Hours before the puck dropped on the women’s gold-medal game in Vancouver, the International Olympic Committee held a breakfast for a select group of journalists. The menu included eggs cooked to order, assorted pastries and a cold, hard dose of Olympic reality for anyone who supports women’s hockey.
IOC President Jacques Rogge cast a cloud over what should have been a banner day for the sport by issuing an Olympic-sized ultimatum to the women’s game: Improve the competitiveness of the field, or else.
“There is a discrepancy there, everyone agrees with that,” Rogge said. “This is maybe the investment period in women’s ice hockey. I would personally give them more time to grow but there must be a period of improvement. We cannot continue without improvement.”
At first glance, the ill-timed salvo launched by the man who holds the key to the Olympic rings was a
slap at a sport that has only been played in the shadow of the Olympic flame since 1998. But in the wake of women’s softball being removed from the summer docket of Olympic sports, Rogge’s call to arms was met with varying degrees of concern around the sport.
“Other sports have been removed, so I guess you look at that, and the IOC could make that decision,” said Bob Nicholson, president and CEO of Hockey Canada. “I don’t think it’s on their immediate agenda, but it’s something that could be there down the road.”
Supporters of women’s hockey immediately sprung to the sports’ defense, citing what they perceive as
a double standard. Canada, after all, had run roughshod over the rest of the field in the early days that hockey was a men’s Olympic sport.
Who can forget the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, France when Harry “Moose” Watson and his powerful Canadian teammates were regularly blasting the competition by scores of 30-0, 22-0 and 33-0?
In fact, Canada won six of the first seven gold medals at the Olympics. The one time they didn’t, they finished second to the British team that was stacked with Canadian expats.
“Just giving our sport more time to develop is the important thing,” said four-time U.S. Olympian
Angela Ruggiero, who was recently elected to the IOC’s Athletes Commission.
“A lot of sports have had that opportunity. Certainly on the men’s side there was a long growth period from the ’20s and the ’30s to what you’re seeing now and how competitive that sport is right now.”
Still, it’s hard to ignore the reality of the podium. Of the 15 World and Olympic finals held since 1990, 14 of them have featured Canada facing off against the United States.
It’s equally difficult to defend the lopsided results in Olympic competition. In the past four Olympiads, the Americans have outscored their opponents (other than Canada) by a margin of 107-12, while the Canadians have run roughshod over the field 140-9.
The only team to crash the podium party was Sweden in 2006 in Torino. Even then Swedish coach
Peter Elander was warning against a global domination by the North American teams.
“At the moment, the North American teams spend eight times the Swedish team’s budgets, and have twice as many days together,” Elander said. “So there’s two ways to go: Either you make a maximum days of stay for all teams during an Olympic year, or you get finances so that all the teams have the same ability to work during the year.
“If you want to have a close tournament, as I warned you after 2006, all teams have to prepare the same way.”
Some don’t agree with that quotient of addition by subtraction. Many advocates on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border are all for helping to support the growth of hockey around the world, but not to the detriment of limiting opportunities at home.
In fact, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have long supported international competition in a variety of ways, both from a financial standpoint as well as creating opportunities for international players to develop their game away from home.
The problem is that while other countries are definitely improving, so too are the American and Canadian programs.
“All you have to do is look at the number of females playing hockey in the U.S. and Canada to see why the gap is widening. The sport has really taken off around this country, and every small town in Canada has a women’s hockey league,” said USA Hockey’s Chairman of the Board Walter Bush, the driving
force behind getting women’s hockey into the Olympics.
Girls’/women’s hockey is one of the fastest growing sectors of the sport and it has gained considerable popularity in the last decade. USA Hockey officially started its girls’/ women’s program in 1990-91, when 6,336 female ice hockey players registered with the organization. During the most recent registration season (2009-10), 60,104 girls and women registered, representing an 800 percent growth.
