The Future Looks Bright for Women’s Hockey

Women’s hockey took tiny steps forward on the road to parity at the 2011 women’s world hockey championships. Host Switzerland was within an overtime goal of reaching a semifinal. Russia, the host of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, played for a medal for the first time in a decade.

Finland made Canada sweat in a preliminary game and for half of a semi-final. The Finns know what they have to do to beat Canada one day. Their strategy, however, requires a goalie who can make 50-plus saves and some lucky goals on the few chances they get.

The top three countries from the 2010 Olympics stayed top three. The U.S. earned revenge on Canada for the loss in Vancouver by beating them 3-2 in overtime in Monday’s final. The Finns took the bronze.

The gap between the U.S. and Canada and the rest of the world is a chasm that will not be bridged in time for the next Winter Olympics.

“I really believe you’re going to see minor changes for the next four years, but the next four after that is when you’ll see the biggest change,” said Melody Davidson, who coached Canada to back-to-back Olympic gold medals.

The 12-0 and 13-1 scores that draw criticism of women’s hockey won’t be eliminated by 2014. Canada and the U.S. have built a huge lead on the rest of the world in the 21 years since the first women’s world championship in player numbers and player development.

Other countries can’t hothouse talent fast enough to catch them by 2014 because it takes eight to 10 years to develop an elite hockey player.

What women’s hockey has going for it now, and what it didn’t have prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, is the desire by powerful hockey people to make the game better.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge did female hockey players a favour when he said after the Vancouver Games that the women’s game had to become more competitive.

The IIHF launched its four-year, C$2.1-million plan “Women’s Hockey to Sochi 2014 and beyond,” at these world championships with a coaching symposium involving 23 countries. The next step of that plan is mixing players and coaches from different countries at a camp in Bratislava, Slovakia, in July.

A key component of the IIHF’s plan targets female players at the under-18 level because they are the ones who, if nurtured properly, can close the gaps in the future.

“The challenge isn’t the people here. It’s who is filling the spots below,” Davidson explained. “Where those 12 and 13 year olds are right now and where they will be in four to six years, is when I think we’ll see real depth.”

Davidson was among the speakers at the symposium. Now Hockey Canada’s female scout, Davidson gave a presentation on what Canada did in the four years heading into the 2010 Olympics.

She conducted another session on coaching the female athlete. Tanya Foley, the IIHF’s new director of female hockey, says Russian coaches were seen patting their players on the back more after that session.

The NHL has hired former WNBA executive Val Ackerman as a consultant to study how it can help women’s hockey. Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke says his club has struck a task force to do the same.

Federations are hiring staff to run female hockey programs. Sweden recently appointed former Olympian Maria Rooth as head of women’s hockey.

“Now the IIHF, the NHL, all the federations are thinking about how we can develop this game,” said U.S. defenceman Angela Ruggiero, who is on the IOC’s athletes’ commission. “There’s been strides, but it’s only been a year. I don’t think expectations should be too high just yet.”

Countries such as Kazakhstan, which was relegated to the second-tier world championship, simply have to get more females in the game. The IIHF says there are currently 86 women registered with Kazakhstan’s hockey association.

Canada, with over 80,000 females playing, and the U.S. with over 60,000, have huge feeder systems other countries currently can’t match.

The IIHF is providing recruitment materials to federations as part of its plan. Until more women get into the game in Europe and Asia, expect to see the North Americans out in front for some time.

“If you took an individual sport, maybe you’d see big strides in four years, but you’re talking about a whole team,” Ruggiero pointed out.

“There are social differences here we’re battling, not just a difference in style of play. Women aren’t allowed or encouraged to play hockey in other parts of the world. They might have an outstanding men’s team, but they don’t have the same support on the women’s side.”

Ruggiero says she’s using her position on the athletes’ commission to educate IOC members about what is going on in the women’s game.

“I think real hockey fan understands development take time, but it’s completely possible with the right amount of investment,” she said.