TORONTO – The last day of the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit started with a discussion of women’s hockey and provided the crowd in Toronto with tremendous discussion and interest. The esteemed on-stage panel parsed observations made by keynote speaker Hayley Wickenheiser. Representatives included her American counterpart, Angela Ruggiero; American national team coach, Mark Johnson; Arto Sieppi, director of women’s hockey for Finland; Peter Elander, longtime head coach of Sweden’s national women’s team; and, Mel Davidson, Canada’s national team coach.
The message was unanimous in many ways and on many levels. The women’s game needs funding, needs development, and first and foremost, needs respect. “There is still a perception in many parts of the world that hockey isn’t for women, that women are best seen not heard, that they should be barefoot and pregnant,” Davidson said. “And these are views I heard last month in Vierumäki.”
Elander echoed these sentiments by pointing to the obvious: “We have to treat boys and girls the same at the grassroots level. Rule number one – hockey is not based on gender.”
Sieppi silenced the crowd when he told of how he got involved in women’s hockey in 1998. “I was asked to be an assistant coach with the national team, and I said no many times for two reasons: women can’t skate and women’s hockey players are not athletes. My wife convinced me to try it, and 12 years later, I don’t regret a single day. The development of women’s hockey in that time has been huge.”
Ruggiero told her story, a fairy-tale one by comparison. “I’ve been playing hockey since I was seven years old, in southern California, and it was because of family support that I was able to pursue a career in the game.”
From the grassroots level working up, Elander said, opportunity is the most important factor in improving the women’s game. “If you want more girls to play, you need them to have leagues to play in in their countries,” he stated.
Johnson, and later Murray Costello, made the most important observation of the day. “Getting girls to play hockey is not just about the Olympics; it’s about teaching life lessons.”
Costello, an IIHF Council member, promised added support for women. “We believe hockey develops character and makes people better, regardless of whether they get to the NHL,” he explained. “Well, 50 per cent of the world is women, so why wouldn’t we want to give the same opportunity to them as we give for men?”
On the more serious and difficult problems of improving the game at the higher levels, budget issues were, of course, a major concern. Said Elander: “I am a coach at the University of North Dakota, and our budget for the 24 girls is twice what my budget for Sweden’s national team is.”
To a man and woman, the panel agreed strong leadership is needed, both at the IIHF and within each federation. The game needs a person to give a dedicated voice to women’s hockey was the well-received consensus.
Sieppi has been a game-changer in Finland. He has tripled the number of girls in the country who play the game, and by adopting Hockey Canada’s hugely successful Girls’ Hockey Day he has given all of Finland a focal point. He announced that the national team will play 20 games a season for the next four years leading to Sochi, and it will centralize for the last year to further improve the country’s chances of winning another Olympic medal to follow on the heels of the bronze in Vancouver.
Passionate and effective, he looked out to the audience and declared: “This is a company. It’s not like Nokia, but it’s a company that’s going to the stock market. You are investors – buy that stock!”
“We’re just tapping the surface,” Johnson said of the quality of play in women’s hockey. “We have a great opportunity with so much positive momentum coming out of Vancouver. We need resources and opportunity. We need to expose the sport and give kids a chance to play.”
Davidson agreed. “We’ve been growing pretty quickly. If we work together, our game has no limits.”