I have long been a fan of women’s ice hockey, going back to the 1998 USA Women’s Gold Medal winning team at the Nagano Olympics. The first female hockey player that I ever became a fan of was USA netminder Sarah Tueting, the young lady who backstopped the USA women to the first ever Olympic gold in women’s hockey. Since that time I have followed the women’s game with much enthusiasm, and have had the opportunity to attend some of the women’s tournaments on the international scene.
Much of last week I spent my time in St. Catharines, Ontario for the 2016 Women’s U-18 World Hockey Championships. And I loved every moment of it! I even brought my mom along with me to the Czech Republic vs. Canada game in front of a raucous, pumped-out Canadian crowd.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing that I noticed throughout the tournament is the disparity that still exists between the top two nations, USA and Canada, and the other countries who compete in the sport. To be blunt, after USA and Canada, no other team even comes close. At the start of every international tournament and every Winter Olympics, it is known that either Canada or USA will be taking home the gold medal while the remaining teams fight it out amongst themselves for bronze.
I am troubled by this for two main reasons. Firstly, though I am an American, I was rooting for Team Czech Republic for the entire tournament, as I know one of the young players on the Czech team personally. I attended each of the Czech Republic’s games, including their heart-wrenching losses of 6-0 to USA and 11-0 to Canada; my heart broke for my friend and her teammates at the hands of that 11-0 loss. So I will admit that I am biased, and wanted the Czechs to perform well and at least medal.
Secondly though and perhaps most importantly, for the sake of women’s hockey, we need to see another nation rise to the forefront and give Canada and USA a run for their money. And on an ongoing basis. It worries me that interest may lost in the women’s game if it is always the same two nations winning and nobody else even comes close. Kind of what happened with Laili Ali in women’s boxing. Nobody cares about women’s boxing anymore because no one could be Laili Ali, and the interest in the sport fizzled out.
Now obviously there is more to it than that. These young women are playing for their countries, and no matter what the outcome, competing for their own nation is the greatest accomplishment in sport, and it is not something that can ever be taken away from an athlete. These young ladies also love the game of hockey, and if you love a sport as much as these athletes do, you play and compete for it regardless of whether you win or lose. This is why the game will go on and why even if USA and Canada win every time there is something to say for the hearts of all of the young athletes who participate in this game. For me, being a true enthusiast of the women’s hockey, my interest will never falter either as I simply love the sport.
But for the casual fan, will he or she tire of always seeing the same two nations win? This is what concerns me for women’s hockey in general.
So why the disparity after all this time? One would think that between Nagano in 1998 and today’s game in 2016 that the playing field would have evened out to some extent. It has not, and I cannot figure it out.
I surmise that it might have something to do with the size of the athletes. Looking at the majority of the young ladies who suited up for USA and for Canada in the tournament, they look more like grown women, while the athletes of the other nations appear more their age, if not younger. More muscle, more strength for the Canadians and Americans can transfer over to controlling the game and maintaining better puck possession for the entire three periods; something that the other nations were not able to do. I definitely noticed a drop-off in the third periods of each game when Canada and USA were not missing a step, while the other teams looked tired and were merely holding on. More muscle also allowed them stronger, faster skating which enabled USA and Canada to reach loose pucks more quickly and with greater ease. Not to much that they could skate from point-A to point-B faster as well.
But this was the only real difference that I could discern. All of the teams, especially Czech Republic, practiced hard, fought hard in the corners and in front of their own nets, worked hard from the first second of play until the last, and played their hearts out for their teammates and their countries. I love cheering for underdogs, so it is my sincere hope that all of these efforts by teams who are NOT Canada and USA will eventually payoff and the tide will turn. If you follow MMA at all, perhaps I am hoping for something similar to Holly Holm (finally) serving a defeat to Ronda Rousey and changing the sport forever. Like Rousey, right now USA and Canada seem unstoppable. But it cannot last forever.
Will there come a time that another nation dethrones USA and Canada? For the sake of women’s hockey, I hope so. For my sake, I hope it is Czech Republic!