IIHF president Fasel’s defense of women’s Olympic hockey a welcome sight

Some have suggested women’s hockey is in danger of being removed as an Olympic sport, but IIHF president Rene Fasel poured cold water on those claims Tuesday in Sochi.

Questions about the future of women’s hockey at the Olympics were answered directly by International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel Tuesday at the Sochi Games. And to the delight of fans of the women’s game, he delivered some heartening news by stating definitively that women’s hockey would never be removed as an Olympics sport.

“That will never happen,” Fasel said at a news conference in regard to dropping women’s hockey. “I can guarantee that.”

In 2010, then-International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge caused consternation by suggesting women’s hockey had to improve its competitive parity or face the possibility of being removed from the Games. But Fasel’s strong statement should put any worries to rest. While it’s true he isn’t the one ultimately making the decisions – that’s the I.O.C.’s job – the 64-year-old has been an I.O.C. member since 1995 and sits on its executive board as their winter sports delegate. If there was a serious move afoot to take the women’s game away, I suspect he wouldn’t be so confident in his choice of words Tuesday. But he was.

“We invested over 2 million Swiss Francs in the women’s hockey program since Vancouver and I hope it will be even better (for the 2018 Games in South Korea),” Fasel said. “We need some more years and patience and to work very hard but it’s getting better. The I.O.C. is willing to give us the time. The women’s participation has not been a question.”

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Here’s hoping Fasel’s statement allows the focus to shift away from competitive balance and to the women’s product itself. Instead of people discussing what is going to be the death knell for women’s hockey, we can talk about how, as Fasel described, there are more than 80,000 women playing the game in Canada. And maybe we can turn our attention to focusing more resources outside of North America to grow the game.

When women’s hockey was introduced as an Olympic sport at the 1998 Games, the assorted sourpusses and critics said nobody would care about it. Now that it’s clear people do care, their grumbling is all about an absence of parity. When that eventually improves, I’d wager many of those same people will find something else to complain about. There’s this urge to compare it in all aspects to the men’s game and that’s patently unfair. It’s not perfect, but no sport is.

Until an I.O.C. member says otherwise, Fasel’s declaration should put the debate to rest. Women’s hockey is here to stay. That’s worth celebrating no matter who wins this year’s gold medal.