When I was a kid, eons ago, my dad and I would watch pro boxing on TV on the weekends. It was the late 1970s and early 80s, so I was fortunate to see Muhammad Ali, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Howard Cosell, and other icons of the business.
But you know what I don’t remember? When Leonard took on Roberto Duran in back-to-back fights in a six-month span in 1980, I never heard anyone say, “Where are the other contenders? I’m bored of these two. They’ve already competed against one another.” Nobody was yawning. Nobody said, “Forget about this. Call me when there’s somebody new in the ring.” People were either Leonard fans or Duran fans, and they were completely emotionally invested.
For some reason, that time makes me think of the current (and looming) showdown between the Canadian and American women’s national hockey teams at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. I still remember the days, early in my journalism adventure, where people openly laughed at and derided the women’s game. “Nobody will watch them,” some said. How wrong they were. You can make a good argument that the women’s Olympic tournament is the highlight of the Games, because the athletes involved have been so good, so consistently.
While some have suggested that the women’s game be removed from the Olympics because it’s almost always a Canada/U.S. gold medal final, most people I know understand how narrow-minded that stance is. Taking away the biggest platform female hockey players have would be devastating to the future of the sport. The women’s game needs more support, more promotion, more structure and in non-Olympic years.
So, if we know that countries outside of North America don’t easily build a gold-medal-worthy team, why can’t we simply enjoy the ferocity that comes when the best of the best develop a true rivalry? When it was Leonard vs Duran, people lived in the moment, and what moments those two gave to boxing fans. That’s the important thing.
Would it be nice if other nations were as good as the Canadians and Americans? Of course it would. Sweden is the only other country that has played in a gold-medal final (in 2006, at the Turin Games), but it’s possible that upsets can occur and give Scandinavian teams a chance to win it all. If you take away Olympic participation, all the programs will suffer. Fewer kids will look on and believe they could grow up to be a pro hockey player.
Don’t get me wrong - there are many hurdles for the women’s game to jump over before a full-time, fully supported women’s pro league can thrive. The division between the now-defunct Canadian Women’s League and the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League (now known as the Premier Hockey Federation) did not make things easier for female players, but nobody said it would be easy to overcome structural roadblocks. There’s still much work to be done.
But again, that doesn’t mean that you rob female players of the Olympic experience. The athletes involved train endlessly for this moment. Time and again, they’ve delivered a thrilling gold-medal game entertainment experience. We owe it to them to, at the very least, have some quality time in the spotlight.
Nobody I know - at least, nobody I know who is truly connected with the game - is saying “No mas” to women’s hockey. The Canadians and Americans are going to give us another memorable game, and women’s hockey is going to take another step forward. These are two big-time fighters, just like Leonard and Duran were in their heyday.
Forget about the too-cool-for-school detractors of women’s hockey. Let them stew in their cynicism. We’ll just sit back and enjoy the bout.