It’s not often I get to call out a group for being prejudiced. After all, as a white North American dude, it’s a pretty small glass house I’ve lived in my entire life.
But the audacity of Olympic officials to question the competitive nature of women’s hockey clearly comes down to one fact: North Americans are the best at it.
True, Canada won its third straight gold medal in women’s hockey Thursday night, but they haven’t won every gold medal in the Olympic discipline; the United States took the first podium in 1998. No podium has looked the same in the women’s game, with Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Finland all taking turns in different spots.
Contrast that with luge, men’s and women’s. Since the sport was introduced to the Games in 1964, at Innsbruck, Austria, the medal count has gone thusly: Germany (West and East combined): 65 medals. Austria: 16. Italy: 14. They were the only countries to win medals for years until the Russians (seven), Americans (four, none until 1998) and Latvians (one in 2006) cracked the monopoly eventually.
This year in Vancouver? Germany, Austria, Italy and Latvia. Just grand. Don’t hear Jacques Rogge complaining about the viability of luge, do you?
The sad, bitter irony of excluding women’s hockey from the Olympics is that instead of encouraging women around the world from playing the sport, it takes away one of the biggest incentives to suit up in the first place. There’s no major pro league around (not yet, anyway) and even the best players in the world, such as Team USA’s Jenny Potter, take jobs at Home Depot just to keep the Olympic dream viable financially. Love, not money. Used to be an Olympic ideal.
Don’t watch women’s hockey? I don’t care. Nobody outside the Alps watches luge, yet someone along the way determined they should put two people on top of each other just to double the medal count for the regional sport. And I’m not even saying luge should be excluded – it’s the exact kind of amateur sport we have the Olympics for in the first place, just like women’s hockey, skeleton and the 800 different types of downhill skiing that somehow got on the docket.
Watching the medal ceremony Thursday night, I couldn’t help but feel good for the bronze-medal Finnish team. These are the women who will help propel the sport in the future. Their coaches scouted the nation for their best and brightest and put together a squad featuring 13 players the same age or younger than Sidney Crosby and knocked out archrival Sweden for a podium spot.
All those young women will be back at Sochi, Russia in 2014, many of them in their prime hockey-playing years. The Chinese had 12 players born in 1987 or later, including two who wouldn’t even be draft-eligible in the NHL this summer if they were male. The Slovaks had 10 players in their early-20s or younger.
It’s getting there. The women’s hockey pool in Vancouver was represented by eight teams from three continents. The top-five scorers came from three different nations, including Stefanie Marty, whose Swiss team didn’t even medal. And the final tilt between the Americans and Canadians was a tight game.
I want to see women’s hockey in the Olympics be respected. I want to see what Marie-Philip Poulin can do for an encore (she’s got those Dany Heatley instincts in the offensive zone). I want to see American twins Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux try to get their revenge on Canada. I want to see Slovakian goalie Zuzana Tomcikova steal a couple games for her squad the way male counterparts such as Jaroslav Janus and Jaroslav Halak have done internationally.
It’s worth watching.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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