Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Discussion of women’s hockey future in Winter Games discouraging for development of the sport

A point of tension in the growth of women’s hockey is the constant discussion of whether it deserves to remain as part of the Winter Games. While there is no denying that on paper, it is a two-team race that shall likely continue at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea and into 2022, the thought of removing the sport would only halt any progress.

One need observe how the removal of softball from the Summer Games has changed the complexion of the sport. Since its removal after Beijing 2008, due to the dominance of the US, softball is not on any sports fans radar. It was the Summer Games that made heroes out of players such as Dot Richardson and Jennie Finch. Despite a Softball World Cup, the prestige of the Summer Games is irreplaceable.

Based on the International Olympic Committee’s logic, perhaps women’s basketball should also be removed. Considering that the United States has won the gold medal in the last five Games, perhaps there are even deeper competition issues within that sport.

The reality is that participation in the Games is the highlight of any athlete’s career. While female hockey heroes such as Geraldine Heaney and Manon Rheaume may have brought exposure to the sport and inspired girls to try it, the reality is that it was the 1998 Nagano Winter Games that was the sport’s watershed moment.

Athletes such as Canada’s Cassie Campbell and the United States’ Cammi Granato proudly followed in the footsteps of Heaney and Rheaume, while providing the sport with a worldwide audience that had never been considered possible a few years earlier. It was their efforts as the faces of their repsecitve national programs that motivated young female hockey players to work even harder, due to the possibility of an Olympic dream.

On more than one occasion, Hayley Wickenheiser, one of only two women to play in the first five Winter Games women’s hockey competitions (the other being Jayna Hefford) acknowledged that the event is their Stanley Cup. To take that away from them would only serve to destroy the self-esteem of a sport that is still struggling to gain equal footing with the men’s game.

Despite lopsided scores, such as Canada’s 18-0 whitewashing of Slovakia at the 2010 Winter Games, the opportunity for female players from less competitive countries to participate on the world’s biggest stage is a reward for the hard work and sacrifices they have made. Should that opportunity no longer exist, there is no question that funding for women’s programs in these developing hockey nations will cease to exist.

The Sochi 2014 Games have displayed an initiative to add competition by placing the top four teams in the same pool. With Canada, the United States, Finland and Switzerland in Pool A, it prevents the type of 18-0 lopsided scores against lesser teams. Therefore, Pool B should feature stronger play. The trade-off is that the top two teams in Pool A qualify for the semi-finals.

With Hayley Wickenheiser seeking election to a spot on the International Olympic Committee after the 2014 Games, her presence may serve as crucial. As American hockey legend Angela Ruggiero was elected after the 2010 Winter Games, the involvement of Wickenheiser would only help strengthen the role that women’s hockey must continue to have on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

Considering the initiatives implemented by the IIHF, such as the Ambassador and Mentorship Program are still in their infancy, at least an effort has been made to plant the seeds for growth and development. The exclusion of Canadian and American teams from women’s hockey at the Junior Olympics is another factor in helping to increase the level of competition. As a side note, many European players have enjoyed the opportunity to earn NCAA scholarships and excel at the game in North America.

Despite the long-term scope, the IIHF did react to the previous discussions on the sports’ future from the 2010 Vancouver Games. With due deference to the IIHF, it is now time to be proactive. Although the IIHF holds a men’s world championship every year (including in a Winter Games year), this is not the case for the women’s competition. Perhaps after every Winter Games, a special tournament could be hosted by the IIHF exclusively for the European countries. Another concept may be an annual exhibition series featuring a group of European All-Stars competing against the Canadian and American women’s teams.

A further initiative (although financial constraints would likely pose a concern) would be an exchange program of sorts. Perhaps elite Canadian and American players could compete in leagues based out of Russia, Sweden and Finland for a season. Sponsorship would have to be considered, but it may help to change the complexion of the game in Europe.

Regardless of the all-too probable outcome of Sochi, the future of the sport should not be a black cloud over the heads of the players. Sadly, its future is a more popular topic of discussion among media than the many stars that populate the game.  

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