The increase of North Americans in the SDHL
As little as four year's ago there were only 4 North Americans playing in the Swedish Women's Hockey League (SDHL), and only one of them played the entire season in Europe. This season there are 26, including players from both the Gold and Silver medal team from the 2018 Olympics. Unsurprisingly, the Canadians are who are in the majority with 20.
Many of these imports are high impact players and are leading the league in points. That includes nearly half of the top 15 Points scorers. Furthermore, two players who played in the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), Michela Cava (Toronto Furies) and Danielle Stone (Calgary Inferno), are also the top points scorers for their current clubs who are in first and second position in the SDHL at time of writing.
The dramatic impact of the NCAA
Stone is one of the few players in the SDHL who has come to Sweden having played in the Canadian college league, USports. Whereas the majority have come from the NCAA, the American college system. But this league is not just developing North American players. 15 of the top 25 Points scorers today in the SDHL are graduates from the States. That including a whole raft of nationalities including last year's top Goal scorer and Swiss Olympian, Lara Stalder (Minnesota-Duluth) and the best player on Total Points, Finnish Olympic bronze medalist, Michelle Karvinen (North Dakota). Even the current top scoring Swede and 2006 Olympic Silver medalist, Pernilla Winberg is a NCAA graduate.
My own picture and editing of Linköping HC and Swedish international, Pernilla Winberg
The NCAA then, and the SDHL now
Karvinen and Winberg played against each other in the States in two seasons in and have been rivals in the SDHL since 2014/5 when they both started to represented the two most dominant clubs in the league, Luleå HF and Linköping HC respectively.
As chance would have it, in the same year eleven of today's the top 25 scorers in the SDHL 2018/9 were playing against each other in then in the NCAA. Or in the case of Stalder, Cava and American Olympic Gold medalist Sidney Morin, they were actually playing on the same team.
We can see further connections between NCAA alumni and today's players in the SDHL. For example, it is surely no coincidence that Winberg, Stalder and Morin were all at Minnesota-Duluth in 2013/4 and now play together for Linköping HC today.
Look through the top scoring ranking from the NCAA in 2014/5 and it bears an uncanny resemblance to the SDHL today:
2014/5 NCAA Total Points
Kennedy Marchment CAN 29
Lara Stalder SUI 29
Kaitlyn Tougas CAN 27
Andrea Dalen NOR 26
Claudia Kepler USA 23
Breanne Wilson Bennett CAN 18
Nicoline Söndergaard Jensen DEN 15
Sidney Morin USA 15
Brooke Boquist CAN 10
Michela Cava CAN 6
Lauren Wildfang CAN 5
The journey to Swedish hockey
However, this is a selective list of the c. 800 players in the league. That year 2018 Olympic finalists Dani Cameranesi (USA) and Marie-Philip Poulin (CAN) were also in the NCAA and scored 65 and 58 points respectively to finish 4th and 5th in Total Points. Whereas Marchment and Stalder came in at 53rd and 54th. So you can see that there is a gulf of difference between these two superstars of women's hockey and those in the SDHL today.
Today Cameranesi players for Buffalo Beauts in the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) and Poulin in Montreal Canadiennes in the CWHL. But what about players who never get drafted or get contracts in the elite leagues of women's hockey? What about those players who are churned out of the CWHL like Cava and Stone or former Brampton Thunder's Kaitlyn Tougas and former Montreal Canadiennes, Marion Allemoz?
Just as it is with the men's game, moving to Europe is a great option for those who want to keep the pro hockey dream alive. The AHL's designation as a development league means it is creating more players than can stay around as veterans or can find spaces in NHL.
Likewise the NCAA is producing more players that 10 teams in the two North American leagues can receive in terms of players. And Sweden, with 10 teams in it's top division, makes a good option as the most developed European league.
That recent inaugural Champions Cup between the champions of the SDHL and the NWHL lead to a 4-2 victory for Luleå over Metropolitan Riveters. This shows that the gap between club hockey in North American and European hockey is perhaps not as wide as many might believe. Certainly, Finland's performance at the Pyeongchang Olympics showed that and 7 of the squad and the second goalkeeper all play in the SDHL.
The impact on Swedish hockey
There is no doubt that import players are improving the quality of teams and matches as talented players from North America and the traditional European hockey nations come to Sweden. The league is even attracting hockey players from nations more often associated with football/ soccer including Spain, England, Netherlands and Japan.
The SDHL is now in it's 11th and this summer has seen the retirement of a number of the greats if the first generation of players turn 30, such as Denise Altmann.
But the question remains about the development of future Swedish players and the national team. The last Olympics saw Sweden crash out in seventh place, falling behind Japan. That Olympic team has only 6 players in the top 25 top points scorers so far this season.
The future of Swedish hockey
And then there is the question of age - Hanna Olsson is 19 but and Anna Borgqvist is 26 and the others players are 27 or over. All the North American players listed above are 24 or younger so have time on their side to develop. Will the influx of import players squash the development of the national or, as hoped, will the locals be able to learn from and grow alongside their international teammates?
Only time will tell. It may be that like the men's game, such as the back to back World Cup victories, that Sweden's hope at a national level may depend on players who play their club hockey outside Sweden.
At the moment there are no Swedes in either Canada's USport college league or the CWHL. And only one person in the NWHL, Michelle Löwenhielm, starting her first season at Connecticut Whale after four years at Minnesota-Duluth. But it might also be worth keeping an eye on the six 19-21 years about to start the 2018/9 season in the NCAA. The most notable so far is Sara Hjälmarsson, the 20 year old who is set to play for Providence College having scored 3 points in six Olympic matches for Sweden.
The cross-Atlantic exchange of players is still at and early stage of development. But you can be sure as time goes on that the dream to be a women's hockey pro will lead to an increased cross-pollination of Nordic and North American players seeking their gold on the other side of The Pond.