Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010

Will the Olympics Drop Women's Hockey?

The final seconds ticked down, and the arena was set to break the sound barrier. Canada's women's hockey team, up 2-0 vs. the U.S., was on the verge of winning its third straight Olympic gold medal, one that would shine even brighter since it would be delivered before a delirious home crowd. As the horn sounded at Canada Hockey Place, the team charged goaltender Shannon Szabados, who pitched a brilliant shutout against the States. Her left glove should be enshrined in some Hall of Fame: it stopped shot after American shot and never really gave the Yanks a chance.

The victors dropped their sticks, tossed their helmets and formed a primal pileup near the net. "I think I was one of the last ones [on the pile]," says Canadian forward Caroline Ouellette. "So I probably hurt the ones underneath, 'cause I'm quite heavy." She laughs and continues. "The adrenaline is pumping, and you're so proud, I'm sure no one felt anything."

The Canadian celebration was a flood of raw emotion, the kind of giddy victory party the Olympics are all about. But will women's hockey see many more of these joyous moments down the road? The problem facing the sport is simple. Right now, it's essentially only a North American game. Combined, the U.S. and Canada outscored their opponents by a ludicrous 88-4 composite score in the tournament. A few of the preliminary-round results looked like football scores. Canada beat Slovakia 18-0; the U.S. walloped Russia 13-0. "There were people laughing in the stands," says Jessica Mendoza, a former U.S. Olympic softball player who watched the Feb. 16 U.S.-Russia game.

On the same morning that the two archrivals faced off for the gold medal, IOC president Jacques Rogge put women's hockey on notice. "There is a discrepancy there. Everyone agrees with that," Rogge told reporters on Thursday, Feb. 25, speaking about the talent separation between North America and the rest of the world. (This IOC criticism of hockey is legitimate and credible. Its complaint about Canadian hockey players sipping champagne and smoking stogies on the ice after their win is silly — lighten up, guys.)

Although Rogge noted that women's hockey is still a relatively young sport on the Olympic program — it debuted at the 1998 Games in Nagano — and needs time to grow, he also issued a stern warning. "We cannot continue without improvement," he says.

Given the IOC's treatment of softball, a women's sport dominated by a single power, the U.S., women's hockey should be worried. Softball was cut from the Olympics in 2005 — its final Olympic games were played in Beijing in 2008 — and recently lost a bid to be reinstated for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. IOC members cited a noncompetitive field as the driving factor in its decision. Hockey is safe for the Sochi games in 2014, but if North America wipes everyone out again, the sport's future on the Olympic program will surely be in serious jeopardy.

Even before the hockey controversy, the IOC had clearly shown that gender equality is not its strength. Women already can't ski jump in the Olympics, which shuts them out of two events: ski jumping and the Nordic combined. There's no four-woman bobsled or doubles luge competitions. (Technically, doubles luge can be co-ed, but since heavier sleds travel faster, it's a de facto men's club.) If hockey were cut, female athletes would lose 168 spots in the Olympics, since there are eight teams, with 21 players on each roster, in the tournament.

Losing so many spots would be a public-relations disaster for the IOC. "What frustrates me is, you want to see U.S.A. go out, kick some serious butt and put the pressure on the other countries to step it up," says Mendoza, who is now president of the Women's Sports Foundation and is in Vancouver doing blog reports for Yahoo! Sports. "It just reminds me of softball, and I started thinking to myself, I bet you people are saying, 'Why are you beating people so much? It hurts the sport.' It almost brings tears to my eyes. Isn't this what the Olympics is all about? You work your butt off, you go out, and you dominate."

What steps must other countries take to catch the U.S. and Canada? The biggest discrepancy between North America and the rest of the field is resources. In reaction to Rogge's comments, Swedish coach Peter Elander said the budgets of the North American teams are "eight times" higher than Sweden's and that the U.S. and Canada spend twice as much time training together. "Why isn't the Czech Republic here with a team?" asks Ouellette, the Canadian player. "They have such a good team on the men's side, but they don't have a women's team." Ouellette cites Russia as another disappointment. She coached a player from the country during her two years as an assistant at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "They have nothing," she says. "Right now, all the funding goes to the men's side."

IOC member Richard Pound, a Canadian, notes that in the early days of the men's hockey tournament, only a few teams were any good. Canada, for example, won six of the first seven gold medals awarded from 1920 through 1952. "You've got to get these teams together playing," Pound says of the women. "You know, it's easy for us in Canada and the States — we're right next door, teaching each other how to play." Pound preaches patience: "The levels will rise. It will come."

Wishful thinking, perhaps? Players and officials insist that the teams outside North America have improved — though it's hard to seriously believe that a team like Slovakia, which lost 18-0, is making positive strides. "They're getting better," says Ouellette. "But so are we. So instead of the gap shrinking, it stays the same."

Ouellette dreads confronting a day when women's hockey leaves the Olympics. "It would be so sad," she says. "We train so hard. We'd be the first ones to love to have more close games here, but it's not like that right now. We can only control what we do." And being too good may cost her.