VANCOUVER – When the final seconds ticked off and Canada’s gold medal in women’s hockey became a reality, it touched off a celebration the likes of which have never been seen before on the women’s side of this sport.
It was a feel-good moment to be sure, unless you were a member of the American team that fell 2-0 to Canada in the ultimate game. But for Canada to win a gold medal on home ice created a raucous atmosphere and the women, as they should have, soaked up what they had earned.
But there are growing indications the party might not last if other countries that play the women’s game don’t start making up some ground on Canada and USA. Don’t look for either country to take its foot off the pedal when it comes to getting better, however, so we might be looking at an almost impossible proposition.
Clearly, the International Olympic Committee is beginning to lose patience at the fact the disparity is getting larger between the two hockey superpowers and the rest of the world.
“There is a discrepancy here, everyone agrees with that,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said earlier in the day. “This is maybe the investment period with women’s ice hockey. I would personally give then more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement. We cannot continue without improvement.”
Those comments were greeted with a fair amount of derision by Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson.
“Rogge should watch a (women’s) hockey game because the game is improving,” Nicholson said. “Before Nagano we played AAA bantam teams and we were .500 and now we’re playing AAA midget teams and we’re at 75 percent.”
But that’s Rogge’s whole point. He’s certainly not concerned with the quality of the game in Canada or USA, but if the women on this continent continue to improve at such a dramatic trajectory, it might be too much for other countries to ever catch up.
“We’ve gone so far and everyone has to come along with us,” Nicholson said. “We take two steps, (other countries) take one. We have to put pressure on the other Olympic committees to put more money into the game. They have to centralize, they have to do a lot more not just with the 21 players who play in the Olympics, but you’ve got to take it to the base. If you do it right at (age) eight, nine, 10 and 11, you end up where we are now.”
Which is not only with a third gold medal around their neck after the Games, but at the Burnaby Winter Club during the Olympics.
Canadian coach Melody Davidson revealed after the gold medal game that the team stole away for two exhibition games against the Vancouver Northwest Giants boys’ AAA midget team during the event. The first game was held the night before the opening ceremonies and the second was Feb. 19, smack dab in the middle of the tournament.
“We had to stay sharp,” Davidson said. “We were winning games 18-0 and 13-1.”
It might have been that exposure to superior competition – the Canadian women played a series of games in the Alberta AAA midget league this season – that made the difference against the Americans, a team that went into the tournament as a younger, more dynamic unit with tons of offensive creativity. But that didn’t mean much in the gold medal game because the Americans weren’t able to produce a single goal, despite having a 5-on-3 power play in the second period.
“The Americans have an incredible power play, they always have and it terrified us, no question,” Davidson said. “The way we were blocking shots on that kill was incredible.”
So was the goaltending of Shannon Szabados, who stopped all 28 shots she faced. Just 23 years old, Szabados is the youngest of Canada’s three goalies. And Marie-Phillip Poulin, who is the youngest player on the roster at just 18, scored both the goals for Canada.
“She never cracked,” USA coach Mark Johnson said of Szabados. “She never gave us an opportunity for that second or third chance.”
With Szabados shutting the door and the defensemen pushing the Americans to the outside, Canada did not need a flurry of goals to win the game. You got the impression watching the game they could have played for another week and the Americans still might not score a goal.
“I had no doubts after we scored our second goal that we were going to win,” Davidson said, “because of everything we’ve done this season and everything we’ve gone through.”
After winning gold in the inaugural women’s tournament in 1998, USA has failed to win the tournament the past three Olympics. But Johnson said he was proud of his charges for what they had accomplished.
“I said to my team before the game, ‘Make sure you have no regrets, no excuses, no alibis at the end of the night,’ ” Johnson said. “And I think we can walk out of the arena with our heads held high.”
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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