There is no doubt, there have been major strides made in the development of women’s hockey. One needs to look no further than last year’s World Championship where Switzerland skated in its first-ever medal game, or where China stunned Germany in the final minutes to avoid relegation.
Yes, the playing field is starting to even out. But it takes only one look at the standings to see that the Women’s World Championship gold medal chance is still a two-team race between North American powerhouses USA and Canada. The bronze medal race is similar between Finland and Sweden.
That’s the bad news. Now for the positive side.
What used to be predictable outcomes in both the gold and bronze medal games, are now up for grabs between the four dueling nations.
Consider that Canada rattled off eight consecutive World Women Championship titles between 1990-2004 before the U.S. finally beat their northern foe in 2005.(Note: the event is not played annually). Virtually the same was true of Finland, which won seven bronze medals before Sweden shook up the standings.
Now, both the Americans and Swedes have shown that they are here to stay.
The U.S. had a major hiccup at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, the controversy about leaving veteran Cammie Granato off the roster dogged the Americans throughout Torino, and they seemed to take a U.S. - Canada final for granted. Along came the Swedes with other ideas, beating the U.S. in the semi-final for the first Olympic podium shake up in women’s hockey.
The Americans licked their wounds and bounced back from the Torino lesson. Recent American rosters have featured a younger group. The change of focus has paid off, as the U.S. has won two of the last three World women’s titles and also has earned the gold medal at both the U18 World Women’s events.
Both U.S. gold-medal victories were by one-goal margin, including a shootout win in Sweden in 2005, but nevertheless, it has provided some much-needed parity at the top of the standings.
The bronze medal picture is a mirror image of the golden one. Sweden and Finland have long been geographic rivals and can almost always be counted on to be at the same level of development in the women’s game. But after years of Finnish domination, the Swedes have broken through.
Much like the Americans, the breakthrough came in 2005, when on home ice, the Swedes won their first-ever World Women’s bronze medal. Sweden followed up in 2007 with a second bronze.
And while it may not sound exciting to say, at last the two individual medal races are truly anyone’s game as the quality of hockey between the top four nations is on par with one another.
So what about the other five countries at the World Women’s?
There’s a lot of promise. Switzerland proved that last year, and don’t forget that Russia even won a bronze medal in 2001. More encouraging is the parity between the teams finishing between 5th and 9th place as most final decisions are by two goals or less. Also a promising sign is the ability of these nations to compete against the perennial powerhouses. Last year in China, only one game was decided by double-digits, a far cry from the early years of the Women’s World Championship.