THN in Sochi: Women’s hockey still has a long way to go

A spectacular goaltending display by Swiss netminder Florence Schelling prevent two lopsided scores in the semifinal of the women’s Olympic hockey tournament. Goalies from other countries have improved, but their teammates have work to do.

Four years ago, then International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge put women’s hockey on what was known in the movie Animal House as “double secret probation.” In reality, Rogge put a warning shot right across the bow of the sport.

“There is a discrepancy, everyone agrees with that,” Rogge said. “We cannot continue without improvement.”

Four years later, there is a new man running the IOC in Thomas Bach, but the reality is that almost nothing has changed in women’s hockey. Bach has apparently already told the powers that be with the national federations that he wants women’s hockey to stay in the Olympics for gender equality. Nothing wrong with that. But if that’s the case, those with a vested interest in the sport owe Bach big-time.

It also owes Florence Schelling, a 25-year-old Northeastern University graduate who works in the IT department of the International Ice Hockey Federation. If not for her superhuman efforts in the Swiss net, and two goals that would have counted in the NHL that were called back, it would have been another romp rather than a 3-1 Canada win.

Schelling and the young Swiss should give women’s hockey hope, because few other countries are doing that. The fact remains that, if anything, the gap between Canada and United States and the rest of the world has probably widened. USA’s 6-1 dismantling of Sweden, in particular, not only set up the same old gold medal game, but illustrated that women’s hockey at the world level has not come a long way, baby.

Let’s get one thing straight. Your trusty correspondent has never once, not ever, suggested that women’s hockey should be expelled from the Olympics. The fact is, that wouldn’t accomplish much at all. But if the two most important stakeholders in this sport – Canada and USA – don’t start contributing more on the world level, the fact is they might have their Olympic status taken from them.

It’s not much different than the mastery Germany has held on bobsledding or the Russians/Soviets have had over pairs figure skating. In that sport, pairs teams from the Soviet Union/Russia/Unified Team have won 13 of the past 14 gold medals (including the one they shared in 2002 with Canada after a judging scandal). If nobody’s talking about those sports getting the boot from the Olympics, then why should women’s hockey? (And when it comes down to it, the World Junior Championships aren’t much more competitive than women’s hockey, either.)

But this whole notion that the sport is completely in its infancy and needs precious time to germinate and grow is getting a little old, too. The fact is, women’s hockey has been holding World Championships for almost a quarter of a century now and nothing – absolutely nothing – has changed. Sweden’s defeat over USA in the semifinal of the 2006 Games was a one-off fluke that should have never happened. It’s interesting to note that eight years later, the same two teams faced off and USA outshot the Swedes 70-9 and beat them 6-1.

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If you take a hard look at it, the gap in competition has not improved at all since Vancouver. In that tournament, Canada and USA played eight games against the other countries in the event and outscored them by an average of 10.75-0.5 and outshot their competitors by a 51.75-11.75 margin. In Sochi, the two countries played six games against the others and the average score went down to 4.83-0.5, but the shot disparity remained about the same, at 54.17-14.

That might lead you to believe that the gap has closed, but really all it suggests is that goaltending is getting better, which is a good place to start. And it’s also a case of the IIHF fudging with things. In the 2014 tournament, it grouped four of the top-five ranked countries in the world – Canada, USA, Finland and Switzerland – in one grouping, meaning the real hockey powers avoided playing any preliminary games against Russia, Sweden, Germany and Japan. If they had, there’s a good chance the numbers would have been even more bloated than they were four years ago.

This has to change. The IIHF launched a $2.1 million mentoring program after Vancouver to close the gap and it has helped, but more needs to be done. A lot more, with a lot more money. As Canadian coach Kevin Dineen said, “We need funding. We need it in Sweden and Finland and Switzerland.” And Canada and USA have to be at the forefront of this, knowing full well that they could be giving programs in other countries the tools to beat them in the future.

There are currently five teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which is recognized as the best league in the world. How about reserving four or five roster spots per team for import players? The ones who are displaced could then go to Europe and play in their leagues to raise the level of competition. Perhaps Canada and USA could import more coaches to work there on a permanent basis. (It would be even better if USA Hockey could somehow convince U.S. colleges to take more foreign players such as Schelling. Those teams work out every day and approach the game from as close to a professional attitude as you’re going to see.)

The problem is that Canada and USA continue to push each other to get better and they have the resources to do so. In an Olympic cycle, both federations can afford to centralize their teams for the full year before the Olympics. Unfortunately, that’s making the gap between them and the others wider.

Swedish assistant coach Leif Boork is right when he says it’s not Canada’s and USA’s fault they’re so good. But this is not about fault or laying blame. It’s about taking a critical look at where this sport is, realizing it hasn’t progressed and is showing few signs of doing so in the immediate future. And that’s why things have to change. Radically.