TORONTO – Canada’s women’s captain, Hayley Wickenheiser, opened the final day of the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit with a keynote speech which accentuated the gap between North America and the rest of the world in women’s hockey. And then she offered solutions to ensure her career continues with greater purpose after Sochi.
She began at the obvious starting point, referencing IOC president Jacques Rogge’s comments from Vancouver in which he demanded a closing of the gap in quality of play. “I look at his comments as a positive,” she began. “It might be why we’re here today.”
Wickenheiser showed a video clip of women’s hockey over the last 20 years, from the inaugural World Women’s Championship in 1990 through to the 2010 Olympics. As she pointed out, the increase in quality of play and skill was staggering.
But it’s only a general overview. Specifics offered both optimism and pessimism. Finland, she noted, has tripled participation in the last three years, thanks in large part to the efforts of Arto Seppi, a full-time director of women’s hockey with the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation.
But Wickenheiser pointed to the incredible discrepancy in domestic league play among the top teams in the women’s world. Some leagues play only ten games per team; others 66. All players outside the top four hockey nations also say that their domestic leagues play a game of far inferior quality to the international game, making development even more difficult.
She shared a brief conversation she had with Uwe Krupp, coach of Germany’s men’s team. She asked why funding for the German women’s team has virtually dried up. He said the team hasn’t been winning. Get a winning team and the funding will come. That is what’s called Catch-22. The less the funding, the lesser the chance of success.
Russia, she noted, also spends no money on women’s player development, and Switzerland is right there near the bottom. Only seven of the top 14 women’s nations have an executive on the national and federation level dedicated to women’s hockey.
“It’s just not good enough,” Wickenheiser concluded.
“We need more exhibition games for the national teams. The U18 championship is only three years old, but the level of competition at that level is closer than at any other level of women’s hockey, so the future looks bright,” she offered by contrast.
Wickenheiser proposed specific solutions to the various and many problems. “It’s clear Canada and the U.S. and the IIHF should lead the way, but it’s up to federations to help,” she began. “We need leadership. We need to change societal values. We need to grow the game at both the grass roots level and improve the quality of play at the elite level as well. We have to keep players in the game. So many women, after they graduate and have nowhere to play, simply leave the game. We need more money and more exposure. I think we can use the World Juniors as a model. Look at the U20. When it first started, it was small, but in Canada it has become one of the biggest hockey events every year.”
Detailed solutions? Wickenheiser was intelligent in her observations. “We need to increase the opportunities in North America. By that I mean, we need a professional league in North America that stands as the best in the world where players from all over North America and Europe can play.”
“We need to have women play more games against boys’ teams. This will improve the skill level immensely, as we found out prior to Vancouver. We also have to have all top nations planning for Sochi, so that the tournament is as good as it can be.”
More important, Wickenheiser repeated a theme consistent all week in the men’s discussions – coaches. “We need more quality coaches in the game all over the world. Coaching is the key to development.”
Challenging the IIHF, she continued: “We need the IIHF to hire someone dedicated to women’s hockey whose only job is to provide a voice for the women’s game. We need to take action now. The game has come a long way, but we have a lot more to do still.”
During the follow-up question and answer period, Murray Costello, an IIHF Council member, revealed details of a Council meeting held the day before the Summit began. “I’m here to tell you that our president, René Fasel, is here, as is the general secretary, Horst Lichtner, and Sport Director Dave Fitzpatrick, and we are listening. We have committed $2 million to women’s hockey. It still has to be passed through Congress, but we are listening. However, we can’t do this alone. The work has to start at home. We need the national federations to come to us and tell us they are ready to move forward. But we have listened to you today. We have heard, and we are impressed. And we are here to give our support.”