|"I was really disappointed to step off the ice (after winning the gold) and hear the first question is 'Does women’s hockey belong in the Olympics?'" said Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, who was a keynote speaker at the summit Thursday. (DAVID BLOOM/QMI file)
TORONTO – Women’s hockey, even here in Canada, sits in purgatory with luge, skeleton and biathlon in non-Olympic years.
Much of the hockey-consuming public cares only when Team Canada is playing for gold – okay, in other words playing the USA at the Olympics – and cares not a whit about the women’s game for all but those few days every four years.
Truth is, the women’s game is important to the mothers and daughters and sisters who live the game every day and have as much passion for it as their fathers or brothers or husbands.
For the stakeholders in the game – many of whom are here at the world hockey summit – to ignore the women’s game is to ignore a growing constituency, though one which at this point wields an embarrassingly small amount of power.
What power the women’s game does have is largely related to its position as an Olympic sport. Women’s hockey at the highest level was at a bit of crossroads after Canada’s gold medal win at the Olympics, when IOC president Jacques Rogge fired a shot across the bow because of the precipitous falloff from Canada and the USA to the rest of the field (Canada outscored its preliminary round opponents 41-2 and the USA, 31-1).
"There is a discrepancy. Everyone agrees with that," Rogge said. "This may be the investment period for women’s ice hockey. I would personally give them more time to grow but there must be a period of improvement.
"We cannot continue without improvement."
"I was really disappointed to step off the ice (after winning the gold) and hear the first question is 'Does women’s hockey belong in the Olympics?'" said Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, who was a keynote speaker at the summit Thursday.
"Even walking down the street here in Canada, I get asked. It’s exhausting to answer it every day. It’s a goal of mine: I don’t want to hear the question in Sochi (in 2014)."
The International Ice Hockey Federation, which, if you can believe it still doesn’t have a person whose responsibility is the women’s game, did make a positive move Thursday with the announcement it has earmarked $2 million to help improve the women’s game.
The focus for the immediate future will be to help nations ranked 4-10 in the world to improve and hopefully address Rogge’s concerns about the competitive imbalance.
"They had no choice. They had to do something," said Wickenheiser of the IIHF’s move. "It’s a good statement on their behalf. They’re showing they care. But they’re right. The federations have to take it from there."
There’s a problem right there.
Outside of North America and the Scandinavian countries, the support for women’s hockey is almost non-existent. It’s cultural. It’s systemic.
Wickenheiser said she ran into Vladislav Tretiak, the president of the Russian ice hockey federation, in a bar.
"He said women don’t want to play hockey in Russia and I told him, 'Yes, they do.' They have 300 players and that’s better than nothing," said Wickenheiser.
Fact is, things aren’t going to change in some countries until there’s a change in generations.
Finland is being aggressive in trying to improve, taking best practices from Canada and the U.S. There’s a push from Arto Seippi, the director of women’s ice hockey in Finland, to centralize their U18 team in the runup to Sochi.
For those who care about the women’s game, it will be interesting to see how much the gap can be narrowed before 2014. The future of women’s hockey in the Olympics depends on it and whatever relevance women’s hockey has depends on its participation in the Olympics.
So when Wickenheiser walks off the ice in Sochi, what’s the question she wants to hear?
"What happened to women’s hockey," she said, "to have such a competitive tournament?"