On April 21, at around 8 p.m. ET, the Czech women’s national team for the 2021 World Championship was announced on Twitter. Five hours later, reports that the tournament was being canceled were confirmed by the IIHF. When the news reached the national team they were preparing to get on a bus and head to Munich the very next day. It was their last stop before getting on a plane to Canada.
“We had a random team meeting with our whole staff and our team manager came in to explain the situation,” Sammy Kolowrat of the Metropolitan Riveters told The Ice Garden. “It was a wave of shock that passed through the room. We thought that maybe it was going to be news that someone had tested positive for COVID, but it was so much worse.”
There were a lot of shocked faces and a lot of tears. There were also a lot of questions and a lot of frustration and wondering who made the decision and why it came so late in the process — after the Czech team had given up a month of their lives training for a month in a bubble. They stayed together in a hotel, were tested every other day, and were wearing masks everywhere except in their hotel rooms and on the ice. Many took time off from work and all of them took time away from their personal lives to make it possible.
For many, it was hard to process the news.
“I could not believe it and at first I suspected our GM was joking,” Tereza Vanišová of the Boston Pride told The Ice Garden. “Unfortunately, it was a reality. Most of us started to cry, including me; we all put so much work into the preparation and were so excited. It was very disappointing and it still is, but there is not much we can do about that.”
This was going to be a big tournament for the Czechs. Currently ranked seventh in the world by the IIHF, the Czech roster features stars from the NWHL, NCAA, and the top European leagues. After finishing in sixth at the 2019 Worlds, the Czechs had designs on surprising the rest of the field in Nova Scotia.
“We have a new coaching staff and a whole new playbook we were implementing that we were excited about after spending a year working on it,” Kolowrat explained. “We were ready to showcase a new style of Czech hockey that I don’t think anyone has seen or expects from us. We were excited to show the world that we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
On paper, the Czechs definitely look like a force to be reckoned with. They have some of the most talented forwards in the world, including Vanišová, Kateřina Mrázová, Alena Mills, and Denisa Křížová. Goaltender Klára Peslarová, 24, is coming off yet another outstanding performance in the SDHL and continues to look like one of the best goaltenders in the game. And a young blue line filled with potential is showing a lot of promise, led by veterans Kolowrat, Pavlína Horálková, and Aneta Tejralová.
There’s real star power on this roster, and the World Championship is the next-biggest stage after the Olympics. Each and every major tournament is an opportunity to grow the game in a country where women’s hockey is even more overshadowed by the men’s game than it is in North America. According to IIHF data, the Czech Republic has the lowest ratio of registered female players among national teams currently ranked inside the Top 10.
“When someone sees you with a hockey bag in Finland or Sweden they will ask you where you play and they’ll say, ‘Oh that’s awesome!’” Kolowrat explained. “There’s recognition there. Here [in the Czech Republic] the reaction is, ‘Is that your boyfriend’s gear? I didn’t know there’s women’s hockey.’ That is the example that comes to mind when describing those cultural differences. We’re still not quite there yet.”
It’s even harder to get there when opportunities are taken away at the eleventh hour. That may be why some players are pessimistic about the IIHF’s plans to reschedule the tournament some time in the summer. The Czech players are digging for answers and talking to everyone they know in the hockey community. They all want to know what comes next, but this isn’t as easy as finding a new location and marking the calendar.
“I do not think it is ideal to play the World Championship during summer when everyone is kind of out of the season mode, but it would definitely be better than never,” said Vanišová. “I think we all really want to play this tournament and no matter when it will be, we will do our best to be ready.”
As one might expect, there are a lot of things that need to happen in a very short amount of time to make this work. But the bottom line here is that the tournament that these players have sacrificed so much to train and prepare for isn’t happening. Being a member of the Czech women’s national team doesn’t come with a paycheck. Wearing the colors and flag of their home country means everything to the players of the national team, but it doesn’t come without sacrifice.
“It’s not like we get paid on the side, so this is our one opportunity to put everything aside and go all in,” Kolowrat explained. “Whatever they come up with is going to be, frankly, crappy because our whole training cycle is messed up. Does that mean people take more time off? What does it mean for people who are working jobs? Having to leave your family, having to go through quarantine and testing all over again — we have to put our whole lives on pause.”
No chance this gets cancelled if it were the Men's Worlds.... https://t.co/ior0yzwCpr— Klara Peslarova (@klarapeslarova) April 21, 2021
You can’t blame the players for being skeptical about the IIHF’s plans to scrape something together and save the 2021 Worlds. Even though the decision to cancel the tournament was made by the province of Nova Scotia, the IIHF does not feel blameless here. Why wasn’t there a contingency plan in place? Why does every action (and inaction) taken by the IIHF make women’s hockey feel like an afterthought?
“Are the organizations going to do everything they can to make this happen for us and not just accept, ‘Oh well, no women’s competition in two years, that’s that?’ We’re all wondering if the time, effort, and resources are actually being allocated and used to actually make this happen,” Kolowrat explained. “It feels like we need something just short of a miracle to have a rescheduled Worlds — which isn’t how it should be.”
This isn’t how it should be, but this is the hand they are being dealt. All that’s left for the players to do now is wait and wonder what this all means for the Olympic Qualification tournament in November. The Czechs are favorites to earn one of the three available spots for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, but there are no guarantees. The pandemic’s impact on women’s international hockey over the past two years has made that abundantly clear.
“It will definitely affect the summer schedule,” Vanišová explained. “We already had scheduled many camps with the national team to get ready for the qualification, so I’m assuming we will be just getting ready for the Worlds as well. I think it will be quite difficult and definitely different for all the players since it will be after a long time not playing games. But who knows, maybe we will be rested and play even better.”
Michelle Jay contributed quotes to this story.