Once again, Russia’s representatives will play without their national flag and anthem due to on-going doping sanctions. However, there’s plenty of cause for optimism as the women’s team tries to win its first ever Olympic medal. Olga Sosina leads the way at her fourth Games, and her performances in last season’s playoff final with Agidel were the very definition of clutch.
Head coach Bobariko, meanwhile, also calls on five players who were part of his U18 teams in recent seasons. Several of them featured in the 2018 championship in Dmitrov, where the Russian youngsters sensationally defeated Canada in the opening game. That’s the first and only time in women’s hockey that a Russian national team has beaten a Canadian counterpart.
Add the big tournament experience of Alexandra Vafina, Angelina Goncharenko, Anna Shokhina and Elena Dergachyova, each of whom are returning for their third Olympics, and there’s plenty of know-how on the roster. Vafina, currently playing for Bobariko’s Dynamo Neva, also has an insight into China’s hockey culture after playing with KRS Vanke Rays last season, while Tornado’s Shokhina, who missed August’s disappointing World Championship campaign, currently leads the WHL in scoring.
The KRS Vanke Rays were set up to prepare China’s women for Olympic action — and the roster is stacked with players connected to the club. Three of them, however, were part of the Chinese team that played in Vancouver back in 2010. Captain Yu Beiwei, fellow defender Liu Zhixin and forward Zhang Mengying are all poised for a second appearance at the Games, albeit in very different circumstances.
The current Chinese team, led by experienced American coach Brian Idalski, also features young home-grown talent in the shape of Li Qianhua (19) and Zhao Qinan (24) on defense, as well as Zhu Rui (23) and He Xin (25) among the forwards.
However, there is also a significant role for Chinese heritage players on this team. Goalie Kimberly Newell, defender Jessica Wong and forward Hannah Miller are set to make a little bit of history after swapping Canada for China: they will become the first women to play international hockey for two countries after wearing the Maple Leaf in U18 World Championship action before fulfilling their Olympic dreams with the host nation here in Beijing.
China is something of an unknown quantity in Group B. However, the performance of the Vanke Rays in the WHL this season — currently fourth without its import players of recent years — suggests that a place in the quarterfinals is not out of reach.
The Finns have been Europe’s strongest team in recent years. Memorably, Finland threatened to shatter the North American stranglehold on the women’s game, reaching the World Championship final in 2019 and losing to the USA in a hugely controversial overtime in Espoo. No other European nation has matched that feat, before or since.
However, the Finns have surprisingly omitted Noora Raty, the KRS Vanke Rays netminder often regarded as the best in the world. She was injured in a friendly against Team Russia almost a year ago and, despite returning to the ice, she was left out of the 2021 World Championship and her international career seems to be over.
Three other Vanke Rays are on the team, though. Minttu Tuominen is coming back to the Chinese club for a second season once the Games are over. The versatile 31-year-old will be joined by forwards Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani, both of whom played briefly for the team in August.
Defender Aneta Tejralova is fifth in WHL scoring this season, with 30 (5+25) points in 22 games for table-topping SKIF. In addition, the 26-year-old former Dynamo St. Petersburg blue liner helped her native Czechia qualify for its first Olympic women’s tournament. She’s joined on the Czech roster by captain Alena Mills, who is set to return to KRS Vanke Rays after the Games, and Biryusa’s long-serving defender Pavlina Horalkova, now in her eighth season in Krasnoyarsk.
The defending champion does not have any current WHL players, but two of the most effective players in the league’s history are lining up for the Americans. Alex Carpenter achieved pretty much everything there is to achieve in the league when she dominated all-comers in the Vanke Rays’ title-winning campaign of 2019-2020. Defender Megan Bozek was also influential in the championship campaign and played an even more prominent role as the Rays topped the regular season table last term. Both players are looking to add to the silver medals they brought home from Sochi in 2014.
Emma Nordin, 30, is once again part of Sweden’s forward line. Like Sosina, the Ornskoldsvik native is heading to her fourth Games. Once finished in Beijing, she’s leaving Lulea to join up with the KRS Vanke Rays for the final weeks of the Russian season.
As always, the rivalry between Canada and the USA is likely to determine the gold medal. The Americans came out on top in PyeongChang, ending a long wait for Olympic gold. However, Canada is the current World Champion. When these two go head-to-head, there’s little to choose between them and both nations enjoy far greater depth than their European and Asian rivals.
Finland and ROC will both hope for a medal. The Finns have consistently been Europe’s strongest team in recent years, but the Russians are improving and could benefit from relatively low expectations around their team. Meanwhile, Group B promises to be full of intrigue. Czechia and Denmark are making their Olympic debuts, China is something of an unknown quantity and Sweden will be determined to reassert its status as one of Europe’s leading nations after a run of poor tournaments. It’s hard to see a finalist coming from outside of North America, but the rest of the competition could be wide open.