Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

The future of women's hockey as an Olympic sport

By Nicole
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In this article, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports makes the assertion that womenís hockey is so lopsided that the sport be given eight more years to fix the disparity or be dropped from the Olympics.

Of course, he doesnít actually give any suggestions for how to fix the gap that exists between Canada and the United States and the rest of the world.

Instead of a productive use of his column inches, Passan paints the North American teams as bullies and slaughterers, as though itís somehow their fault that other countries are lagging behind.

The worst of the article is the assertion: ďThis is womenís hockey: a goal-a-minute beatdown in all but a few matchups.Ē

Youíll notice the lack of the qualifier ďOlympicĒ in Passanís overstatement. This implication that all womenís hockey games result in double-digit wins is absurd and misleading.

Even if you make the assumption that heís talking Olympics, its complete hyperbole. The problem is bad enough Ė exaggerating it isnít going to help solve it in any fashion.

During yesterdayís USA-China game there was discussion of players like Angela Ruggiero visiting China in order to spread the game. While itís admirable, itís going to take much more than some celebrity endorsements to grow womenís hockey and I believe itís the job of the IOC, as well as both Team USA and Team Canada and their respective Olympic offices, to help start youth programs as well as Olympic Development camps and teams. It behooves both of the two top teams to be involved and be advocates of the game before it becomes obsolete. But until men's hockey becomes more of a priority for China, it's hard to imagine women's will get any support or credit.

Another avenue to work would be to partner with the NCAA to have more international scouting, bringing more talent into the United States and Canada to be developed in the universities. Using these already established programs keeps costs down and adds another level of development for international players after high school. Scholarships and grants can be established to help defray costs. Though these take some money to set up, theyíd still be cheaper than starting a program from scratch and could be subsidized by donations.

Remember, too, that countries like Sweden, Switzerland and Finland have a history of supporting women's athletics - these were some of the first countries to support world-class international women's soccer, as well. They don't seem to hold with the same stereotypes other teams are fighting against.

Most solutions will take time to implement and see production from. One "fix" that could be implemented immediately would be an aggregate, round-robin style tournament where each team plays each other twice, a la Champions League soccer. Giving teams another shot at each other should allow for adjustments. Both Switzerland and Sweden have pulled upsets of Canada and the US and this style tournament should give us more of those.

I donít agree with Passanís 2018 deadline. I understand using softball as a measuring stick, but itís short sighted to say that in eight years these teams are supposed to turn things around. That means Chinaís 12 year olds need to learn to ice skate, puck handle and shoot on an international level before their 18th birthday to be ready for qualifying.

The skills needed for softball and hockey differ so much that you canít set the same time frame for them or compare them. In the time it takes to teach someone how to play softball and start playing games, a possible hockey player would still be learning how to skate.

A member of the Slovakia women's team was quoted this week talking about the large scores. She pointed out that in the beginnings of hockey, the men's Canadian teams were getting beaten by double digits and she basically said that people need to be patient.

Monday night, a pair of Chinese figure skaters won the gold medal. Just 20 years ago, a Chinese pair was literally laughed off the ice. Russian pairs had won Olympic gold for 12 years running.

Here's the medal table from the last 3 Olympics.

Games† ‚Üď Gold† ‚Üď Silver† ‚Üď Bronze† ‚Üď
1998 Nagano United States Canada Finland
2002 Salt Lake City Canada United States Sweden
2006 Turin Canada Sweden United States

I'd love to know what the difference is for Sweden this year, as they've not shown as they have in the past.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of women's hockey is the lack of time and money spent on Russian women's hockey. Some internet research brought up little but more questions. For a country not only so hockey-obsessed, but also so committed to their Olympic caliber athletes, it seems unfathomable that there isn't more support for their women's team. They do not have a residency program - the biggest thing holding them back from furthering their work as a team.

Clearly there's a huge gap that exists between Canada and the US and the rest of the field this year, but threatening these programs with cancellation certainly isn't going to implore them to spend more money, time and effort to improve programs that could be basically obsolete in less than a decade.

It's up to the IOC, USOC, COC and the respective teams to make an effort to push the importance of this game. You'll remember my gushing about taking little girls to see Team USA during their Qwest Tour. It breaks my heart to imagine that this year's babies might never had that chance. And I can't help but wonder what happens to the thousands of little girls out there who currently dream of being Olympians. Do they stop playing? Does the caliber of college hockey drop because there's nowhere to go after you graduate? The implications are far-reaching and painful to think about.

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