Women’s Worlds Storylines: From the USA-CAN rivalry to ongoing contract negotiations

Hockey player Hilary Knight (USA) skates past Marie-Philip Poulin (CAN)
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Just six months after the 2022 Winter Olympics concluded, the best women’s hockey teams return to the ice this week for the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship. It marks the first time the top division women’s world championship will be held in the Olympic year since women’s hockey debuted at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

The tournament, which runs from August 25 through September 4, is being held in Frederikshavn and Herning, Denmark. Here are a few of the biggest storylines to follow as the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship gets underway.

2022 Women’s Hockey Worlds: TV schedule, how to watch, tournament format and more

Can Canada keep up the momentum?

Canada enters the tournament as both the defending world champion and reigning Olympic gold medalist. In addition, the Canadians also took the top prize at the U18 World Championship earlier this summer.

While the Canadian roster includes 18 players that won Olympic gold six months ago — including stars Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Nurse, Brianne Jenner, and Sarah Fillier — the team has also seen some turnover since February.

Most notably, 2021 Worlds MVP Mélodie Daoust did not attend selection camp and is not on the world championship roster. Daoust suffered an injury during Canada’s first game of the Beijing Olympics and didn’t compete again until the semifinal round. Canada is also missing Natalie Spooner (who recently announced her pregnancy), Claire Thompson, and Rebecca Johnston.

Despite some of the notable names missing, Canada enters as the favorite for the 2022 world title. During a pre-tournament game vs. the U.S. on Tuesday, Canada skated away with a 3-1 win thanks to goals from Fillier, Blayre Turnbull, and world championship rookie Jessie Eldridge.

U.S. women’s hockey team looks to return to the top

The United States, which won five straight world titles before last year’s overtime loss to Canada, will be aiming to start a new win streak at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship.

The U.S. roster includes a veteran core led by Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne-Schofield, Amanda Kessel and Lee Stecklein. Knight, 33, will be making a USA hockey record 12th world championship appearance this year.

MORE WOMEN’S HOCKEY: Kendall Coyne Schofield has first-hand look at what women’s hockey is missing

Three players will be making their USA Hockey senior national team debut in Denmark (Hannah BilkaTaylor Heise, and Rory Guilday), while two players (Lacey Eden and Aerin Frankel) will be making their USA Hockey return. Both Eden (Wisconsin) and Frankel (Northeastern) competed at last summer’s World Championship, but weren’t selected for the Olympic team. Eden was cut in the lead up to Beijing, while Frankel, the 2021 Patty Kazmaier Award winner, wasn’t included in the residency program.

It will be interesting to see how new U.S. head coach John Wroblewski makes use of those new faces — as well as younger players like Caroline Harvey, Jincy Dunne, and Grace Zumwinkle. The American bench was underutilized at the Beijing Olympics, which certainly impacted how the team performed.

U.S.-based fans can find info on a TV schedule of available games here

Can Finland women’s hockey team push past bronze?

Finland is the perennial bronze-medal favorite, having claimed the third step of the podium at last year’s world championship and the previous two Olympic Games.

The Finns will be led in Denmark by Anni Keisala (named best goalie at 2021 Worlds), four-time Olympian Jenni Hiirikoski, and top scoring threat Petra Nieminen. Finland also has a new coach, Juuso Toivola, who took over during the 2022 Winter Olympics after the team’s previous coach, Pasi Mustonen, returned home for a family emergency.

“Obviously, (the Canadians and Americans) are still the ones to beat, but I’m excited to see if we have something new in our pockets,” Finnish GM Tuula Puputti told the Associated Press.

U.S. hockey players balance tournament with ongoing contract negotiations

In 2017, the U.S. women’s hockey team made headlines when players threatened to boycott that year’s world championship if USA Hockey didn’t increase player compensation and benefits. Five years later, players are preparing for Worlds while simultaneously negotiating a new contract. The U.S. players’ current one-year agreement with USA Hockey is set to expire midway through the tournament on August 31.

“Obviously we would have loved to have a deal done heading into this world championship to eliminate distraction and conversation with the contract, given that the conversation started months ago,” player representative Kendall Coyne Schofield told On Her Turf in a phone interview.

How exactly players and USA Hockey would handle a situation where an agreement is not reached by August 31 remains to be seen, but Hilary Knight said last week that she remained optimistic. “I’m really confident in our group and the amount of work and effort and sweat that we put into being the best and playing at this level,” she told On Her Turf.

USA Hockey declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations.

Can Sweden make the most of its world championship opportunity?

