Women's Hockey: Sweden Gets Bronze!

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Team Canada celebrates their 3-2 gold medal victory over the USA

Before a second of women's hockey was played in Salt Lake, the gold and silver medallists were decided. No, we're not talking about a judging scandal. It's just that there were only two remotely plausible scenarios in a competition that featured the U.S., Canada and six also-rans who had no serious shot at gold. In the first, the U.S. would continue its pre-Olympic domination of the Canadians — the Americans had won all of the last eight meetings — and successfully defend their 1998 gold medal.

The other outcome went something like this: The Canadians, winners of every world championship since Nagano, would outshoot, outplay, outpass, and outscore their nemesis. At the end of the third period, they would throw their helmets in the air, their sticks on the ice, and launch themselves onto goalie Kim St.-Pierre in a wild celebration of Olympic victory.

That's what happened. Despite referees calling more than twice as many penalties against the Canadians (13 to 6), the U.S. was unable to capitalize on the resulting power plays. For an excruciating minute and forty seconds toward the end of the first period, Canada lost two players from the ice — and still the U.S., playing at full strength, couldn't make good. The final score, 3-2, left the Canadians jubilant and the U.S. women looking like they were at a funeral.

But we digress. The point is, there was never any doubt that Canada and the U.S. would have a ridiculously easy time getting to tonight's battle. The Canadians pitched a shutout in their three preliminary matches, blanking Kazakhstan 7-0, Russia 7-0 and Sweden, the eventual bronze medallists, 11-0. The U.S. gave a similar spanking to the early-round opposition, beating Germany 10-0, China 12-1 and Finland 5-0.

Sure, Finland gave Canada a scare in their semifinal, leading 3-2 before Team Canada woke up and answered with four goals to win. But it will still take "a couple more years of development and improving" before the Finns can threaten for gold, said Canadian star forward Hayley Wickenheiser. Her head coach, Daniele Sauvageau, was diplomatic about the opposition and said women's hockey was going "in the right direction."

And it is: Until 1999, Finland had a perfect record at the world championships in bronze medal matches (it goes without saying that the U.S. and Canada faced off for every gold). But since then, Sweden and Russia have each beaten the Finns for bronze, signaling an improvement in at least two other European women's programs.

But the president of Canada's Hockey Association, Bob Nicholson, was not satisfied going into these Games. He told the Ottowa Citizen in early February that if European countries didn't close the gap there were real concerns for future of the women's game. "Canada and the United States have put a lot of effort and money into women's hockey," he said. "But each country has to do it. The International Ice Hockey Federation has to see to that. We need Finland, Sweden and Russia. They have improved, but not to the degree we have in North America."

Indeed, Swedish Olympic Committee chairman Stefan Lindeberg was so disheartened by his women's team's poor showing in pre-Olympic competition (they were on a losing streak since the spring of 2001) that he considered withdrawing the team from the Games. "To go to the Olympic Games and just lose is no fun," he said in November. A month later, when the Swedes decided to send the team, Lindeberg sent the women a clear message: "We're not sending a bunch of tourists to the Olympics but a squad of players thinking of a medal," he said. The Swedes' coach, Lars Karlsson, said the losses had been instructive — the Swedes had been playing top-ranked teams (the U.S. and Canada) and were better prepared for Olympic competition.

Canadian Geraldine Heaney, the grande dame of women's hockey who has played on each of Canada's seven world championship teams, said after tonight's game: "Women's hockey, it's gotten so much better… Every country has improved 100%. It was nice to see Sweden get a bronze medal. They were talking about not even showing up." Perhaps if more funding shows up for the Swedes and other non-North American teams, we'll see a real tournament four years from now in Turin.