Giving and getting gifts is central to this time of season, but the International Ice Hockey Federation was not gifting good news in that regard this year.
On Friday, the IIHF announced that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was cancelling all events scheduled for January – including, for the second consecutive season, the Under-18 Women’s World Championship.
Understandably, there were more than a few women’s elite players who were irate because of the decision. It would be one thing if it really was across-the-board cancellations (and on Saturday, the IIHF also revealed the Spengler Cup tournament would be canceled). But telling women they can’t play while also allowing the Under-20 Men’s World Junior Championship to continue is a terrible comment on the state of gender equality in hockey.
The proper thing to do, the bare minimum, would be for the IIHF to reschedule the women’s Under-18 World Championship a.s.a.p.. And even though the cold financial reality is that the men’s World Junior Championship is a huge financial windfall for the hosting country – meaning, you can see why the IIHF would hang onto it as hard as it can – the overall health of the sport suffers when women’s hockey is shunted to the side.
The women’s game is growing exponentially. We have pioneers like Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell-Pascal and Cammi Granato to thank for that. But we can’t abandon the women’s game like this. Even at a reduced seating capacity, the women likely would sell out games in host country Sweden – particularly, the showdowns between arch-rival Canada and the United States – and if the Championship had to be switched to a Canadian home, there would be optimum support for them.
To leave them behind like this seems cruel. What are we telling young women when we say their games are less compelling and important? We’re saying they are less compelling and important. We ask these young athletes to dedicate their time, money and energies to hockey, but hockey doesn’t seem especially willing to do the same for them.
Nobody is saying the IIHF has nefarious intent in making these cancellations. That said, you don’t always have to be intentionally bad to still have a negative effect. You just need enough people to shrug their shoulders, chalk everything up to the bottom line, and take a blasé approach from there. But sometimes the money that immediately is invested doesn’t pay off in tangible ways for a few years. You need to have patience, and that appears to be in short supply in this situation.
Practically speaking, the IIHF went as late as it could before the latest COVID-19 outbreak ripped through the planet forced it to fold its cards. But again, if everything were that dire, shouldn’t we care enough about our under-18 men’s junior hockey players, too? It goes both ways. You can’t talk about safety as the priority for one group, and play-with-fire when it comes to another. There’s no rationalization for it. You’re either all-in or all-out, and as it stands, the IIHF has one foot in one camp, and the second in the latter camp.
There’s little doubt that womens’ elite players would wait a month or two to play the Under-18 World Championships. They’ve been a patient community for as long as they’ve been a part of it. But this? This is a slap in the face. One cancelled year in a pandemic is one thing; two in a row is one too many. There has to be a better way.
We can’t claim to be women’s hockey fans only in Olympic years. If we truly support equality in hockey, we have to be vigilant and solid allies for them in the three non-Olympic years. That means demanding equal treatment for them. And we don’t need to wait on Santa Claus to deliver it.