VIERUMAKI, FINLAND - JANUARY 1: Czech Republic's Michaela Pejzlova #18 scored the game winner late in the third period during preliminary round action at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Czech talent stocking U.S. school rosters
The Czech Republic women’s national team takes to the ice against Switzerland today, with the chance to qualify for the Winter Olympics for the first time ever.
A win against the Swiss in Arosa would mark huge achievement for a women’s program that has been on the rise ever since the U18 team took home a surprise bronze medal in 2014.
Many of the players on that same squad are now competing for an Olympic spot. Along the way, they have continued to hone their skills by making to move into the US college game, one of the top centres for female player development in the world.
Several Czech player competing in the Women’s Final Olympic Qualification are plying their trade in the States, and doing so in impressive fashion. Star forwards Tereza Vanisova (University of Maine) and Deniza Krizova (Northeastern University) are both the top scorers for their respective schools. Teammate Katerina Mrazova is playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which currently sits at no.2 overall in the country.
“I play centre, and I think what I most improved playing in college was my work in the defensive zone,” said Mrazova. “Every week we do work that focuses on this so it’s helped me a lot. The hockey is a little bit different in the U.S. the ice is a bit smaller so you need to be faster and more creative.”
While Europeans playing on U.S. college teams isn’t uncommon, few Czech players have made the move up to this year. Last season just two national team players competing at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship played in college.
And they are making an impact. Krizova has been on fire at Northeastern this year, leading her team with 39 points in 29 games and a sparkling +24. She also currently leads the Czech in scoring in the tournament with three points in two games.
By the time they hit the ice with their college teams, the players are fairly seasoned. When Vanisova joined the University of Maine, she had already played boys hockey at the U16 and U18 levels, and participated in four Women's World Championships and three IIHF U18 World Championships with the Czech national team. A season spent at the Hockey Training Institute where she tallied 91 points in 34 games also eased the transition to the college game.
“Everything is different there, I had to get used to it,” said Vanisova, who plays in Maine with her Czech national teammate Vendula Prybilova. “The most strangest thing is the food (laughs)…they cannot cook well.”
She hasn’t found the transition to college life to be smooth all the time, but is enjoying the experience. So far in her freshman season with Maine she has notched 28 points in 27 games.
“We have a lot of friends on the team, we help each other and support each other.”
Michaela Pejzlova, from Pardubice, also plays in the States and has noticed the impact that the college game has had on her development. She is a biology major at Clarkson University and hopes to become a pharmacist.
“I think the college game has gotten me used to the speed and the physical part of the game. In America they’re ready to get hit and so the referees call it differently than in Europe.”
“I think it’s awesome, the more girls that go there the better it is for their team. Some Like Vendy (Prybilova) and Vanish (Vanisova) play on the same team, so they’re basically playing together all season which is great for us. The hockey is similar and so if we all play the same hopefully we can come back on the national team and win everything (laughs). We share a lot of what we learned in our programs too between each other, things like drills and practices they team in college.”
“I hope we can take what we learned in school against Switzerland,” said Pejzlova. “If I could choose one think we need to do perfectly it would be that we need to take the D-zone. Everything starts with perfect defence, I learned that from Clarkson. If they can’t score they get frustrated and then we can attack.”
The Swiss, meanwhile, have their own college stars. Mrazova's college teammate and tournament leading scorer Lara Stalder has six goals in two games to go with her stat line of 45 points in 28 games at Minnesota-Duluth.
No doubt, while these girls have a bright future playing in college, there is still work to be done in Arosa, with a history-making Olympic qualification just one win away.
“The most important thing is to finish our job here,” said Mrazova.