In 2019, the rising women’s senior team took bronze at the Division 1 Group B World Championships. They had a chance to win gold on the final day, and it was all you could ask from a group playing for only the third time in division 1. The previous two years saw Poland lose nine games while only winning one game in overtime. The bronze finish was a sign of better things to come for Polish hockey.
Since then, it feels the national team has expanded rapidly. So many young stars have emerged in the country. Sikorska was only 16 years old playing at the tournament. Ida Talanda, Julia Zielinska, and Magdalena Łąpieś were all too young to play for the senior team. This was before team Poland had a team in the EWHL. The national team has gained so much experience against stronger opponents and has shown themselves to be a strong Divison 1 threat. This was capped off after Poland defeated the Netherlands to advance to the final round of Olympic Qualification.
That final game in 2019 where Poland played for gold was funnily enough against the Netherlands, and the Dutch shut Poland out 2-0 to win gold and promotion to Division 1 Group A. Now Poland had their revenge and was able to take on Czechia, Norway, and Hungary for a shot at the Olympics. Now back at the World Championships, a Polish team with more experience under their belts somewhat emerged as a potential favorite to claim promotion this time around. The biggest challenge was to be the same team they beat to have a chance at gold on the final day, China.
On April 10th, 2019, Poland and China went to battle. Each team came in with two wins and one loss. While we talk about how the Polish team was still a year away from having a team in the EWHL, China had a squad in CWHL, Canada’s top women’s league. It was arguably the best or second women’s league in hockey at that time. A considerable level above the EWHL. It was a battle for survival and a chance at glory. China’s Xin He would strike first, and quickly at just 55 seconds into the game. Sikorska would continue to prove to be Poland’s future when she tied it up at the 12-minute mark. Poland then owned the second period, scoring two more times to take a commanding 3-1 lead into the third period.
China was not ready to roll over. China controlled the third, although Poland added another goal at the period’s halfway mark. China continued their push, scoring two goals shortly after to make it a 4-3 game with just seven minutes to play. Poland would fight off China’s last stand and win the game by one. Poland was outshot in the third period 17-5, after leading the shots on goal battle 26-21 after two periods.
Now we are back at the World Championships. Poland and China seemed destined for another battle at the top. Instead of a chance at gold, it’s for the gold. Italy, the highest-ranked country, was upset by Slovenia 3-1 after an outstanding 54 save performance by Yale goaltender Pia Dukaric. Then China beat Italy 6-3, having two losses almost guarantees a finish outside of first for Itlay. Poland has quickly moved past its opponents beating Kazakhstan, Slovenia, and South Korea by a combined score of 9-2. Of course, Italy is not just going to roll over and are still a massive threat to Poland. Poland lost to Itlay at the 2014, 2017, and 2018 World Championships. China isn’t out of the clear yet, as they have to beat Kazakhstan. A team that beat them in 2019. All this could be rendered mute.
Italy dropping their first two games, and the growth of both China and Poland make the favorites talk easy. Polish hockey has exploded. Wiktoria Sikorska is in her second SDHL season, playing in Europe’s best women league at only 19-years-old. Martyna Sass has genuinely become one of the best goalies in Division 1. Her growth in EWHL and Slovakia has been amazing to watch. Defensemen Julia Zielińska plays in Finland’s top league and has proven to be a top defenseman. Those are only a few of the players making massive jumps. Metropolis Katowice, Poland’s team in the EWHL, finished sixth in the league and made the playoffs. This is the best finish for the team in their short three-year history. The team had 11 wins in their first two seasons combined. The team won 10 games just in 2022. To top it off, Poland added a substantial import as Ukrainian forward Tetiana Onyshchenko gained Polish citizenship after being one of the best forwards in the PLHK the past few years. As great as that all is, it is not close to China, and there is nothing they could do.
China hosted the 2022 winter Olympics. Both the men’s and female’s senior teams would earn an automatic bid to play in hockey’s elite competition. Obviously, if China were to play with their usual roster, they would get absolutely crushed. It is not good for hockey, the IIHF, or the country. Especially when growing the sport, it is not good for potential fans to see their home country get decimated. This meant that IIHF needed to think fast and get these teams up to speed. Working with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, China was granted multiple teams across the levels of Russian hockey, including the KHL, the top men’s league, and the ZhHL, the top women’s league. Unfortunately, with all the time and money given, these projects failed tremendously. In the end, the roster was more North American than Chinese.
These squads were dominated by North American imports, while the IIHF looked the other way on their own strict rules. In 2018, female players were still required to participate in 12 consecutive months in a country before being declared eligible, and in 2019 that number was dropped to 8 months. The time from the KRS Vanke Rays’ first game of 2021-22 to China’s first Olympic game was 4 months and 12 days (134 days), well below the eight months or (240 days required). Unless a training camp started on June 7th and lasted to the Olympics, there were zero ways to meet the eligibility requirements for a large amount of China’s roster.
Let’s face facts. The IIHF needed to do this for the event and growth of the game. I understand and support that, and I want hockey to grow. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing about Polish hockey. It also worked out well for China as the women’s team stayed competitive and beat both Denmark and Japan. The Japan win is especially significant as Japan actually went on to win the rest of their group. It was great to see them succeed at the Olympics and possibly inspire the next generation of hockey players in China.
Now the Olympics are done. A team that beat two elite opponents in 6th ranked Japan and 10th ranked Denmark, will be playing in the second group of division 1. In Division 1 Group B, the highest-ranked team is 16th ranked Italy, who missed out on qualifying for the Olympics after getting outscored 2 to 14 in the final qualification round. Only one import that played on the Olympic team, starting goalie Kimberly Newell, is not returning for the World Championships. The team that Poland saw in 2019 has now gained 11 players from the two best women’s hockey countries on the planet that play in Europe’s second-best women’s league.
There is no topping that kind of growth. It makes China the clear favorite for gold and promotion. If Poland can’t keep up with Czechia, Hungary, and Norway. How will they keep up with players that even previously represented Canada and USA, albeit at the junior level, on the international stage?
Despite all that, Poland was keeping pace after two games. Poland had registered more shots on goal, while Sass led the tournament in save percentage. Poland had allowed just one goal compared to China’s three goals allowed. Two games into a tournament make these stats far from the truth due to the sample size against different opponents. That became very clear on game day three when China blew out Slovenia 14-2. A team Poland only beat 4-0. Poland won on day three as well. They beat South Korea 2-1, China beat South Korea 5-0 on day 1.
Poland beat China when they previously had the development advantage of the CWHL team. Now Poland will have to overcome a new obstacle. If there is one thing Poland’s women’s team does better than anything, it’s overcome obstacles.