Nela Lopušanová: The 14 Year Old Who Dominated the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship

By Nicole Haase

Nela Lopušanová burst into collective consciousness at the 2023 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championships in Östersund, Sweden in mid-January when she scored a beauty of a “Michigan” lacrosse-style goal in a quarterfinal matchup with Sweden. The goal itself would have been enough to make the international hockey community pay attention, but it was Lopušanová’s smoothness and the complete lack of pause as she picked up the puck behind the net and wrapped it around the post to tie the game at 1-1 that really made this already special tally stand out.

That goal was just the latest of a number of smooth, adept and tactical goals that Lopušanová scored over the course of the eight-day tournament – nine in all. Her 12 points led all skaters and she was named tournament MVP as well as to the media All-Star Team. She took advantage of breakaways and left opposing goalies frozen with between the legs moves, pucks batted out of the air and laser top-shelf shots that aren’t even commonplace at the senior World Championships.

At just 14 years old, Lopušanová has a confidence that is not flippant or brash, but comes off as self-assuredness. It’s the wholehearted belief that she can pull off the moves she’s trying untinged by any anxiety that they won’t work.

There is a guilelessness to Lopušanová. She is fearless in the way only a 14-year-old can be, unbothered by what players like her, from countries like Slovakia, should or should not be doing in international tournaments. That lack of concern for failure is such a crucial part of her game.

“I’m not scared. All players [at this tournament] are the same, regardless of age,” Lopušanová said.

Lopušanová has the ability to shut out everything but hockey when she’s on the ice. After every game in Sweden she was asked how she did what she did as reporters hoped for words to explain the magic she was creating with the puck, but every time she seemed to search for words that weren’t there, finally settling on “I don’t know how I do it, I just do it.”

A clearly cerebral player who sees the ice well and reads when to break out for outlet passes or to intercept the puck, there’s a lack of overthinking when it comes to Lopušanová’s game. There’s just an innate sense of what she’s capable of and how it can help her team.

“She’s just trying to be herself and do what she does best, which is hockey,” said Lily Stern, Lopušanová’s teammate who also served as her translator in Östersund .

The moves come from hours of practice, trying things she sees in highlight packages or on social media. The confidence to try them in a setting like this comes from her dad, Jozef Lopušan, who Nela said gives her the push to try things like the Michigan in games because he knows she can do it. His confidence in her gives her the boost to take what she does in practice into game situations.

“I’m doing my best on the ice – the best that I can. I’m just doing whatever I find that can work and I just do it,” she said.

Those moves draw the attention of Slovakia’s opponents, who were far more aware of Lopušanová than the rest of the world was before the 2023 tournament. She’s dynamic on the ice and fans see the slick moves, but according to Stern, her mere presence on the ice makes a difference for her teammates.

“It’s obviously really good to have somebody on the team that can go and score. Most of the teams know that we have her and they play more on her, so it gives us more space on the ice. Knowing she has it and she can go score gives us more space on the ice,” said Stern.

Nela first put on skates at the age of two, she said, following her brother Simon, six years her senior, onto ponds. From there, she said she started to learn to skate with figure skaters around the age of four and took part in an IIHF event tied to World Girls Ice Hockey Weekend. She also picked up ball hockey and soccer around the same time and played them all throughout most of her childhood, including ball hockey sessions in the street with her brother and his friends. While she’s a phenom on the ice, Nela is also a member of Slovakia’s women’s national ball hockey team.

One of a small handful of 2008-born players in Östersund, Lopušanová has three more years of eligibility at this level and will likely start getting opportunities to play with the Slovakian senior national team. At home, she plays for MsHKM Žilina ženy in a women’s league that Stern said is small and not very popular. Lopušanová also plays for VLCI Žilina on a U16 boys team.

But the goal is to move away from Slovakia to not only develop her hockey game, but receive an education. She is aware of the opportunities the NCAA and USports provide. Stern herself is currently enrolled in prep school in Canada and is one of the reasons Lopušanová sees that as being a necessary step for her to achieve her goals.

“I’m just focusing on today and not the future. I don’t really notice the attention. I’m just focusing on this year. It’s obviously a dream of mine to go to the US or Canada for a prep school or to stay in Sweden. It’s an important step in my career to go overseas and develop more before college. I want to go to university,” she said.

– Nela Lopušanová

That Slovakia was even in Östersund to compete and for the world to meet Lopušanová is something of a miracle. Slovakia hosted the 2020 U18 Women’s World Championships and the games were streamed on a glorified doorbell camera. The home team were relegated at that tournament. The 2021 tournament was canceled and initially, so was the 2022 iteration. A public uproar about the junior women losing their tournament when World Juniors went ahead and the IIHF saying the tournament could happen if someone else stepped up to host it led to it being put on in June, 2022 in Madison, Wisconsin.

As the last team relegated, Slovakia was invited to that tournament to replace Russia, who the IIHF had banned from competition. Slovakia had little time to prepare, played no top-level teams in preparation and still advanced to their first-ever top division knockout stage, advancing to the quarterfinals thanks to a 6-2 win over Germany in which they had to have at least a four-goal margin of victory to advance.

At the time, Stern, who represented Slovakia at both the 2022 and 2023 U18 World Championships, said, “We made history. We quite literally made history. I think [people back home] should be really proud of us for this. Even if they aren’t, they should be. I’m really happy to be staying up in this division so the younger generations can also try it out and see how they do. Proving that we can actually fight and win is actually really good.”

Stern didn’t know how prescient her word would prove to be when, just six months later, Slovakia’s “younger generation” got the chance to keep playing in the top Division and  Lopušanová became an international sensation.

Playing at the top division is crucial to her development, Lopušanová said.

“The players are at a really good level and seeing them play and playing against them gives me many opportunities to get better. This tournament is giving us experience for the future,” she said.

Lopušanová  may have been able to shake off the attention before Sweden, but a slot on SportsCenter’s Top Ten plays, a viral goal video and media articles in countries around the world will definitely make that more difficult.

She is thankful for the attention and support, not just for herself, but for women’s hockey in Slovakia. The many messages she received had her bursting with happiness.


“I want to make girls hockey more visible in the world, but especially in Slovakia since it’s not really big yet there. I want to help develop it more,” she said.

– Nela Lopušanová

With slick moves, smooth skating and the kind of work ethic and personality that make her easy to root for, Lopušanová is well on her way to making that happen. Yes, she made a big splash at this one international tournament, but she has no intention of that being the end of her legacy.

“I have a message for everybody – you should expect big things from me and you should be excited for what’s to come. You have to wait and see. I have more to show.”

– Nela Lopušanová

Lopušanová can be reached via email at

Author: Nicole Haase is a freelance journalist of the Victory Press. Connect with Nicole via Twitter: @nicolehaase or Instagram: @nicolehaase14