Yale women’s hockey is fielding one of its most impressive teams in years, due in large part to two talented international players: forwards Hanna Åström ’16 of Sweden and Phoebe Staenz ’17 of Switzerland. With years of play on the world’s best teams, the pair brings their experience to the Bulldogs in the hopes of making a playoff run.
Both Åström and Staenz have grown up with a pair of skates. Staenz and her brothers started as soccer players at the age of five, but did not stick with the sport. After hearing about kindergarten friends playing hockey, the siblings switched over. It took a year of skating lessons, but finally Staenz began to play on a team, and she’s been doing so ever since.
Åström was skating by age two and on a team by age five. Most of her family played hockey, which is not unusual in Northern Sweden, where she grew up.
The two were not always the best in their leagues, though. Years later, both Åström and Staenz were selected to play for their countries’ junior national teams. Staenz played from age 15 on the junior team before being promoted to the Swiss national team two years later. Åström started the circuit a bit later, but she also played in several international tournaments, beginning in 2009.
It was the 2010 Women’s World U18 Championship, held in Chicago, that led Åström to Yale in the first place. Many college coaches and scouts attend these matches because they showcase the top youth players in hockey. Yale’s head coach, Joakim Flygh, who also happens to be Swedish, followed up with Åström after the tournament, in which Sweden placed third.
“I hadn’t thought about college,” Åström said. “We have a really good league back home.”
But her plans changed after she was contacted by Flygh. She then went through the recruitment process and has now found what she described as a “little family” away from home with Bulldogs hockey.
Staenz’s path to Yale was slightly different. She spent a year at an exchange program in Kelowna, Canada, where she improved her English and played hockey. When seniors in the program began the college application process, Staenz did as well, choosing to apply to schools in the United States because she hoped to play on a talented, high-level athletic team while still earning a top-notch education.
In the end, she decided on Yale, and she is very happy with her choice. She also commented on the receptiveness of the Yale hockey team, which welcomed her with open arms.
“We spent so much time together,” Staenz said about her introduction to the team two years ago. “Everyone was so open and very welcoming.”
While both Åström and Staenz have found a second home here at Yale, they are still members of their respective national teams, and they have had the opportunity to return to them to play hockey on the international level while attending the University.
Åström and Staenz have been to many national camps, where a country’s top players go through a series of fitness tests, on-ice practices, and games to showcase their skill. According to Åström, the goal is to keep the players tired at all times to test their endurance and ability. These are also prime scouting opportunities for coaches who need to make decisions for their national teams.
Åström recently competed in her first professional international competition, the 4 Nations Tournament, this winter break. She played alongside another Swedish player on the Quinnipiac team. When it comes to international play, though, Åström was the first to acknowledge that Staenz has more experience.
Playing on Switzerland’s national team since 17, Staenz has competed in several world championships, including the 2012 tournament in Burlington, Vermont where Staenz and the Swiss team earned a bronze medal.
But Staenz’s most meaningful international experience came in February of 2014 when Staenz represented Switzerland as a member of the women’s Olympic hockey team in Sochi, Russia.
Once she made the team, she still had to figure out arrangements with the University. For the Olympic hockey teams of most countries, the teams practice for an entire year before the tournament and spend the year living together and bonding. College athletes on teams like the United States and Canada had to take the entire year off from college in order to be on the roster.
The process for the Swiss team is a bit different. Most Swiss players have either work or school, so practicing for an entire year is unrealistic. The Swiss roster also fluctuates very little year to year, so the tryout process is not nearly as extensive as it is for other national teams. For Staenz, her national team feels very similar to the team at Yale.
“The dynamic is fairly similar [to college],” Staenz said. “The people stay the same. We’re all fairly close.”
Because of the unique structure of the Swiss team, Staenz would not have to take the year off; instead she was faced with taking the semester off. Unhappy with that choice, Staenz searched for another option. With the help of Ezra Stiles College Dean Camille Lizarríbar, she was able to find a way to miss the maximum allotted number of school days and make it through all games but the last two. She petitioned the University and received permission to stay in Sochi if team Switzerland advanced to the medal round.
That is exactly what happened. In the bronze medal match against Sweden, the Swiss team trailed 2–0 at the start of the third period. Staenz scored Switzerland’s second goal of that final period, contributing to her team’s 4–3 comeback win against Sweden and earning her team the bronze medal.
Although she still struggles to find words to describe her feelings after scoring her goal, she said the closest she has come is to call it “an explosion of emotions.”
“It’s kind of like all other world championships combined together,” Staenz said. “It was big party for everyone. It was the one time to prove yourself. On the ice, you don’t really realize what’s going on. Off the ice, I learned so much about the Russian culture.”
Staenz also had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s top athletes at the dining halls and Olympic facilities, including NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
Back home, both players said that the similarities between college hockey and international hockey far outweighed the differences. Practice is the same intensity, and many college players, especially in the ECAC, play at a level comparable to the international stage. That being said, rink size is bigger at the international level, and the game moves at a faster and more intense pace.
“I think I learned a lot about the importance of focusing and getting ready for games, having your routine and getting into the mind-set,” Åström said. “And have fun, that’s what it’s all about, even at this level.”
The biggest difference, according to Staenz, is the crowd. Here at Yale, women’s hockey draws a much smaller crowd than the men’s team does. With international play, the crowds are packed with not only parents and friends, but fans and national supporters that serve as not only a source of anxiety, but also of support..
For Staenz, however, the overwhelming emotion is not nervousness, but excitement.
“You can’t miss one moment,” Staenz said. “You have to be in the moment. You’re definitely more excited [than nervous].”
The transition between the two levels is not difficult as far as play on the ice is concerned, but the jet lag is incredibly difficult to manage.
Over winter break, both Åström and Staenz traveled back home to play for their national teams and a day after landing were either practicing or competing on a disorientingly little amount of sleep. And the two still felt the effects on the way back to New Haven as well.
“It was like looking through a tunnel,” Staenz said about her first game back. “Jet lag, the two players are huge assets for the Bulldogs. The ECAC is one of the most competitive leagues in hockey, and with four of its 12 teams ranked in the top 10, the Elis consider it important to constantly push themselves. It is also not surprising that many of the teams in the conference have national team players on their rosters as well.
“Playing internationally enables Hanna and Phoebe to play at another level,” captain and defenseman Aurora Kennedy ’15 said of her teammates. “When they come back, you can tell they’re playing at a higher pace than before. That helps bring up the level of our practice and helps everyone improve.”
Åström and Staenz will be finishing up the season with the Bulldogs this spring, although Staenz is considering a week long tournament this semester as well.
After her seasons at Yale, Åström is unsure of her plans, but she hopes that they include hockey. She is also hoping for the chance to be a part of the Swedish Olympic team come 2018 if she gets the opportunity.
“Since we don’t have an NHL, it seems sad to think that I would stop playing,” Åström said. “I just love playing hockey at any time.”
Staenz echoed her teammate’s thoughts. She would also like to be a part of another Olympic team. Since there’s is no professional hockey league for women, Staenz is considering the possibility of joining a men’s semi-professional team to stay in shape. Just like for Åström, where she plays is less important than the fact that she is playing.
“As long as I’m playing anywhere,” Staenz concluded.