Posted by Katie Peverada
After the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the President of the International Olympic Committee, Jaques Rogge, threatened women's ice hockey with elimination. Apparently, people were growing tired of watching the U.S. and Canada duke it out for the gold medal, having faced each other in three out of four finals since the beginning of women's hockey at the Olympics in Nagano in 1998.
This year's final, of course, was no different, as the U.S. and Canada squared off once against last Thursday in Sochi for the first spot on the podium. Uh oh, not again, right?
Wrong. The game proved to be the best of the tournament, as Canada won in overtime, coming back from a 2-0 deficit with under four minutes to go in regulation. The game made a statement: women's hockey is here to stay.
A few days before the game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasal, held a press conference in which they addressed the words of Rogge. Both men are important figures in the world of ice hockey, and both agreed that women's hockey was here to stay. But they shouldn't have to say it at all.
The critics don't think it's fair that these two teams keep winning the medals at the Olympics (and at the annual World Championships), outscoring and outshooting their opponents by monumental numbers. For example, the U.S. beat Sweden 6-1 and outshot them 70-9 in the semi-final.
But do they even watch other Olympic events? The speed skating powerhouse that is the Netherlands took home 23 medals, even sweeping the podium in four events. And since 1980, Germany has taken home 55% of all gold medals in the luge, and Russia has taken 54% of the gold medals in figure skating.
Do they even know the history of the men's hockey tournament at the Olympics? Men's ice hockey began in 1920, with Canada facing the U.S. in the first-ever gold medal game. Canada won that match, and the next four, meeting the U.S. three out of the four times. And it's not like the games were close. In 1920, Canada outscored their opponents 27-1 and the runners-up scored 29 goals in their quarterfinal match. Sound familiar? The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" wouldn't have been so politically and socially important if the Soviet Union hadn't just won four gold medals in a row. Nobody complained about that dominance. The IOC waited it out and let the other countries catch up. It gave the other teams in the tournament time to catch up to the traditional powerhouses.
Luckily that's what the IOC and IIHF have realized they need to do with the women's tournament.
The women's game needs time to grow. This was only the fourth women's ice hockey tournament in the Olympics. In 2013, there were 87,230 female ice hockey players registered in Canada and 65,700 in the U.S. Finland had a respectable 4,787, and Sweden and Germany both topped 3,000. Those numbers appear decent, but when compared to the 66,636 male players registered in Finland, or the 64,214 men of silver-medal winning Sweden, it's clear: there aren't a whole lot of women playing ice hockey, yet.
The U.S. and Canada are doing their jobs to build the game off the ice, spending time and money by sending coaches to these countries to help infuse the game. And the progress is evident, as Finland, Sweden and Switzerland have all proved in the past year that they can give the U.S. and Canada not only a hard game, but also a loss, often on the strength of strong goaltending. The best goaltender in the game, Nora Raaty, is from Finland, and several other European goalies play in the collegiate ranks.
But even if they weren't doing that work off the ice, their game on the ice would be enough to keep the game around.
Anybody who watched the heart-stopping, heart-breaking gold medal game saw not just the best women's game of the tournament, but also the best hockey game of the tournament. There was an unforgettable Canadian comeback from 2-0, a hit post that would have brought the gold back to the U.S. and questionable calls that gave Canada the game-winning power play and made Marie Philip-Poulin the hero for Canada the second Olympics in a row.
The U.S. women were left in tears, inconsolable and appearing ungrateful for their silver medals. Their four years of hard work and passion to get to the big stage was for nothing. They left their humanness on the ice, something fans can respect and the men can learn from.
Unlike the men's game, there is no coasting like the "show" the U.S. men put on in their embarrassing bronze medal game loss to Finland. The women's bronze medal game between Switzerland and Sweden was riveting.
Unlike the men's game, there is nothing else. There is no Stanley Cup or multi-million dollar deal to go back to. This was it.
Taking away the one moment for the women to shine and show how good they are would be nothing short of a crime. The Olympics is it for them. If the women's ice hockey tournament disappeared, the best-played hockey of the Olympics would be gone. The fights that (literally) take place whenever Canada and the U.S. square off will never get old.
And as Bettman and Fasal noted, the parity in the women's game is not far off. People just need a little patience and soon they will see the passion from more than just the U.S. and Canada. There will be other dogs in the fight.