The State of Women's Hockey and the IOC

Martin Rose

What you saw Thursday was an absolutely amazing contest of two of the best teams in the world, male or female. However, there is a bit of a trend behind it all and it's a bit worrying.

If you're an American, Thursday's ending to the Women's Gold Medal game was a crushing blow to your heart in more ways than one. If you're a Canadian, you're probably going outside and grabbing a jug of maple syrup to consume with your Moulson beer that would have otherwise been consumed three months from now in the form of a fermented mess.

The United States, playing arch-rival Canada, was mere minutes away from earning its first gold medal since the 1998 games in Nagano.

Unfortunately, a combination of sitting back and terrible puck-luck saw the Americans give up three straight goals en route to Canada's fourth consecutive gold medal and twentieth straight win in the Olympic games.

You can blame officiating all you want, but the fact is, the Americans and Canadians both played their hearts out, and neither of the team's players will head home with the amazing lifestyles and puffy NHL contracts that the men's teams have.

The Olympics are essentially the pinnacle of women's hockey. There is no greater stage for the sport, but there is some troubling news and speculation coming out of the IOCs' camp that would essentially thwart any sort of social progress that pro-egalitarians have tried to make over the last two-plus decades.

Imbalance of Power

If you were absent for the medal round's open threads, I posted a little statistic that is quintessentially women's hockey at this level:

The imbalance of talent in the women's hockey world has led to the North Americans holding dominance in the sport for quite some time now, with the Canadians having a silver from Nagano (1998) and three consecutive gold medals since the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

By comparison, their American counterparts have one gold (1998), two silvers (2002, 2010), and one bronze (2006) since the sport's Olympic inception in 1998.

Change the above numbers around to reflect Sochi, and you have yourself a pretty concise image about the whole situation.

Taking a look at the preliminary rounds, the Canadians and Americans for the most part plowed over their opponents and carried play for extended stretches, regardless of score. The one exception came when they played each other.

The State of Women's Hockey

There are only eight countries that qualify as "good enough" to send teams to the Olympics. There are the two North American powerhouses, Nordic countries Finland and Sweden, European countries Switzerland, Russia, and Germany, and one Asian country in Japan.

The score differentials are downright awful at points, and that was exemplified the other day when the United States swamped Team Sweden with a 6-1 blowout. Sweden, by the way, went on to blow a lead in the third period and fail to medal against the Swiss.

Team Finland has a goaltender in Noora Raty that is widely considered to be the best in the world at what she does, yet her team failed to garner more than two points in group play, and also went on to give up four goals in a third period against rival Sweden.

The general trend, however, remains that hockey in and of itself is a poorly publicized and popularized sport. Combine the fact that the women have substantially lower participation numbers overall both domestically and internationally in terms of playing the sport and we have a bit of an issue.

The IOC has never been favorable in terms of gender equality, evidenced by the fact that women were prohibited from ski-jump in the Olympics before this year, which also eliminated them from the Nordic combined. There still isn't a four-woman bobsled, nor is there doubles luges that are purely composed of two women.

According to Time Magazine, if hockey were cut, female athletes would lose 168 spots in the Olympics from eight teams with 21 players on each roster.

There is a lot of speculation about the "softball route" where women's hockey is concerned. Softball was an Olympic sport through the 2008 games in Beijing, after which it was cut due to the substantial global talent gap between the United States and other participating nations.

The argument is that while the North Americans are getting better, the talent gap continues to widen among other world countries. It's like putting plaster on a leaky ceiling. Eventually, the wall is going to have to be ripped apart and re-built after the leak is fixed.

However, the IOC's idea of fixing the ceiling was making sure that there was no leak to speak of in the first place.

What Happens Next?

The IOC put women's hockey on notice after the 2010 games in Vancouver, warning of the talent gap between North America and the rest of the world, and international depth of women's hockey had to rise in order for it to be a suitable Olympic sport in the spirit of the games.

While the IOC is reversing that position to the media after Sochi, one cannot help but think about certain examples of other sports in the games that contradict this concept of "too much dominance."

The Men's brackets, for instance, were never much different. For the longest of time, the Soviets were consistent winners and the Canadians were the architects. Together, they combined for sixteen of the eighteen gold medals in Olympic hockey, with 1960 and 1980 serving as the only exceptions (thank you, America).

This isn't any different than Norway dominating cross-country skiing or the Netherlands sweeping podiums and podiums of speed-skating events. The stance of figure skating at the Olympics hasn't changed one bit, despite the fact that Russians will almost always skate for gold or perish in the process.

What are we missing here, and why on Earth are we debating why we should remove one half of the Winter Olympics' signature sport?

For the record, these are the same Winter Olympics that lost out on ratings to the season finale of Dancing With The Stars back in 2006.

This shouldn't even be a debate. The sport will grow in time, but to cut ties with it altogether and not even give an opportunity for growth would be more than just a PR disaster.


There's always room for growth of the game, domestically and internationally, but women's hockey can and should be a thing. Sports have evolved into unregulated profit making machines and teams have their fans rung in like a cult. Women's athletics, by all stretches, receive far from identical treatment on all stages.

The gold medal game, however, proved otherwise. These ladies play the game the right way, they give it their all, and they create an inspiration for girls everywhere looking to find a sport to play. In essence, the game proved that hockey is indeed, well, hockey.

Boys of all ages have been given the opportunity to look up to professional athletes as role models, and the minute one of those professional male athletes harms his own social image, it's forgiven by the next heroic action on the field. Women don't get that same opportunity of forgive and forget. They have to be model citizens, and they have to play for themselves.

The Olympic hockey stage is about the only thing that keeps women's hockey in the loop, even if it does happen every four years. The Canadian-American hockey rivalry as great as any sports rivalry there is, regardless of gender or the outcomes of the games that are played.

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