwards Lara Stalder (Switzerland) and Katerina Mrazova (Czech Republic) are also back at the Women’s World Championship.
For Bell, it’s “extra special” to be playing her first World Championship in Canada, and just two provinces over from her hometown of Deloraine, Manitoba.
“I’m honored to be named to the team for my first Worlds here and especially to have it here in Calgary on home soil,” Bell said. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but once we’re standing on that blue line getting ready for our first game, it will definitely hit me then.”
Bell, who has delayed her fifth season at UMD to 2022-23 in order to centralize with Hockey Canada in 2021-22 in preparation for the Olympics, is one of eight Canadians playing in their first World Championship and one of three rookie defensemen the team brought in hopes of generating more offense from the blue line.
Canada hasn’t won a Women’s World Championship since 2012, finishing runner-up to the United States in four of the last five events that were held (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017) and third during the last tournament in 2019.
Bell said the Canadians — who won gold at the 2014 Olympics before losing to the U.S. in 2018 — are confident in their preparation and ready to prove themselves. Canada opens play Friday against the team that upset them in the 2019 semifinals, Finland.
“Yes, there is pressure on us as we’re at home and this program hasn’t won a World Championship in a while,” said Bell, the forward turned defenseman, “but we believe as a group that pressure is power.”
Like the 21-year-old Bell, Jobst-Smith — who turns 20 later this month — is one of the younger players on Team Germany, which opens play Saturday against Hungary. She’s been training with the national team for three years now, and has created a bond with her veteran goaltender, Hrass, who over a decade ago — along with Larocque — backstopped the Bulldogs to a triple-overtime national championship victory.
It’s been cool to play with a Bulldog from a different era, Jobst-Smith said.
“Jenny is awesome. Just learning from her and talking about her time as a Bulldog has been really cool,” said Jobst-Smith, who holds passports from three countries. “She’s a great leader on this team and she’s a very professional athlete. It’s really cool to see where hockey has taken her.”
The 2021 Women’s World Championship is over two years in the making, with the last tournament being held in Finland in April 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 tournament, with Nova Scotia being awarded the tournament again for May of 2021. The tournament was postponed, however, when the province entered a full lockdown just weeks before the puck was about to drop and instead moved to Calgary in August.
While all the delays and uncertainty surrounding the tournament were frustrating, Jobst-Smith said she is now more than excited to take part in something she’s looked forward to her whole life.
“I think it’s the next big step for women’s hockey that they were able to put this on and host an event like this,” Jobst-Smith said. “It really shows that they’re willing to put the time and effort into things. Even just seeing they are going to broadcast every single game on TSN (in Canada) is huge. It means a lot to us.”
Olympic qualifying on deck for Bulldogs
Three months from now, current and former Bulldogs will be donning their countries colors again for Olympic qualifying Nov. 11-14.
Nine teams split up into three groups are battling for the final three spots. The U.S., Canada, Finland, Russia, Switzerland and Japan have already qualified for being in the top six of the IIHF Women’s World Rankings in 2020 — the 2021 World Championship won’t factor in. China has also qualified as the host.
Jobst-Smith, Hrass and Germany are the hosts in Group D and will play Denmark, Austria and one more team from pre-qualifying in October.
“I think with the talent that we have, coming out in a good spot after Worlds would be huge,” Jobst-Smith said of Olympic qualifying.
Mrazova and the Czechs are hosting Group C, which will also include Hungary, Norway and one more team. Sweden, and most likely UMD senior goaltender Emma Soderberg, will host Group E with France, Slovakia, and one more team.
The Bulldogs have no games scheduled for three weeks between Oct. 25-Nov. 18, however, they could be without Soderberg and Jobst-Smith during the stretch run in February should Sweden and Germany both qualify for the Winter Games in Beijing.