Playing catch-up
by Andy Potts|15 FEB 2022
Participants from Switzerland and ROC talk about catching up with the North American teams.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Once again, it’s USA vs Canada for Olympic gold in women’s hockey. And, absorbing as that great rivalry continues to be, questions about how and when the rest of the world can catch up remain valid.

There has been much to enjoy from the competition in Beijing. The emergence of the Czechs as a strong nation, Japan’s on-going progress, Denmark’s first victory at the Games and China’s encouraging performance as host nation all spring to mind. Then, of course, there’s the continued excellence of the North American teams, who drive standards ever higher.

However, the gap is undeniable. Although Europe’s strongest nations are capable of making life harder than ever for the Canadians and Americans - witness the battle Finland put up against the defending champion in the semi-final this year - defeat for the world leaders is still a sensation. So what makes the difference, and how can the rest of the world get closer?

Practise with the best
For Switzerland’s head coach Colin Muller, hoping to lead his team to bronze when it faces Finland on Wednesday, it’s a question of levels. Put simply, when women play in North America, they face the highest level of competition on a regular basis. In Europe, meanwhile, the talent pool is smaller and domestic leagues struggle to match the relentless intensity that makes Canada and the USA so hard to beat.

“We can’t read the game fast enough and thus we create our own problems,” Muller said after losing to the Canadians in the semi-final here in Beijing. “We don’t find the simplest solutions [in the game] but that’s because we can’t play at the level of Canada.

“During the season, our players don’t have the opportunity to practice and play at this level in a league. In Switzerland, they have two or three seconds with the puck to decide what to do; here, our wingers hardly have a second to think. We lose the puck because we’re too slow in the battles.”

However, Muller also sees reason for hope.

“It’s a learning process,” he added. “It is a great learning experience to play at this level and hopefully it makes us better. We played much better with the puck [in the semi-final] than in the first game against [Canada].”

Results back that up: a 10-3 beating on Monday is lopsided, but a big improvement on the 12-1 loss in group play. Notably, it was the first time any team other than the USA scored three on Canada in Olympic play – another small but measurable step forward.

Team ROC captain Anna Shokhina, meanwhile, cut a frustrated figure after her team lost to Switzerland in the quarter-final. For her, as for Muller, part of the problem is a lack of exposure to international opposition, especially at the highest level.

“I think the steps we are taking are too small to develop women’s hockey,” she said. “I’d like to see better conditions for progress. We need more tournaments, especially internationally. In December we were due to play against the USA, but it didn’t work out – and that’s happened a few times in the past as well. Personally, this was my first international tournament for about a year. It’s hard to come to the Olympics and perform in these circumstances.”

Paying the bills
Finance is also an issue. Most European leagues are semi-pro at best, meaning even Olympic athletes are obliged to take on other work to pay the bills. Czech goalie Klara Peslarova performed heroics against the USA in the quarter-finals but after moving to Sweden to play for MODO, she also works in a local store in Ornskoldsvik during the season. Russia has a professional league – and several teams are playing under the umbrella of a KHL club, including defending champion Agidel Ufa, last year’s runner-up KRS Vanke Rays and the championship newcomer from Chelyabinsk. That can offer greater stability and has attracted some leading European players to the competition.

But things are still precarious for many teams – and therefore, for many players. “If you know the situation in Russia, even in an Olympic season the 'Ice Wings' team could not play the whole campaign,” Shokhina said, referring to the Yaroslavl club that withdrew from the competition last month due to financial problems. “How can we talk about developing women’s hockey in those circumstances?” 

And financial constraints are a concern for Muller as well as he looks to keep talented youngsters in the game despite knowing that it will cost them significant sums to develop and play at an elite level.

“We have five or six young players who have real talent, but have to improve physically,” said the Swiss head coach. “If this team stays together for the next two or three years, we can practise more and maybe reach a new level.

“But if we lose players, it will be another new beginning.

“And the women’s game is not like the men’s. Nobody is earning 500,000 a year. Our players have to give up a lot to be on the national team.”

While women’s hockey has made great strides in the 24 years since it joined the Olympics in Nagano, it is clear that more investment will make a huge difference when it comes to building on that progress.