CALGARY – Hayley Wickenheiser already knows what she’s going to say. She hopes the power brokers of the hockey world are listening.
The captain of Canada’s Olympic women’s team plans to lay out the state of the women’s game at next week’s World Hockey Summit in Toronto.
“I’m sure there will be female hockey people and stakeholders in the audience, but I also hope that we get some movers and shakers in the game there,” Wickenheiser says.
“I’d love to see Brian Burke there, I’d love to see NHL people there who have experience growing the game and managing teams, taking teams through highs and lows and knowing what it takes to develop programs.”
After Canada and the U.S. outscored their opposition by a combined 88-4 in the Olympics, IOC president Jacques Rogge sounded a warning bell for women’s hockey by saying: “We cannot continue without improvement.”
How to increase the number of female players world-wide, offering prize money at the women’s world championship as they do at the men’s, capping the number of days teams can centralize during an Olympic year and shoring up weak women’s leagues are among a myriad of issues up for discussion Thursday morning at the summit, which is sponsored by Molson Canadian.
NHL people are taking more of an interest in the women’s game because so many of their daughters and sisters play it, Swedish Olympic coach Peter Elander points out.
Mario Lemieux’s daughter Stephanie plays for Shattuck St. Mary’s, Phil Kessel’s sister Amanda and Bobby Carpenter’s daughter Amanda are rising stars of the U.S. national team and Pierre Turgeon’s daughter Elizabeth will play for the University of Minnesota next season.
But for there to be more parity internationally, the countries lagging behind Canada, the U.S., Finland and Sweden need to show an interest in the women’s game they’ve not demonstrated previously.
“We had a summit before and women’s hockey wasn’t talked about, right? Now we’re an agenda item, so I think that’s huge,” Canadian Olympic team head coach Melody Davidson said.
“It’s about people in positions of power attending those sessions. Coming and hearing it and listening to it and then the biggest thing is follow-up.”
Russia, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Switzerland are countries with rich hockey traditions. Their women’s teams are routinely thrashed by the North Americans. It’s rare when even one of those countries beat the Scandinavians.
“I have a lot to say about that,” Wickenheiser said. “You look at development budgets for women’s hockey in the Czech Republic, there isn’t any. There’s very little money allocated in Germany.”
Elander, Davidson, who is now the head scout of the Canadian women’s program, U.S. Olympic coach Mark Johnson and Finland women’s general manager Arto Sieppi are the panellists for the women’s session.
“The biggest thing is the buy-in from the IIHF member associations,” Davidson said. “Do you have somebody in your association or in your federation directly responsible for women’s hockey? Who is guiding the ship and who is fighting the battles? What’s your four-year or five-year plan?”
The attitudes towards women playing hockey and the financial investment hockey federations make in their female players are interrelated issues.
“Number one is social. Number two is financial,” Davidson said. “It seems like in this world if people really believe in something, they’ll invest in it.”
Wickenheiser says senior people in the Russian federation have told her women in that country don’t want to play hockey, which must be news to the women who play on six teams there.
“You’re dealing with a societal, cultural barrier,” Wickenheiser said. “The other factor that’s in a lot of these countries is they don’t feel women can be pushed as hard as their male counterparts or you can demand as much out of a female athlete, which I think is completely untrue.”
The incentive of prize money at the women’s world championship isn’t on the horizon. The men’s world championship generates revenue from corporate sponsorships, television contracts and attendance that allows the International Ice Hockey Federation to pay out millions in prize money to participating countries, including one million Swiss francs (C$1.013 million) to the winner.
“All those revenue streams virtually don’t exist, or are minimal, in women’s hockey,” IIHF spokesman Szymon Szemberg told The Canadian Press inan e-mail.
Together, the U.S. and Canada have 145,000 registered female players. The natural competition in large player pools produces talented athletes. Those two countries have met in the final of every world championship and three out of four Olympic finals.
Sweden, the Olympic silver medallist in 2006, and Finland, this year’s bronze medallist, together have fewer than 10,000 women playing. The rest of the countries in the 2010 Olympic tournament were Russia, Switzerland, China and Slovakia, which combined have fewer than 2,000, according to IIHF statistics.
Even the gap between North Americans and Scandinavians becomes more pronounced in Olympic years.
The Canadian team’s 2010 Olympic budget was $3.3 million, while Sweden and Finland spent about a third of that. The Canadian team could afford to spend six months together and play 55 games before the Olympics, while Sweden played about 30 games and spent three-and-a-half months together as a team.
Elander suggests capping the number of days a country can centralize a team. He says Sweden won’t give its women as much preparation time together as Canada or the U.S. get, although he points out his country’s female cross-country and alpine ski teams do operate a centralized model.
“If the Olympic tournament should be close, we can’t have the two best teams with the most players with fully centralized teams and the others can’t afford to do that,” Elander said.
Davidson won’t agree with a cap.
“We’ve got to go after the highest standards,” she said. “I think instead of lowering the standards and lowering the expectations, we need to do everything we can to help other countries increase the number of days their players are together, the money that’s in their program, the competition level and all of those things.”
Elander says money spent on the centralized elite every four years would be better spent on strengthening women’s leagues because they develop more players and do so in the years between Olympics.
There are fledgling women’s leagues in Europe. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League and Western Women’s Hockey League in Canada constantly expand and contract from year to year, although the existence of both leagues is crucial to the national program.
The U.S. has strong NCAA women’s hockey programs, but there are no leagues for Americans after graduation. Many move to Canada to play here after their college careers end.
It’s not all bleak for women’s hockey. The gaps between countries can be closed if their hockey leaders care enough to listen at the summit and agree on action to move the game forward, says Davidson.
“We tend to talk about what we don’t have, which overshadows the good that’s there,” Wickenheiser adds. “In every country I’ve looked at, the game has grown on the female side.”