As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the team representing the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) — a designation that is the result of the nation’s state-sponsored doping program — is currently suspended by the IIHF. With Russia barred, Sweden was invited and seeded into group B.

Sweden used to be a consistent threat in women’s hockey — winning back-to-back Olympic medals in 2002 and 2006, plus two world bronze medals in 2005 and 2007. But a ninth-place finish in 2019 relegated the Swedes to the lower division world championship tournament, which was then cancelled in both 2020 and 2021.

“I think Sweden belongs in the [top] group,” two-time Olympian Nylén Persson told TSN. “It has been a little bit frustrating that we haven’t had the chance to play to get ourselves a chance to go up to the [top] group.”

Japan looks to continue women’s hockey growth with spot in group A

At the 2022 Winter Olympics, Japan’s women’s hockey team earned the top spot in group B thanks to wins against Sweden, Denmark, and two thrilling shootout victories vs. China and Czechia.

Japan will face much stronger competition at this year’s World Championship. After the IIHF barred Russia from competing, Japan was promoted to group A. While wins against powerhouse teams like the U.S. and Canada are improbable at best, the experience should be beneficial for the young team, which is likely to be led by 21-year-old forward Akane Shiga.

Can the U.S. improve its power play?

The U.S. power play has struggled of late, including at the Beijing Olympics, where the Americans only managed to score on the power play one-quarter of the time (compared to 36% efficiency for Finland and 41% for Canada).

“I don’t think we were at our sharpest in Beijing and I think that showed,” Hilary Knight told On Her Turf last week. “I’m really excited with the group that we’ve got… and combine that with all of these schemes and things that we’re working on, it’s going to be a lethal combination for us.”

Which American goalie will take the lead?

For the first time since 2015, the U.S. roster doesn’t include Alex Cavallini. Cavallini, who recently announced that she is pregnant, started all three Olympic knockout games earlier this year. That said, the U.S. still has three very talented goalies on the roster: Maddie Rooney, Nicole Hensley, and Aerin Frankel.

Rooney, 25, backstopped the U.S. to Olympic gold in 2018 and then played two games at the Beijing Olympics.

Hensley has the most world championship experience, having served as the American team’s go-to goalie at Worlds in both 2017 and 2021.

Frankel, the 2021 Patty Kazmaier winner for Northeastern, will be looking to record her first international minutes. She was on last year’s world championship roster, but didn’t touch the ice.

Meaghan Mikkelson returns to competition

After sustaining a major knee injury in May 2021, three-time Olympic medalist Meaghan Mikkelson tried to rehab in time for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The mother-of-two started skating again in October 2021 and played her first game with the Canadian team two months later. But in the end, the timeline was too tight and Mikkelson was one of Canada’s final roster cuts in the lead-up to Beijing.

But the 37-year-old Mikkelson wasn’t ready to call it quits. She showed up to Canadian camp this summer and was named to the 23-player world championship roster.

“I just couldn’t leave it where it was,” she told the Canadian Press. “I was having trouble sleeping at night thinking ‘should I go to camp?’ and I just felt like I could show up here, my whole heart would be here, and I thought I would be able to contribute.”

Which team will shine in group B?

Just like at recent world championships, the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship will feature two weighted pools. While often overlooked due to the U.S.-Canada rivalry in group A, the teams in group B represent the international growth of women’s hockey. This year, group B will consist of Czechia, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, and host Denmark.

Czechia has made a big mark on the international game in the last 12 months, including in the nation’s Olympic debut in February. During the team’s quarterfinal round game vs. the U.S., Czechia scored first and managed to keep the game tied at 1-1 until the third period.

“We never played U.S. or Canada, so it’s like, ‘Oh my god, they play so well.’ And it was a bit intimidating for us,” Czech captain Alena Mills told TSN. “But now that we played against them, it’s like, ‘Oh, we can take the puck away from them. We can push them on the boards. We can score the first goal.’ So, I think it was huge in our Czech hockey development and helping us to maybe get a bit more of a championship mentality.”

Group B also boasts plenty of current NCAA talent, from Swedish goalie Emma Soderberg (Minnesota Duluth) to Czechia forward Noemi Neubauerova (Providence) to Hungarian forward Mira Seregely (Maine). The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) is also represented by five players on group B teams and one in group A (Evelina Raselli, Switzerland). A full list of player affiliations with pro leagues and colleges can be found here.

In addition to trying to make it to the quarterfinal round at Worlds, all five group B teams will also be trying to avoid relegation. The lowest ranked team at the end of pool play will be relegated to the lower division tournament for next year’s world championship.

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.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.