Tomorrow marks the end of the women's hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics, with Team USA and Team Canada battling it out for the gold medal... as they've done so many times before. Four times, to be exact, four out of the five Olympic Games since women's hockey was added to the schedule back in 1998 (with multiple skirmishes in between).
One of the more underrated rivalries in sports, the bitter matchup between the American women and their neighbors to the north has intensified over the years, as the two teams have repeatedly clashed on every international stage. It's a rivalry borne partly out of mutual talent, partly out of familiarity and partly out of the fact that, at the moment, they stand alone together atop women's hockey as its two best teams - by a long shot. And it's because of this dominance (and the lopsided wins that accompany it) that some have started to question whether women's hockey should continue as an Olympic sport.
It wouldn't be the first time that such a gap in talent cost the Olympics a women's team sport. In 2005, the IOC decided to cut softball from the Olympics after Beijing, citing a non-competitive tournament that had seen just four teams share the medals (with the US taking three of the four golds) in the four Olympics since its inception in 1996. Five years later, after watching more lopsided victories by the US and Canada (and another gold-silver finish for the pair) in Vancouver, then-IOC President Jacques Rogge stated simply that "[w]e cannot continue without improvement".
IIHF President Rene Fasel has come out strongly in favor of keeping women's hockey in the Olympics for the foreseeable future, and in an effort to do so the IIHF has dedicated millions of dollars since the Vancouver Games to building up hockey programs around the world. Whether that will ultimately be enough to keep it in the Olympics long-term remains in the hands of the IOC - but there's no question that keeping women's hockey as an Olympic event is the best thing for the sport, and the only way to maintain the momentum that has built up in recent years.
Hockey on the Rise
Hockey as a whole has been growing every year over the past decade, and while the largest number of hockey players (in general and specifically women) is focused in North America, other countries are starting to see relatively large increases in their own right.
The registration numbers from 2003 and 2013 tell the tale. Setting aside the massive discrepancy between registered players in the US and Canada compared to the rest of the world, it's interesting to see how women's hockey has increased compared to ten years ago. Countries like the Czech Republic, Russia and Norway have seen their female hockey player ranks more than double; Austria, Finland and Sweden have all experienced around 50% increases. And Hungary's hockey registration has almost quadrupled in ten years.
More hockey players don't necessarily equal more talent, but they do indicate a greater level of interest and commitment in growing the game - which in turn translates to a strong hockey program.
A History of Lopsidedness
Despite this growth, there's little doubt that the US and Canadian women's teams have been on another level from the rest of the field over the years. From the introduction of women's hockey to the Olympics in 1998 to the completion of the Vancouver games in 2010, Team USA outscored opponents 133-22; Canada, 150-22. Take out the games in which they faced each other, and the ratio gets even more absurd, dropping to 127-14 for the Americans and 140-10 for Canada. The two teams have a combined Olympic record of 35-5 (with all but one of those losses earned head-to-head).
Peppered throughout those games were any number of double-digit goal totals for the North American squads, putting up 12, 16, 18 goals and allowing one or two a game (if that). Ugly.
That said, this isn't exactly unprecedented territory for hockey. When the game was first introduced as an Olympic sport back in 1920, the Americans and Canadians put up scores that would rival those of NFL games. In their first outing of the Antwerp Games, the USA scored 29 goals - 29 - en route to their shutout victory over Switzerland. The Canadians were a bit more conservative in their debut, squeaking out a victory over Czechoslovakia by a 17-0 margin; they would go on to win the gold medal without allowing a single goal, the Americans taking silver with their only goals-against courtesy of that Canadian team. The bronze-winning team? The Czechoslovakian contingent, which scored just one goal in the entire tournament.
Calling those early years lopsided would be an understatement, and it took a long time for things to start to even out. It was 16 years before a non-Canadian team won gold in men's hockey; another 28 years would pass before all three teams on the podium represented countries outside of North America. But the sport survived, and thrived, as a part of the Olympics. Even almost a century later, there is still room for growth, as we saw this year with Slovenia taking their first steps onto Olympic ice... and making it to the quarterfinals.
That's a huge deal for a team with just one NHL representative on their roster, a team of which nothing was expected - and it serves as further proof that if you give the sport enough time to grow, other countries will catch up. Even right here in the States, one only has to look at the emergence of hockey players from so-called "non-traditional" hockey markets to see that, given time (and a few timely heroes), hockey can grow anywhere. The men's game has been allowed to grow; just five Olympics into their journey, the women's game deserves the same chance.
An Uphill Climb
According to Fasel, it can take twenty years to grow a good hockey program. It's not just a matter of having that time, however - it's the patience to grow it from the ground up, to invest in it and to cultivate athletes who love the sport. For men, that can be a tough process; for women, it's often even harder, as the access to programs and commitment to funding is rarely found on the same level as it is for men - an obstacle for women in North America, to say nothing of those outside of this continent.
