25 years ago, women joined the Olympics
by Andrew Podnieks|08 FEB 2023
Petra Vaarakallio was the first woman to score a goal in Olympic ice hockey in Finland’s opening-day win against Sweden at the 1998 Olympic Winter games in Nagano.
photo: IIHF Archive
The date 8 February 1998 is a cornerstone of the women’s ice hockey world, for it was on that day that the first three games of the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament, the first ever for women in the sport, were played at the Aqua Wing Arena in Nagano, Japan.

The first game, which started at noon local time, saw Finland beat Sweden, 6-0. The first goal was counted by Petra Vaarakallio, who beat Annica Ahlen with a shot at 8:35 of the first period.

A great deal had happened in the decade before that goal and game, and an even greater deal has happened in the ensuing quarter century.

Before 1998. Well, you have to go back eleven years, to 1987, when Fran Rider and the OWHA organized the first Women’s World Championship. Amazingly, Rider and the OWHA are still going strong in 2023, and they are behind the hosting of the Women’s Worlds in Brampton, just north of Toronto, this coming April. 

The 1987 tournament was an invitational event only in the sense that teams were asked to play and those that could manage the finances travelled to Toronto to play. Canada had two teams, one called Canada, the other Ontario, for players only from that province. Other teams included the United States, Sweden (the team sponsored by the Maple Leafs legendary defender Borje Salming), Switzerland, Japan, and Netherlands. 

All games were played at the Centennial Arena, which has more recently been re-named Herb Carnegie Centennial Centre, and games consisted of three periods of 15 minutes. Each team had to play two games in a day at least once, and in the end it was Canada beating Ontario, 4-0, to win the top prize. The trophy was called the Hazel McCallion World Cup, to honour the long-time mayor of Mississauga who was a lifelong player and supporter of the game and who died less than two weeks ago at age 101.

The success of the tournament, and Rider’s tireless entreaties to the hockey world in the months and years after, prompted the IIHF to introduce women’s ice hockey as an official event starting in 1990. That event, the first official IIHF Women’s World Championship in Ottawa, was also a spectacular success and had much support in USA’s Walter Bush Jr. The IIHF pushed the IOC to make women’s ice hockey an Olympic event. It didn’t happen yet for 1994, but four years later it was full steam ahead.

The Canadians were massive favourites heading to Japan, having beaten the Americans at each of the first three Women’s Worlds (in 1990, 1992, and 1994), but it was the U.S. that won gold with a shocking but dominant 3-1 win in the final game.
The players from the United States celebrate with their gold medals after beating Canada in the final of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.
photo: IIHF Archive
And in the 25 years since that historic win, women’s hockey has only gotten bigger, better, and stronger. Consider that in 1998, there were only six teams. That became eight in 2002, and the IIHF went to ten teams for the Women’s Worlds starting in 2019. The 1997 WW and ’98 Olympics also marked the start of annual competition, and although the top level of the WW wasn’t held in Olympic years, that, too, has changed as of last season. And, in 2008, the IIHF added a U18 tournament for women, vastly improving access to competitive games for teenage players looking to find a path to the Olympics and the top-level Women’s Worlds.

The greater the number of teams and tournaments means greater representation and greater visibility, which, in turn, means greater success in recruiting and retaining ever greater numbers of players. But as important as these factors, the extraordinary improvement in skill is what has kept women’s hockey going. At a 2010 Hockey Summit organized in Toronto as a look back at the Vancouver Olympics, Hayley Wickenheiser explained how the game had grown simply by showing video highlights of each tournament from 1990 to 2010. It was mind blowing how the players had developed their skating and shooting skills, how goalies had become positionally stronger, how tactics had created a more polished game. In 2010, the players from 1990 looked, well, not that good in comparison.

If Wickenheiser were to do the same now, we would also see an incredible difference between 2010 and 2022 – and not just with players on the North American teams but throughout the top teams in Europe and beyond – Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Czechia, Japan, and more. 

In the 1997/98 IIHF season, the only women’s hockey was at the Olympics. That meant 120 players in total played an IIHF women’s game that season. A year later, there were 16 teams (eight in A Pool, eight in a newly-created B Pool). In the current 2022/23 IIHF season, there will be a total of 73 teams playing across the senior and U18 Women’s Worlds, a total of 1,460 roster spots for women. From 120 to 1,460 – that is incredible. Including the lower divisions, the IIHF now ranked 44 countries as part of the IIHF Women’s World Championship program.

Of course, naysayers will point to the continued dominance of the North Americans. This cannot be entirely refuted, but the counter to that is to look at several meaningful results in the last few years. Finland beat Canada at the 2019 Women’s Worlds to play in the gold medal game, which it almost won as well. And at the U18, Russia beat Canada in 2018. Just last month, Sweden beat the U.S., 2-1, to make it the gold medal game. And time will tell the significance of the just-completed 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World CHampionship, but even with Canada’s gold win and the American upset, literally the main thing people were talking about was the emergence of Slovakia’s 14-year-old super prospect Nela Lopusanova. That has never happened before, but it is without question correct to say that as Connor Bedard looked very much like the future of men’s hockey at the World Juniors a few days earlier in January, so did Lopusanova for women’s hockey at the recent U18 Women’s Worlds.

The future of the women’s game started 25 years ago today. And a new future starting today looks brighter than ever.