The rise in popularity in the women’s game is due in large part to the American’s gold-medal victory at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games. Spurred on by Cammi Granato and other trailblazing women, a new generation of young girls finally had role models that they could follow onto the ice.
“I was in the second grade in 1998, and that’s when the dream set in,” said Jocelyne Lamoureux, who, along with her sister Monique, was a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team. “I remember watching and thinking that that could be me someday.”
On the college level, there are 82 NCAA-sanctioned teams, including 34 at the Division I level. Of that number, there were approximately 278 foreign players on U.S. collegiate rosters during the 2008-09 season, and less than 25 of them were Europeans. Some feel that allowing more import players into the college game will help improve the quality of play in international competition.
It’s a double-edged sword when it comes to improving the quality of play in other countries. One of the best ways is to open college rosters to foreign players, but it comes at a price.
“Over the years we have opened our doors to players from other countries to play college hockey. That’s good for the growth of the game. Those girls then go home and hopefully share what they’ve learned with their teammates,” said Donna Guariglia, who was recently elected to lead USA Hockey’s Girls’/Women’s Section.
“But you have to remember that every time a European or a Canadian plays college hockey, they are taking away a roster spot from an American girl. That’s the Catch-22.”
But when players can’t find opportunities at home, they have little choice but to look elsewhere. While females of all ages have enjoyed the sporting equality brought on by Title IX, some countries lag far behind when it comes to supporting female athletes, in particular hockey players.
“USA Hockey got the ball rolling for women’s college hockey back in the 1990s and the NCAA has picked it up and ran with it, thanks in large part to Title IX,” said Ben Smith, who coached the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team in the first three Olympiads.
“Slovakia as a country probably doesn’t spend as much on its women’s program as Plattsburgh (N.Y.) State does.”
Many in the women’s game point an accusatory finger at hockey powers, such as Russia and the Czech Republic for not doing enough to support women’s hockey within their federations. With such a storied history on the men’s side, Russian women have yet to enjoy success on the international arena.
“What I’m disappointed in most is the support that some of the other teams are getting from their governing bodies,” said Granato, who will become the first female player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“The money that we’re getting for support and the programs we have in place in the U.S. and Canada is really strong, but in those other countries it’s lacking so it’s hard for them to catch up.”
“We need some strong figures within the IIHF to stand up and tell the other federations that they need to support women’s hockey more than they have,” added Bush.
No matter how farfetched, hockey’s top leaders admit that there is a chance women’s hockey could one day find itself on the chopping block if other countries don’t step up and improve the competitive imbalance of the game.
“It’s an issue that I am glad [Rogge] made a top-of-the-agenda item, so that a lot of these other countries will devote more to making their teams better,” USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean said. “I think what is required is two things: Political will and funding.”
The issue will be one of the key items on the agenda when the World Hockey Summit opens this summer in Toronto. The three-day symposium will look at issues ranging from player safety to international player transfers, along with the goal of preserving the women’s game as an Olympic sport.
Some countries are taking steps to try to narrow the gap. Pekka Hamalainen, Finland’s coach said that the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation is launching a new four-year high-performance program. “Its only target is to win gold in Sochi,” he said.
For some countries, it may be a numbers game. China, ranked seventh in the IIHF World Rankings, has only 166 women playing hockey in the entire country. That’s less than the number of female players in the state of Iowa.
Slovakia, which was pasted by Canada 18-0 in the Olympic opener, had 263 registered female players in 2008, compared with 77,461 for Canada. To put the chasm into deeper perspective, this is the same Slovakian team that blasted Bulgaria, 82-0, in a qualifying tournament.
Still, for women’s players around the world, they are willing to suffer the growing pains as the look forward to a brighter future.
“When the men’s game was starting up, Canada was beating everyone 20-0, 25-0, 30-0,” said Slovakian netminder Zuzana Tomcikova, a junior at Bemidji State University.
“Now look at it. We need to get more players playing. We want to be competitive with Canada one day.”
The question for past, present and future Olympians is, will those in charge be willing to wait for that day to come?