If you’re a hockey fan, and missed the women’s gold-medal game on Thursday, I feel for you. While I didn’t personally like the result ($^%&*% goalpost), you missed what was possibly the most exciting game I’ve ever watched, at any level, with players of either gender. And yet, with the U.S. and Canada meeting in the gold-medal game for the fourth time in the five Olympics where women’s hockey has been contested, there have again been calls to remove the sport from the Olympics for lack of depth and too many lopsided games.
Why Women’s Hockey Needs To Stay In The Olympics
However, compared to previous Olympic tournaments, the competition was more even in Sochi. Grouping the teams differently for the preliminary round, so that there were fewer meetings between the top teams and the lower-qualifying teams, helped. There were no 18-0 routs like Canada over Slovakia four years ago. The Americans’ 9-0 victory over Switzerland was the only truly lopsided game, although Canada did also beat the Swiss soundly. Eventually, it would be great to be able to go back to the old system, but if a decade or so of this helps grow the game, I suspect most hockey fans are fine with it. In addition to a more even prelim round, we saw a new team on the podium in Sochi. Before the tournament began, I think almost anyone who follows women’s hockey would have predicted that third place would go to either Sweden or Finland. Instead, the same Swiss team that lost to Canada and the U.S. by a combined score of 14-0 snuck in and beat Sweden to take the bronze. This is exactly the kind of tournament the IIHF was looking for after Torino and Vancouver- why remove the sport now, when some progress is finally being made?
Of course, there is more work to be done. The U.S. and Canada are still a rather large step ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to women’s hockey. However, removing it from the Olympics causes more problems for the sport and would be in no way helpful. For starters, most of the national hockey federations would almost certainly decrease (or cut altogether) the funding they give to their female players (which, in many countries, is very little anyway). This would not be a situation where the sport is cut, it improves and becomes more competitive, and three Olympics later it’s back in. With no media exposure through the Olympics, or successful showings at the World Championships, increasing participation among girls is going to be very difficult in the countries that need to do so the most. And grassroots programs, both for learning to skate and for learning to play hockey, need to expand in any country that wants to improve its level of play. Creating more girls’ teams and leagues is key- yes, some girls will want to play hockey even if they have to play with boys, and some may even prefer to play with boys, but more will want to play if the sport is presented as a place for girls, rather than a place where girls are tolerated. And it goes without saying, even a top-tier boys’ team needs to be open to any girl with the ability and desire to play on it. This is especially important in countries like Russia or Germany that have produced some top-caliber male players but are still struggling in the women’s game, and where the most talented girls may have to play with boys to truly be challenged and receive the best available coaching.
It’s the grassroots programs that would be damaged the most by removing women’s hockey from the Olympics. With no women’s equivalent of the NHL, girls’ teams and introductory programs count on a boost every four years as girls see ponytailed players on TV for the first time and think, “That looks like fun” (or “hey, that looks like more fun than figure skating”). These programs need dads to say “Huh, I never thought of signing my daughter up for hockey,” and moms to say “I wonder if that’s something my little girl might like?” And it’s a shame that these young women playing in the Olympics don’t get media exposure on a more regular basis, because they’re fantastic role models for young girls. Basically all of them are college students or graduates (many of them at or from excellent schools); they’re strong, fit and healthy; they’re articulate interviews, and they’re grateful for whatever media exposure they can get. Several of them even looked happy to be talking to Pierre McGuire. (When was the last time you saw an NHL player look happy to be talking to Pierre McGuire?)
In short, taking women’s hockey out of the game does a true disservice to the game at all levels, from the four-year-old learning to skate to the college graduate whose future in the sport, without funding, is foggy. Let’s all hope the IOC and the IIHF look at how far the women’s game has come already and make the right decision.
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