COLUMN | Every once in a while a reporter for a competing news organization asks a question so knowing, so intuitive and altogether brilliant at a postgame news conference, nothing but a doffing of the cap will do.
Alas, that did not happen Monday at Shayba Arena.
Instead, a Sam Donaldson wanna-be from the French press news agency wanted to blow the lid off women’s hockey, expose the sport for deigning to have just two dominant teams after the Olympic tournament semifinals. Because Team USA and Canada had the audacity to convincingly beat their foes on their way to another gold medal matchup, he asked U.S. Coach Katey Stone whether the two powers are “doing enough” for the future of the game.
Imagine, for a moment, Nick Saban’s response after being asked whether he was “doing enough” for college football after Alabama beat Arkansas by eight touchdowns? Or Geno Auriemma’s contorted face if he had to answer whether the Connecticut women were “doing enough” after beating Providence 105-49 last season?
Or, in the spirit of the Games, let’s just ask the German luge coach if he is “doing enough” for his sport, considering four of the five greatest multi-medalists of all time are from Deutschland.
“Of course, it can be a problem for the world’s hockey to be so powerful,” Leif Boork, Sweden’s assistant coach, said after his team’s 6-1 loss to the Americans. “But, on the other hand, it’s something to look up to. It’s not U.S. and Canada’s fault for being good.”
He later confessed he had been on the job just four months, adding, “So I don’t know about women’s hockey.”
I feel bad for Team USA and Canada, bitter rivals who despite trading fisticuffs in the run-up to the Games have been forced into a mutual kinship: They’re supposed to apologize for the rest of the world for not catching up.
I feel worse for Julie Chu, who is playing in her fourth Olympics and has mentored and coached thousands of young hockey-obsessed girls in that time. So ultra-committed she once deferred her admission to Harvard to compete in Salt Lake in 2002, Chu has won everything but the gold medal denied her three, soul-wrenching times. She should feel bad about trying to win big this time around?
It would be one thing if Katey Stone and her players voted to make women’s hockey a part of the Winter Games; they did not. The International Olympic Committee did. And because network advertisers and the IOC don’t have the patience they did when the U.S. and Canada used to drub teams 20-0 in men’s hockey — before that sport became genuinely competitive among many nations after the 1950s — there are rumblings of getting rid of it.
I asked Chu if it would eat at her soul if women’s hockey went the way of softball, ceasing to be an Olympic sport by 2018.
“Absolutely,” she said after the U.S. beat Sweden, advancing to the gold medal game for the fourth time since 1998. “The reality is if women’s hockey ever got pulled out of the Olympics, the trickle effect is going to be huge. Not just on the Olympic level, not just on the international level, but we’re going to feel it at our NCAA level in the States, and we’re going to feel it in the growth of our girls.”
“The growth was huge after ’98, because hockey was a visible sport that young girls saw and said, ‘All right, maybe I can actually play that versus going to the more traditional sports.’ I grew up playing soccer.”
She went on, saying she actively campaigns for the rest of the world to catch up to Canada and Team USA.
“We’ve got to have a bigger-picture mentality about the growth of our game,” Chu said. “A lot of people say: ‘Julie, you realize that you’re trying to build up other countries so they beat you? And — at the end of the day — yes. I’d rather have (1) women’s hockey in the Olympics and (2) eight great teams in a field that anyone can upset anyone else.”
But what do you do when the rest of the world actually gets better, yet your nation improves even more rapidly? Sweden shocked the U.S. women in 2006, coming back from a two-goal deficit in the semifinals before winning a shootout. I hate the term “settled for bronze,” but plain and simple that’s what Team USA did in Turin.
Now, eight years later, they incredibly outshot the Swedes 70-9, including a blistering 47 shots in the first 32 minutes. Amanda Kessel, who now has three goals and three assists to nearly match her brother Phil’s seven points with the men’s team, scored. Jocelyne Lamoureux assisted on her sister Monique’s goal. The goalie who stoned them in 2006, Kim Martin, came in after it was 5-0. There was nothing she could do.
The Americans are on a mission — maybe, for the first time since 1998 in Nagano, a golden mission. The lone holdover from the past three Olympics, the woman with three medals but no gold, deserves a shot to stand atop the podium with more pride for finally beating Canada at the Games than guilt over how much better her team is than everyone else’s.
“Absolutely in the sense that we want to win, we want to be the best in the world,” Chu said. “[But] at the end of the day I’m also a big believer that process and journey is everything too. The end result is not the end-all, be-all. I would hate to think that the joy, the excitement I’ve experienced the last four years is wasted whatever happens one way or another.
“We’re going for a different color this time around.”
Incidentally, Stone did answer the reporter’s question. Her sound reasoning was that because other nations didn’t grant scholarships or field college teams that more nations needed to send their best women’s players to America for education and excellence in women’s hockey. She added, facetiously, that they also could renege on those scholarship offers now and see how that worked out.
For a coach whose most important job is to help her team hurdle the mental and physical barriers needed to finally beat Canada at the Games, Stone showed incredible restraint — the kind of restraint we all need to show while women’s hockey gradually grows a game worth keeping as an Olympic sport.