China's dinged dynasty

Lack of progress reveals weakness in women's international hockey

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

This is everything you need to know about Olympic women's ice hockey.

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation website, there are 166 female hockey players in all of China. Despite that, the Chinese women's hockey team is ranked seventh in the world, and will take part in the Vancouver Olympics later this month.

As it was when the sport was added to the Olympic calender in 1998, women's ice hockey continues to be a two-team event. Canada and the U.S. are the only two powers. Don't believe those flower and sunshine reports about how the rest of the world is catching up. It's not happening.

If there was some promise 12 years ago that the sport might some day spread its wings internationally, it came with the news that the Chinese government planned to invest considerable sums of money to develop the sport. Chinese teams finished fourth at the 1997 world championships, as well as the 1998 Olympics, and the future appeared bright.

But somewhere, the wheels have fallen off.

KAZAKHSTAN RULES

Instead of improving, the Chinese program has deteriorated. China finished sixth at the 2001 worlds, seventh in 2004, eighth in 2008 and ninth last year, and was relegated to the B pool. China hasn't even won the last two Asian Games, that honour going to mighty Kazakhstan, a country with a grand total of 92 female players.

Some might argue that China's drop in ranking is the result of other countries emerging. Possibly, but when you look at the nations ranked directly ahead of China, Russia and Switzerland, neither has more than 800 female players.

Women's hockey was added to the Games because the International Olympic Committee was looking for ways to balance the gender numbers and hockey was an easy way to accomplish that. The supposed criteria for inclusion in the Olympics was that the sport be "widely practiced" in at least 25 countries. Women's hockey is widely practiced in two. (Forget about Sweden beating the U.S. in the semifinals at the 2006 Turin Games. The Americans outshot Sweden 39-17).

Instead of taking wing, there's evidence that the sport is regressing. It certainly has in China. Hockey continues to be an afterthought in The Middle Kingdom. It's like the panda bear, on the endangered list.

"At this moment, women's hockey in China is not at the same level as in 1998," said Chinese head coach Hannu Saintula, a Finn who coached his country's national team for seven years. "After Nagano, there were five women's teams in Harbin. But now they have only one team there."

Obviously, participation is a major problem, but there are other challenges, including money. Hockey is an expensive sport and while China is becoming wealthy as a nation, most families in the north can't afford it. Another problem is a lack of exposure. Saintula said that other than the Olympics every four years, there's absolutely no hockey on TV. "And also, the men's team (ranked 29th), is really bad," he added.

WIN OVER U OF T

Saintula has no problems with the resources he has been given to prepare his team for Vancouver. His team has played and trained in Canada for three months and another month in Finland.

In an exhibition game against the University of Toronto women's team Wednesday night, the Chinese more than held their own. Their skating and positioning skills were superior, as evident by assistant captain Sun Rui, who made a sensational move to step around a Toronto defenceman at the blue line to put China up 1-0. But size is clearly a problem. At one point in the 7-2 win by China, a shot from the point knocked the stick right out of the diminutive Chinese goaltender's hand. Size was something Saintula had to address when he was hired last year.

"It's probably not to good to say here, but they played too much the Canadian way," he said. "There are many Canadian coaches over there and I don't want to say that Canadian coaches are bad, but the quality of these girls is not the same as Canadian girls, and that's why we had to change it a little bit to more of a European way, with more skating and passing."

Saintula agreed that women's hockey needs China to improve if the sport expects to evolve as a true international event. There is some hope. A number of new rinks are being planned for Beijing. As for Vancouver, Saintula is hoping for a sixth-place finish, adding that a medal would be a "huge, huge miracle."

"We need a good show at the Games," added Chinese captain Wang Linuo. "Then people will see that hockey is a beautiful game."

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA

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