Friday, February 26, 2010

Women's hockey: Stay or go?


In the wake of Canada's 2-0 victory over the United States to win its third straight Olympic gold medal in women's hockey, the head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, has put the sport on notice: Get better soon, or there will be no more gold medals.

According to this ESPN article, Rogge has given the sport eight years to improve or risk removal from the Olympics.

It's hard to blame him.

The disparity is so great between the North American teams and everyone else that I'm fairly sure even a non-hockey fan would notice it. Games involving the United States and Canada I mostly skipped, except for the gold medal game and bits and pieces of the USA games. There was just nothing entertaining about watching the powerhouses rout the have-nots. It'd be like watching the Capitals play a small high school team.

It's a good thing the IIHF doesn't allow body checking in women's hockey. The gap would be even wider. The gold medal game was thoroughly entertaining and immensely physical ("for a girl"), and I can only guess that if checking were allowed, Canada and the USA would win games by 30 when they played other opponents.

The IOC removed softball from the Olympics because the USA dominated. I thought the gap was closing in that sport but must admit to not knowing for certain. But if they're going to remove softball, they might as well get rid of women's hockey. Discounting the gold medal game, Canada and the USA combined to out-score their opponents 86-4 in four games each. A seemingly fluke victory by Sweden over the USA in the 2006 Olympic semifinals prevented the North American countries from meeting in every significant final in the sport's history.

I watched a handful of the other women's games. It was, well, not easy to watch. (I'm trying to be diplomatic here.) My heart went out to the players. I know they're trying their best and giving it their all. They just don't have it. Not yet, anyway.

China won the seventh-place game and it was obvious they had one good player, captain Sun Rui. So it was heartwarming to see them finish their tournament on a good note. And as that ESPN article I linked to above says, China has all of 67 girls (out of 200 million) in the country who play hockey. Not 67 million or even 67,000, as IIHF president Rene Fasel said, but 67.

So while it makes complete sense to remove the sport, here's hoping the IOC doesn't. Men's hockey is one of the biggest draws to the Olympics and there's little reason to think women's hockey can't become one as well. It is going to take time and a lot of work though. By removing the game, that's also going to eliminate exposure and a dream for all the young girls who currently have hopes of playing in the Olympics. That will kill the sport further.

I'm sure the USA and Canada can't be too thrilled with the state of the sport. You don't get better by beating teams 18-1. It's awful for the sport to see scores like that. Because it leads to posts like this and worse ones. (I'm at least saying give it a chance.)

For instance, let's see what the growth will be like in Finland. Winner of the bronze medal game against Sweden - which I thought was a fairly quality game - the Finns have 3,500 registered female hockey players. That's compared to 85,000 in Canada and nearly 60,000 in the USA. Finland has a second bronze medal in its cupboard now. I don't know how many of the current players watched the 1998 team win bronze and say, "I hope that's me one day" but I'm willing to bet more than a few thought that.

I'm rooting for China too. I hope they find more players willing to play. The Chinese beat Slovakia to finish seventh, and hopefully they can use that as a springboard.

Maybe that's what the IOC is thinking. There are plenty of critics who say get rid of it now. But Rogge's comments suggest that he's willing to give the sport time to level the playing field. Hopefully some day we'll get Slovakia against Finland in the gold medal game, and China-Russia in the bronze game.

As things currently stand, there's only one game worth watching. If the other countries are unable to create a competitive balance, then the sport, I'm sorry to say, doesn't belong in the Olympic Games.

Unless it's a seven-game series between Canada and the USA with body checking allowed.

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