At the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, Sweden’s women’s hockey team finished in seventh place – a sizable step back from the 2014 Olympics, when they played in the bronze medal game, and a far cry from their finish in 2006, when the Swedes’ monumental semifinal upset over the United States led them to win silver.
With the first major tournament of the new Olympic cycle looming, head coach Ylva Martinsen said the team has “a journey to make” to get back to where they’d like to be and compete for a medal. But with a bit of confidence and daring, she thinks they can get there.
“We haven’t been where we want to be in Sweden,” Martinsen said. “I think we have a journey to make. We have to take small steps; we always try to look at what we do and talk about how we will move forward to be better than we’ve been for the last 10 years, you could say.”
Martinsen is in her first year as head coach of Sweden’s women’s national team. She enjoyed a lengthy career for Sweden as a player, and was a part of the team that won silver at the 2006 Olympics. She previously coached Sweden’s under-18 team for three years, and after winning bronze with the U18s in 2016, she led the Swedes to uncharted territory last spring at the 2018 Under-18 Women’s World Championship. They finished second in Group A and won a silver medal, becoming the first European country to achieve either feat in U18 tournament history.
There were two important factors that played into Sweden’s run to claiming that Under-18 team silver medal, according to Martinsen. First, her staff had the opportunity to work with the players for several years, boosting their development and helping them grow together as a team. They also cultivated a sense of confidence and belief among the players that they were capable of performing—and winning—at that level.
“You could see in their eyes that they believed in each other,” Martinsen said. “As a coach, I think that’s the most beautiful thing you can see, when you stand with your team and you can see that they believe in the team goals and they believe in each other.”
Fostering that same belief is also a goal of Martinsen’s for the senior team, and she says it will again be a factor in what the team can achieve.
“I think that it’s an important thing in any team you have, whether it’s sports or work or family,” she said. “It’s very important that you can look each other in the eye and believe in what you are doing together.”
Those winning experiences at the U18 World Championship—both bronze in 2016 and silver in 2018—are something the entire national team program can hopefully draw from moving forward, and continue to build on at the higher level. Martinsen also thinks it’s key to continue laying the groundwork at the developmental levels, so that Sweden’s players will be primed to contribute on the biggest stages down the road. Their senior women’s team and under-18 teams are working together to establish how they want to play, so players become familiar with that style early on.
“If they reach the women’s team, they’re going to see it’s nothing new, right, ‘I’ve been doing this for five or six years,'” she said. “[We want] to have some similar key points in the game on the ice but also outside the ice for what’s important if you want to create a winning team. Winning that silver medal, I hope that we have a better future ahead with the women’s national team also if we can work together in all of Swedish hockey.”
The biggest priorities for Team Sweden at the upcoming 4 Nations Cup are to continue instilling a new style of play under a brand new coaching staff, and to evaluate players with an eye towards the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championship.
“The main focus now is to work together with as many players as we can to create a picture for ourselves of which players we have that can be the best team in April,” Martinsen said. “In a short time, we have had a good response from all the players. We want to play kind of a new game if you compare it to Leif Boork and his philosophy.”
Boork’s tenure as head coach of the Swedish women’s team was a bit rocky; some of the more contentious moments with players are documented in this 2017 piece from Ice Garden. Martinsen is looking ahead, though, and wants to get her team back on track and performing well for this tournament.
“The experienced players, I don’t think they’ve been able to play at their best, so that’s one key, getting out their best potential on the ice, and then filling up with the younger players that have some great talent,” she said. “Our younger players have been winning medals in championships, so that’s a good experience that they can take with them into the team, and when we mix the experience with the new, younger players I hope that together there can be some good things happening.”
Martinsen and her staff are looking to inspire a more creative, offensive mindset for the team, and that’s something she feels they can continue to build on from a tournament they played back in August, against the Czech Republic, Finland, and Russia.
“We saw that in a very short time, we got the players to go out there and dare to play,” she said. “We talked a lot about creating our own game, that we can create scoring chances and hopefully score some goals. It’s the only way that we can be competitive in April.”
It can be a tough task to play that way against the United States, Canada, and Finland, all really strong, skilled teams who like to have the puck. But Sweden is hoping to showcase more of that daring play at the 4 Nations Cup, too.
“When you face the best teams in the world, you need to work hard on defense and block shots and everything, and actually, Sweden has been really good at that,” Martinsen said. “But I hope that we can see them daring to play out there. We need to have the courage to own the puck and create scoring chances and hopefully score, of course. I hope they have the courage to keep the puck between each other and create some danger for Canada and USA and Finland.”
Martinsen mentioned defenders Mina Waxin and Josefine Holmgren, as well as Hanna Olsson up front, as players to watch. All three are part of that young core, but they’ve made impacts with their club teams in the SDHL. Maja Nylén-Persson, who captained the U18s to silver at the 2018 World Championship, should make a difference on the blue line as well.
In net, Sweden is bringing in the trio of Lovisa Selander, Emma Söderberg, and Maria Omberg. All three goaltenders are relatively new to the senior team, but Martinsen believes this is a good opportunity to give them some experience and see what they can do at this level.
Selander is a senior with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and she’s been fantastic her entire NCAA career, with a .931 save percentage despite facing 3,405 shots. Söderberg backstopped Sweden to a bronze medal at the U18 World Championship in 2016, and is currently in the midst of her freshman season at Minnesota Duluth, where she plays behind Team USA’s Maddie Rooney. Omberg plays her club hockey for
the SDHL’s Luleå HF; last season, she posted a .929 save percentage in 24 regular season games, and an incredible .956 save percentage in the playoffs to help the club win the league championship.
As for the veterans, Martinsen expects forward Emma Nordin to make a difference at the 4 Nations Cup. With nine goals and eight assists in 13 games, she’s having a good season with Luleå. Nordin also had a strong showing for Sweden in August.
“I’ve never seen her that good with the national team as she was in August,” Martinsen said. “So I hope that she will continue that, and she’s going to be a leader for the whole team. I hope that she continues to play the game she played last time. She has great potential as a player, but I don’t think we saw her best in Pyeongchang, and I hope that we can create an environment for her and for other players to be at their best.”