At a tender age

JIM BENDER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:33 AM ET

A youth movement is one thing but this has almost been like robbing the cradle to get someone in the cage.

Some of the top goaltenders at the 2007 Women's World Hockey Championship are barely past puberty and yet, they are already among the best in the world.

Switzerland's Florence Schelling, for one, was brilliant despite allowing seven goals in a 9-0 loss to Team Canada. But she followed that up with a shutout in a 1-0 victory over Team Germany the very next night. Schelling just celebrated her 18th birthday last month and this is her fifth year with the team. Yes, she was just 13 when she joined the national squad.

"They didn't even know me and I didn't even know women's hockey even existed," recalled Schelling, who was then playing with a boys team. "They just called me one day and told me that four goalkeepers were injured and they wanted me for one camp. I showed my performance, they were impressed by me and here I am."

This is, however, Schelling's first world championship as the No. 1.

"It's nothing special, the team hasn't changed that much," said the 5-foot-8, 161-pound puck-stopper. "It is exciting but not a huge difference."

Finland's Noora Raty, who recorded the shutout in her team's 4-0 win over Russia, started when she was 14.

"She's a very talented young goalie," said Finnish coach Hannu Saintula. "She's 17-years-old and she had a great game (against Russia). This is her third year but her first time as a starting goalie."

Raty just shrugged of being such a young netminder.

"It is not so bad," said the 5-foot-5, 139-pounder. "I have always been the youngest and it's normal to me."

And she does not get more nervous facing the world's top teams.

"They're all the same to me," said Raty, who started because her brother played and her father was his coach. "They're a challenge.

"I have now been two years with women's. But I practise with the boys all the time."

Germany's Jennifer Harrs is only 19 while others, like Sweden's Kim Martin, also started as teeny-boppers.

"The goaltending, for me, has improved immensely in the female game over the last five years," said Dennis Sproxton, Team Canada's goaltending consultant. "We're starting to see that with the younger goalies now coming up. They're getting technically stronger as well and they're getting the coaching, which in turn, takes little bit of time. But they're getting better and better."

But they are maturing into top 'tenders a lot faster than their male counterparts.

"The younger goalies are getting the opportunities, which might make a little bit of a difference whereas, in the NHL, they've got to bide their time and pay their dues to get their opportunity," Sproxton suggested. "But here, they're starting young, getting a chance to play and making the most of their opportunities at a young age."


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