How can women’s hockey build off Olympic spotlight?

Team Canada celebrates their win over Team United States in the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match.
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BEIJING (AP) — Speaking less than 24 hours apart over the final two days of the women’s Olympic hockey tournament, the two captains’ messages were emphatic, emotional and similar in their desire to grow the sport.

Kendall Coyne Schofield choked back tears following the United States’ gold-medal loss to Canada at the Beijing Games by saying: “We need to continue to push for visibility. We need to continue to fight for women’s hockey because (the status quo) is not good enough. It can’t end after the Olympic Games.”

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Switzerland’s Lara Stalder voiced a similar theme directed at her nation’s hockey federation after losing the bronze-medal game to Finland.

“My message is to build a league in Switzerland. Make the best league in Europe,” Stalder said, noting she and 13 of her teammates play professionally in other countries.

“Obviously, there should be one league, like the NHL, for all of us to compete against the best players,” she added, suggesting Swiss league men’s teams should consider sponsoring women’s teams. “But I think we’re far away from that in Switzerland, and that needs to change.”

Another Olympic tournament is over, and little appears to have changed. Canada and the United States met in the final for the sixth time in seven Winter Games, and the issue of how to improve the sport globally remains.

At a time when everyone agrees changes are required, there’s little concrete consensus on what needs to be done other than private or public entities making larger investments.

Such is the case in North America, where there are few signs of a thaw between the continent’s only pro women’s hockey league, the recently renamed Premier Hockey Federation, and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, whose membership includes nearly every U.S. and Canadian national team player.

Based on player responses, the PHF remains mostly off their radar despite the league announcing last month it is expanding from six to eight teams and more than doubling the salary cap for each team from $300,000 this year to $750,000 for next season.

In one breath, Canada forward Brianne Jenner said: “That’s a really exciting thing, and I think we want to see the success of that league.”

In the next breath, however, she all but dismissed the PHF as an option.

“But we also want to see something that is going to stand the test of time,” Jenner added, before noting the PWHPA is inching closer toward meeting its mission statement of establishing a player-driven league with a sustainable economic model.

Asked who needs to come to the table if it’s not the PHF, Jenner would only say, “That’s a great question. I think it’s going to be a culmination of corporate sponsors, or people that support our game. And I think we’re not far off there.”

The NHL was supposed to be that entity, before it backed off when the pandemic blew a major hole in its budget.

American star Hilary Knight congratulated PHF players for getting a boost in pay, before turning her attention back to the PWHPA.

The responses are a setback for the PHF, which has spent the past two years restructuring its governing model by bringing in private ownership groups. The league hoped its decision to invest $25 million over the next three years to increase salaries, provide health care and improve facilities would help lure the PWHPA members into joining.

If there was a bright side in Beijing, criticism that the world was falling further behind the U.S. and Canada after several lopsided wins seemed premature.

The Americans briefly trailed the Czech Republic before pulling out a 4-1 win in the quarterfinals. Canada, meantime, was on its heels in allowing the Swiss to cut their lead to 5-2 before rallying to an eventual 10-3 win in the semifinals.

What became evident was the U.S. and Canada benefitting in the early stages after spending the previous four months playing and practicing together. Most of the other nations didn’t have that advantage. Their players didn’t have much time to be together because they have professional commitments and had to deal with COVID-19 travel restrictions. They used the preliminary round games to find their chemistry.

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The Beijing Games were the first of seven Olympic women’s hockey tournaments in which every team registered a win, and with the field expanded from eight to 10 teams.

At the International Ice Hockey Federation level, newly elected president Luc Tardif attempted to fix a credibility gap, with the governing body criticized for favoring the men’s game over women. The latest example came a few months ago, when the IIHF canceled the Under-18 women’s tournament for COVID-19 reasons while pressing ahead with its men’s world junior championship.

The world juniors were eventually stopped a few days into the tournament because of COVID-19, and have been rescheduled for August. The Under-18 women’s tournament will also be rescheduled this year.

Tardif noted the IIHF added $5.4 million to its women’s hockey budget to increase its prize purse for players in both the qualifying tournaments and Olympics.

“I’m not the guy who doesn’t believe in women’s hockey. I think Zsuzsanna by my side, she’s always there to remind me, but she doesn’t have to push me a lot,” Tardif said, referring to women’s tournament organizer Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer. “I’m convinced, and I believe in women’s hockey.”

Tardif spoke at a news conference originally scheduled to start at 10 a.m., two hours before the women’s gold-medal final. The news conference was moved to 9 a.m. after the IIHF realized it could conflict with the game.

Stalder shook her head in dismay when informed of the potential scheduling conflict.

“Find your answer yourself in that,” Stalder said, sarcastically. ”We have to make women’s hockey a priority.”

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”