27-year-old, Zoe Hickel, comes from a hockey playing family but describes herself as a regular girl from Alaska, USA who loves the outdoors and cosing down next to the camp fire.
But right now, she’s living with her younger sister, Tori Hickel, in a flat in Sweden’s fastest growing city, Linköping. For the second year in a row the sisters are playing in the same club, but last year it was with the last ever Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) champions, Calgary Inferno.
Growing up Zoe loved skiing as well as hockey. But when it came to taking only one of them seriously it was a no-brainer to choose hockey, “There’s a lot of individual pressure with skiing, but with hockey you get to go through everything as a team, the good and the bad. It’s as individuals come together that everything happens. My best friends have all come out of hockey -it’s a special kinda friendship that you don’t get anywhere else”.
And if you had any doubt about her passion for the sport, you ask her a few questions and watch her face light up, thinking tactics from the off. “Would I be on the same line as Forsberg?” she asks when I ask her which Swedish legend she would rather play in a team with, Peter Forsberg or Henrik Lundqvist? Hickel is a woman who want to play with the best and beat the best.
Her exuberance and experience just flows out of her - not a surprise when you consider in the space of just five years after college she has won the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), the CWHL championship, two World Championship gold medals as well as being the top scoring American in CWHL in 2018/9.
But now she's in Sweden, “I’m really enjoying it, there’s something special about the place and it’s great to share it with Tori - she can show me all the things she loves about it. Of course, Sweden is where I won my first World Championship medal…” she drops into conversation.
That was in 2015 when Hickel had just graduated from the University of Minnesota-Duluth where she was linemates with Sweden and Linköping star, Pernilla Winberg. The plan at the start of the season was to reform the Winberg-Hickel line. But sadly, the veteran has not played a single minute since she was signed off for concussion at the beginning of October.
But Malmö wasn’t the only place Hickel has collected World Championship gold. The second win came in Kamloops, Canada the following year. “To beat the Canadians in Canada with all the fans against you… that was something special,” she says with smile.
The second Gold medal occurred in the same season that Hickel was part of the Boston Pride team that won the NWHL's inaugural Isobel Cup.
But whilst things started well in the NWHL's second year, out of nowhere suddenly all the players pay was cut, “It was really tough,” she said, “But who can play for a club like the Metropolitan Riveters if they can’t actually earn enough to live in New York?” she points out getting to the crux of the crisis within women’s hockey - it's about people who love the sport and want to make it a career with a living wage.
Hickel, and some of the others from the American national team, chose to cross the border and join the CWHL because of the strength and depth of the player pool as well as being able to get regular practice against their biggest rivals, the Canadians.
When her team, Calgary Inferno, won the 2019 Clarkson Cup final against Les Canadiennes du Montreal multiple Olympic and World Championship Gold medallists were on the ice. "We worked hard all year long and you knew you’d beaten the best ranked players in the world. It was a great feeling!” she reminisced, “Then, a week later, we got a call that league had folded. We were in total shock”.
Hickel said that because her husband works in Calgary, they had been thinking of staying put there for a few years, so it was a terrible moment personally, as well as professionally.
The CWHL’s collapsed on 1 May 2019 led directly to the start of the #ForTheGame movement, which was launched the following day. Over 200 players, including Tori and Zoe Hickel, took dramatic action aimed at creating, "a sustainable professional league for Women's Hockey."
With options closed in North America, the invitation to play in Sweden felt like the right thing to do - Tori would return to the country she had played in for two years after graduating from Northeastern College and take her older sister with her for the ride, “I’m 27 years old now!” she laughed, “but hopefully things will sort themselves out for the next generation of players coming through. To be honest, I’m just focusing on the game here at Linköping HC and letting the PWHPA sort things out back home”.
Whilst 25-year-old Tori has played for Djurgården IF, this is Zoe’s first time in the SDHL. “The game’s different here. In North America is was much more north-south, I’m used to a give-and-go game, but here it’s much more about building up play, maybe that’s to do with the extra space”. She says when asked about the differences in the four different leagues she’s played in.
We move onto Linköping’s season, which for players and fans alike has been disappointing with just four regulation wins (at the time of writing) for last year’s runners up.
“We’ve got an optimistic attitude in the group; this is a good team and we’ve got great goaltending at the back. We just need to break down that wall of bad luck - pucks that bounce the wrong side of the net and so on”.
Personally, Hickel has been thinking a lot about her health, “I’ve just come back from five games out, [Isobel] Palm is coming back but Pernilla is out. I’m trying not to put pressure on myself to score masses of goals, I’ve just got to take care of myself”.
Zoe Hickel and Linköping HC could naval gaze and look back on the season that’s gone. But the double world champion knows that things can change fast in hockey – a couple of good results, remaining injury free, a little bit of Lady Luck and a lot of hard work – and this season could still end up with a gold medal around her neck as she has done everywhere else she’s played.
(Hickel wears #36 in the colours of USA in photo, above).
See video of Zoe Hickel’s first international goal for USA during the Gold medal winning 2015 World Cup campaign, below.