Women’s hockey has been an Olympic event since 1998. As a professional sport, women’s hockey has struggled, slowly gaining acceptance in universities and high schools around the world. The “NHL” of women’s hockey is the Olympics, yet that may be in peril.
The problem is lack of competition.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) dumped softball from the Olympics recently, giving women one less high-level venue for their sport, citing a lack of competitive balance. Like in softball, no other country comes close to Canada and the United States in the women’s hockey game. That disparity was glaring at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, where the North American powerhouses outscored their opponents 86-4 on their way to the gold-medal game. Canada beat the Americans to win its third straight gold medal; the two teams also have played in every final at the world championships.
Some countries have a “medieval approach to the women’s game”, says Michael Trailos at the National Post.
IOC president Jacques Rogge warned in Vancouver that “the rest of the world has eight years to catch up or women’s hockey could face the same fate.”
Yet, one would think that “the best way to inspire future players and encourage national federations to devote resources to the women’s game is through major events like the Olympics,” says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
But it takes time — and commitment, former U.S. women’s soccer star and Hall of Famer Julie Foudy said.
Foudy said that players from other countries often told her that it was the 1999 women’s World Cup that convinced their federations to spend the necessary money to develop a competitive team. At the Rose Bowl, the 1999 World Cup in the U. S. drew 90,185 people, setting a record for attendance at women’s events.
“That was the catalyst. They saw this event and said, ‘Wow, why aren’t we doing something with our women?’ That’s not a one-off story, that happened all the time,” Foudy said. “The Olympics have this incredible opportunity to provide a window of exposure to these sports. Sure, maybe they don’t have hundreds and hundreds of countries playing. But when a little girl is watching that and they pick up a hockey stick because of it? You have to say, let’s keep these.”
In 1995-96, there were some 19,000 girls and women playing hockey in Canada, and more than 82 percent of those were playing in Ontario. There were even more American females playing hockey than Canadian females in the 1995-96 season. USA Hockey’s female participants have grown fourfold since 1990.
“My own view is it’s very important to support women’s hockey, to maintain its presence at the Olympics. The way women’s hockey will get bigger and better around the world is if there’s an inspiration of excellence that people can strive for,” Bettman said at the Beyond Sport Summit, event designed to celebrate, promote and drive forward sport-led social change.
“I think it would be a huge mistake for the IOC … to consider doing anything that diminishes the role of women’s hockey.”
Canadian national team coach Mel Davidson said, “If not anything, people are talking about it. Women’s hockey needs to be talked about. Overall, let’s get excited about it and create this opportunity.”
What’s next for women’s hockey?
Hayley Wickenheiser, the four-tine Olympic medalist, is talking with the NHL about a professional women’s league that would feature five to six teams and attract top-end talent from all over the world. That would at least give women in European countries an opportunity to continue playing. Wickenheiser is constantly working to provide mentoring opportunities for young athletes and is currently planning an international women’s hockey festival in Burnaby, BC, in late 2010.
Women’s professional sports are dismally supported. Hopefully, women’s hockey will continue to flourish in other countries besides Canada and the US.