Women’s hockey safe but ‘we have more to do’
SOCHI, Russia – International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel makes it clear that there is no doomsday clock counting down on the future of women’s hockey at the Olympics.
“We will stay, we will stay, there is no doubt,” Fasel told USA TODAY Sports.
Women’s hockey’s Olympic future seemed hazier four years ago in Vancouver when a series of non-competitive, blowout games prompted public discussion of whether the sport was truly Olympic-worthy. The USA and Canada were the only countries with strong programs.
The news media speculated that it might follow the path of women’s softball and end up ousted from the Games, particularly after then-International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said, “We cannot continue without improvement.”
Fasel responded by putting together an eight-year plan to make the sport more competitive, and the IIHF work already has paid off with closer, more competitive tournament in Sochi.
“There have been some good matches and we are very pleased,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, isn’t it? You have to get into the program for the sport to develop and it’s clearly happening. ”
MORE: Canada beats USA 3-2
In 2010, Canada won its first three games by a combined score of 41-2. In 2014, a total of 41 goals have been scored in the first nine games of the eight-team tournament.
“Oh my gosh, (the caliber of play) is not even close to what we saw in Vancouver,” said NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire, a former NHL coach. “Finland has really made improvements. Switzerland has made improvements. I’m really impressed by the tenacity of the Japanese.”
In the first 10 games, four games have been decided by one goal, and one was a 4-3 overtime win by Finland against the Swiss Wednesday. The Americans beat the Finns by a 3-1 count, and Canada’s score win against the Finns was 3-0.
“We will get there — I promise,” Fasel said. “The gold medal will probably be played between USA and Canada, but we have interesting competition for the bronze. You could have Finland, Sweden, Russia, Switzerland and maybe even Japan.”
In previous Olympics, Canada and USA seemed two steps ahead of Sweden and Finland, which seemed two steps ahead of the rest of the field.
“I think we need to be patient,” said USA coach Katey Stone. “There have been tremendous (strides) made in the sport of women’s ice hockey and I think we should talk less about “what if the gap’s big” vs. how do we continue to close the gap. I think it is closing. You look at all these teams. They have strong goaltending and the players are much better in front of them than they ever have been before.”
USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean also believes the chances of women’s hockey going away are “extremely remote.”
“It’s the only true women’s team sport in the Winter Olympics,” Ogrean said. “It must constitute a significant percentage of the female athlete positions in the Winter Games. And because of the new grouping, and the work of the IIHF, we have seen better competitive balance in just four years.”
In the short term, the two most important changes: altering the preliminary round format to group stronger teams together. That change eliminates some early round blowouts without costing top teams any advantage.
As important, the IIHF has placed heavy emphasis on goalie training in countries with developing teams.
“We said we have to have good goaltending because that is the key to a good team,” Fasel said. “When you have a good goaltender, you can stay in games. The old saying is a good goalie is 60% of a game and bad goaltender is 80% of the game.”
USA and Canada continue to have quality goaltending, and now Noora Raty (Finland), Florence Schelling (Switzerland) and Nana Fujimoto (Japan) are all considered world-class goalkeepers.
“We are hoping that PyeongChang will be even more competitive than Sochi,” Fasel said.
Another issue for women’s hockey is a lack of participants in many countries. According to Fasel, Canada has 80,000 registered female players and USA has 60,000.
“I would say Finland is next and they have 5,000,” Fasel said. “And Switzerland, it’s just under 2,000.”
North American players have more opportunity, because of the growth of high school and college hockey. “In Europe, girls struggle to play,” Fasel said.
Fasel said the IIHF put $2 million into improving the women’s game after Vancouver.
“My dream is one day going from eight to 10 teams and then another dream is to go 12 teams in the women’s hockey tournament,” Fasel said.
However, the big question is how long it will take before one of the developing teams is strong enough to challenge Canada or the USA.
“I don’t know, and I know journalists don’t like that answer,” Fasel said. “It took Switzerland 60 to 70 years to beat Canada in men’s competition. In the 1920s and 1930s, we had double-digit losses all the time when we played Canada. I don’t think it will take as long for the ladies as it did for the men.”
Women’s hockey is still in its infancy in terms of organized international competition. The IIHF didn’t start sanctioning a world championship until 1990, and it became an Olympic sport in 1998.
“It really takes time to build,” Fasel said. “To build up a good hockey (program), it takes 20 years.”‘
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