In an interview with ESPNW back in April, Brian Burke talked about the growth of women's hockey - not just in North America, but around the world - and why it's an uphill climb:
When Canada plays anyone besides the U.S., it's normally a lopsided beating and the same when the U.S. plays anyone other than Canada. So the biggest challenge facing women's hockey is to get some of these other nations to commit funding to development. It takes money; it's an expensive sport. Ice time costs money; equipment costs money; all-star teams, where you put together the best players and travel, that costs money. And we need more countries to commit more dollars to women's hockey so there is, in fact, a field of teams that can compete.
[The question isn't] how do the American and Canadian programs get better; it's how does their competition get better.
For some countries, this is the biggest obstacle: money. Having a pool of athletes willing and able to compete at the international level isn't holding them back; it's the commitment (or lack thereof) by their respective countries to fund their pursuit. It's an issue that is playing out as we speak in Germany, where 12 of the team's 20 women are currently sponsored by the German Ministry of Defense... and may not be any longer after failing to finish at least sixth in this year's tournament.
It's the reality of the life that female athletes live, and is part of a vicious circle. In order to improve, you need support; in order to get that support, and keep it, you need to improve. But without the Olympics, even the little bit of funding received could disappear - worth noting that of the 12 German women receiving sponsorship before these Games, six of them were added only after the team qualified for Sochi.
It's also fairly telling that some of the game's best players, regardless of nationality, come to the United States to play for college teams. Among the most notable is Finland's goalie phenom, Noora Raty, who recently graduated from the University of Minnesota (and was part of the Gophers' ridiculous and historic 62-game winning streak, which was snapped back in November). For many women, the only avenues available to them for continued growth are in North America. In order to be competitive, they need to receive the same level of training and face the same level of competition as their American and Canadian counterparts... and at the moment, the only place to find those things is in the US or Canada.
Even with the availability of North American collegiate programs, the road for women in hockey can only go so far. Raty will retire after the Games, a prime example of a star stepping off the international hockey stage just as she was emerging for exactly that reason - and a reminder that the Olympics still serve as the only showcase for the game's biggest stars, particularly for their compatriots back home.
Growing Tomorrow's Stars
Despite such obstacles, women's hockey is growing every year, and creating stars who are becoming, if not household names, at least more recognizable to those with a passing interest in hockey.
Led by goaltender Florence Schelling, Switzerland held the dominant Canadians to just three goals in their semifinal match on Monday, and while they weren't at the same level as Canada quite yet, they didn't appear to be grossly outmatched, either. And Japan, hardly considered a hockey power for men or women, came into this tournament and proceeded to put up some very respectable scores behind their netminder Nana Fujimoto - including a tight 1-0 loss to Sweden, a team that will play for the bronze medal tomorrow. And Finland has a star in net in Raty, the woman who engineered an upset win over the Americans at last year's Four Nations Cup and has been stellar throughout the Olympics.
That's not nothing. Growth takes time, and patience, and a willingness to stick with it. Slowly but surely, though, the rest of the field is getting closer together; little by little, the gap between the North American teams and the rest of the world is starting to shrink. Just eight years ago in Torino, the Swedish women orchestrated an upset over the Americans and became the first non-North American team to compete for gold. They were the first, but will not be the last if the rest of the world is given a chance to catch up.
Advocating for the removal of a sport from the Olympics simply because one or two teams has dominated over a relatively short period of time is a flawed argument, and one that's certainly not applied equally to other events (particularly men's events). The dominance of the Dutch in speed-skating or the Austrians in skiing should have been enough, using this criteria, to eliminate those long ago. And no one seems to have a problem with USA basketball winning medals in 17 of the last 18 Summer Olympics (14 of which have been gold), the lone non-medal year being the 1980 Moscow Games... which the US boycotted.
The fact remains that women's hockey is growing - but it needs help. A sport can't grow if people don't have access to it, and for many young girls (both in North America and abroad) the Olympics is their only chance to see women playing hockey. The men of the NHL or KHL or any other league can be role models for anyone who loves to play hockey, but as is the case with so many groups, whether it's gender or race or sexual orientation, it's easier to identify with a sport when you see people like yourself participating.
So many of the women on today's North American teams identify players like Cammi Granato and Hayley Wickenheiser, Angela Ruggiero and Cassie Campbell as the reason they started playing - the women who made the 1998 Olympic debut such a riveting moment in hockey history.
Seeing the game played out on the biggest sports stage inspired a new generation of hockey players. Let them continue, and perhaps the next Amanda Kessel or the next Meghan Agosta isn't American or Canadian but Swiss, Czech, Swedish, Japanese. Perhaps the next great Finnish goalie will point to Noora Raty as her inspiration, the next great goal-scorer remembering when Japan scored its first Olympic hockey goal in 16 years.
Because ultimately what matters, what inspires, and what will bring about the next generation of stars, is getting a chance to see the best women in the world compete for Olympic gold - regardless of what jersey they're wearing when they do so.