ZURICH – Almost 300 days ago, arguably the best women’s hockey game was played when Canada defeated the U.S. 2-0 in Vancouver to win the Olympic gold medal.
On the other side it became all too visible that the gap between the North Americans and the rest of the world hadn’t closed, which raised concerns and also a threat that the International Olympic Committee could start questioning the status of women’s ice hockey in future Olympics.
The events in Sochi 2014 and the 2018 Olympics could be defining for the future of the young sport that stepped into the big spotlight of the Olympics in Nagano 1998.
Since February 2010, much has happened behind the scenes. Women’s hockey was not only a topic at the World Hockey Summit in Toronto, it was also a hot issue for the IIHF Council and the Congress in September.
One major question was whether women’s hockey is progressing too slowly. A look in the history books can probably answer the question.
Men’s Olympic ice hockey tournaments were basically a Canadian affair until the Soviet Union started its hockey program and won the 1956 Olympics with its first participation. Of the seven prior events, Canada won gold six times and Great Britain once. The U.S. won the silver four times.
The scores were even more lopsided than women’s hockey in Vancouver, although Canada didn’t even come with its best players in the old days. The first Canada vs. Switzerland encounter in 1924 ended with a 33-0 win for Canada’s amateurs against Switzerland’s best players. It took 82 years until Switzerland was able to defeat Canada on the Olympic stage. It took a successful country like Sweden 64 years to defeat Canada in Olympic hockey.
Compared to the early days of men’s ice hockey, Canada and the U.S. women teams do come to the Olympics with their best players. That every gold medal game (except the Swedish sensation in Turin 2006) becomes a North American affair may not necessarily be the desired outcome, but it is a part of the natural process.
Still, with the pressure from the International Olympic Committee and with higher expectations from networks for more parity and excitement, there’s a strong wish to speed up the process.
The IIHF has been working with its member nations over the past twenty years to provide opportunities for women’s hockey to be played on an international stage. With the added pressure and expectation following the 2010 Olympics, additional resources have been approved by the council and the congress.
The IIHF’s Women’s Committee, which is responsible for recommending development programs, has undergone some recent changes that reflect the added urgency.
IIHF President René Fasel has taken over as the new chairman of the committee. The committee members represent Canada, Finland, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States as before, whereas Canada’s new member is long-serving national team coach Mel Davidson.
The addition of ad-hoc members has been approved and they will represent the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Japan, Norway and Russia.
The IIHF has also created a new staff position, the IIHF Women’s Program Manager, and has therefore hired Tanya Foley, who will concentrate full time on the women’s game. Foley, a former player and coach at University of British Columbia, worked for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) from 2005 to 2010 as a Divisional Coordinator and as an Assistant Manager for Ice Hockey.
This position will work closely with each nation to develop a plan of action that takes into account each country’s unique resources and challenges.
As announced at the recent World Hockey Summit in August, the IIHF has allocated 2 million Swiss Francs to the IIHF Women’s Hockey Program initiatives from the 2010-2011 season through to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. The IIHF will also waive transfer fees for female players and recommends its members to do the same.
An Athlete Ambassador program and Coach Mentor program will be initiated with previous Olympic/International event medal winners providing support directly to athletes and coaches of other nations.
In order to continue advancing the competitive level for the nations not involved in the Olympic Winter Games, it was agreed upon that an IIHF World Women’s Championship Program will be implemented for all divisions in the 2013-2014 season. That means that the World Women’s Championship will be played every year. Until 2010, it was not played in Olympic years.
A specific female recruitment program was developed and released in the summer of 2010 to complement the highly successful male program that provides information and materials for any nation to use to host a camp or a Girls Hockey Day. The materials have currently been translated into eight languages and recruitment camps or Girls Hockey Days have already occurred in six nations with many more planned next year.
Apart from the established IIHF events – the World Women’s Championship and the World Women’s U18 Championship at various levels, the European Women’s Champions Cup and the Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia – there will be a number of additional camps, tournaments and programs introduced:
- Coaching Symposium: An annual event hosted in Europe during the World Women’s Championship (Top Division or Division I).
- Under 18 Summer Camp: An annual event held at the beginning of July with participation from at least 12 nations (number of nations involved expected to grow as national programs develop for this age group). Coach and athlete mentors will be involved in this, and it will also be used as an opportunity to develop high-level officials. In July 2011, a senior camp will operate at the same time, so the younger athletes will have an opportunity to learn from and interact with the more experienced players.
- 2011-2012 Twelve Nations Tournament: An invitational international tournament to be held in four segments throughout the season developed to increase number of international games played by teams ranked third and lower.
- August 2012 Olympic Qualification: Additional opportunities for nations still involved in Olympic Qualification to be involved in the summer program with the six nations already qualified for the 2014 Sochi Olympic tournament.
- February 2013: Invitational tournament hosted in North America involving the six Olympic qualified nations plus two additional North American teams.
- Autumn 2013: An eight-team tournament will be hosted by the Russian Hockey Federation in Sochi for all teams qualified for the Olympics. This will provide an opportunity for all teams involved to have access to the same facilities as they will play at in the Olympic tournament.
- Autumn 2013: Hockey Canada and USA Hockey will assist other Olympic-qualified nations with organizing games against North American teams to allow for high-calibre competition in preparation for the Olympics.
When the IIHF Statutes and Bylaws will be reviewed in 2012, it is planned to increase the roster for the World Women’s Championship from 18+2 to 20+ 3 players in the Top Division (19+3 for Division I and lower) to mirror the numbers on the men’s side.
To have tighter games, teams outside of North America need to improve. While this is an ambitious goal for Sochi 2014 (to develop new world-class players takes more than three years) the long-term goal must be to increase female registration, accessibility and ice time for women’s teams.
Sochi 2014 can become an indicator, but the long-term goals of these measures will be seen in about ten years.
The action taken by the IIHF is a first step and a strong signal, but in the end it needs the commitment within each country from the national associations with regards to funding, camps and recruitment programs, and their clubs’ desire to bring women’s hockey to a next level.
“There needs to be more opportunities for young girls to play the game. Hockey is a sport that you generally need to start playing early to be able to reach an elite level, and women’s sport in general is faced with the challenge of overcoming cultural norms,” Tanya Foley says.
“By increasing the number of players, the better the chances are of having a strong national team. As well, a national team needs the chance to play against other countries and other teams of similar or better calibre in order to continue to improve.
“The recommendations that came out of the committee meeting will lay a solid foundation for a new global focus on creating more opportunities for girls to play the game and look to the long term future of the sport.”
Only if the message comes through the whole pyramid of international ice hockey and reaches the grassroots level and the clubs can women’s hockey grow faster than it has done in the past.
“With the additional media access in today’s world, the women’s game seems like it is struggling, but it is really just going through the growing pains of any new sport,” Foley explains.
“Canada and the U.S. were the first two nations to provide significant funding, respect and support for the sport and its athletes, and strong leadership and coaching so they have gained an early lead. If, or I should say when, the other nations start to do the same or more, they will start to gain ground and the gap will only exist in history books.”