After a 2010 tournament that saw Team USA and Canada run roughshod over their competition before participating in a thrilling final in Vancouver, the International Ice Hockey Federation devised a new competition format for the women’s hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics.
For this year’s edition of the competition, the top four teams in the world rankings, Canada, the United States, Finland and Switzerland, were all put in Pool A, while the next four teams, Russia, Germany, Japan and Sweden, were placed in Pool B. Each pool had a round robin competition, with the top two teams in Pool A getting automatic berths in the semi-finals.
The change was made to increase the level of competition between both pools, and for the most part, it worked nicely. The U.S. and Canada had an excellent game in the preliminary round, and the quarterfinals yielded some surprising results as Switzerland upset the host nation of Russia, while Sweden knocked off the heavily favored Finns to advance to a date with the U.S.
Unfortunately, once the semi-finals began, the competition got a bit more unbalanced, as the United States racked up 70 shots en route to knocking off Sweden 6-1. Meanwhile, the Canadian side got all it could handle from the Swiss, but eventually prevailed to advance to a gold medal rematch against Team USA.
The result of those two games means that for the fifth time in five Olympic tournaments, either the United States or Canada will win gold in women’s hockey. The U.S. won the inaugural tournament in Nagano in 1998, while Canada has won the last three, including the 2010 edition with a 2-0 victory over the American side. In fact, there’s only been one other time that a non-Canada/U.S. team has even made the gold medal game, with Sweden doing the honors in 2006 while the American women won bronze.
Naturally, this dominance between the two teams has brought some critics out of the woodwork in saying that women’s hockey should no longer be an Olympic sport. There is no real movement within the IOC to make that happen as of right now, but one has to wonder how much patience the governing body will have with the sport, as it has shown a penchant in the past for eliminating newer sports like softball that are dominated by certain teams.
Even certain athletes are getting fed up by the domination on the international level. 24-year old Finnish goaltender Noora Raty, who stymied the United States to a large degree during the preliminary round, actually retired from women’s hockey during the competition, but she did offer an interesting solution to the problem:
“In fact, I don’t feel that women’s hockey can grow or get any better in the future if the USA or Canada don’t get a professional league started soon. That is the next critical step that our sport needs to take or our sport will never be respected like it should be. Asking players to work full-time and then training like a pro athlete at the same time is just too much and unfair.”
In fact, there is a women’s professional hockey league in North America: the CWHL. There are only five teams in the league, including a franchise in Boston, but the league doesn’t get much exposure, and many of the top athletes in the sport compete at the NCAA level in the United States, but not any further.
If the future of women’s hockey is going to be secured, then it would be a prudent idea to either start a new league, or to expand on the current CWHL. A good starting point for that kind of expansion would be to partner up with the NHL in much the same way that the WNBA has been boosted by the NBA. Former NBA commissioner David Stern did a lot of work over the years to not only prop the new league up, but eventually to make into a modestly successful entity that is allowing some of the best players on the planet to show their stuff.
If any women’s league is going to work, then they would likely need the backing of the biggest hockey league on the planet to do it. After all, multiple women’s soccer leagues were started following the wild success of Team USA at the 1999 Women’s World Cup (who can ever forget Brandi Chastain’s celebration after scoring the winning goal?), but since they weren’t partnered up with a major media outlet or sports league, the efforts to gain traction have been largely futile.
With the popularity of teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild in their respective markets, piggy-backing on their success by starting new women’s hockey franchises in those cities would be a great place for the CWHL to start. Minnesota especially is a hockey-mad state, with several top tier collegiate programs on both the men’s and women’s sides of things serving as testament to their voracious appetite for hockey.
In addition to taking advantage of those types of hockey hotbeds, adding teams in those areas would be good for minimizing travel between the cities. With squads in Montreal, Toronto, and Brampton all within close proximity, adding more teams to the Northeast and Midwest would not only make for a good close-knit group of squads (with Calgary really being the only outlier), but it would also ensure that the new league could get maximum exposure with minimum travel expense.
When push comes to shove, profitability (or the lack thereof) may be enough to quash any thoughts of an expanded or new North American women’s hockey league. Of course, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has shown a penchant in the past for ignoring what would be profitable in favor of what he feels would be right (as he did in keeping the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona), so this could be another opportunity for him to seize an opportunity to grow the game.
All in all, Raty is right when she says that a professional league is needed for women’s hockey to really take off. All of the groundwork is there, as teams are certainly improving in areas like defense and goaltending, but if the hockey world really wants to put the match to the powder keg of women’s hockey, then a professional league will be needed to really create a spark.