Women's Olympic hockey may be full of blowouts, but it shouldn't be done away with
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
VANCOUVER, B.C. The United States and Canada have mowed their way through the women's hockey field like the custom cutters who harvest wheat each year from Texas up through the plains to the Great White North.
And everyone is in a dither about it. This will mean the death of women's hockey as an international sport, they say, because of the beatings that are being administered by both teams. No one is actually suggesting the North Americans pull their punches -- well, someone did suggest it, asking U.S. Coach Mark Johnson after one blowout if there should be a mercy rule in women's hockey. Johnson's answer: No.
To no one's surprise, the U.S. women advanced to the gold medal game Monday, if not by blowout, at least convincingly, with a 9-1 victory over Sweden. Canada beat Finland, 5-0, for the other gold medal game berth.
In three games each in pool play, the two powers combined to outscored their opponents, 72-3. The U.S. victory Monday gave it a 40-2 margin of victory in four games. So how do China, Switzerland, Slovakia and Russia justify continuing to fund women's hockey, only to come to the Olympic to be routed?
"Women's hockey is growing," said Kerry Weiland, who scored her first goal of the Olympic tournament Monday in the third period for the United States. "We're improving across the board. I think it would be tragic to have it out."
The softball players said much the same thing not too long ago. The U.S. team thumped opponents and totally dominated most of their games -- the Australians were usually the exception -- in winning gold medals at the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Games. In 2008 the Americans finally met their match in the Japanese and had to settle for silver. But it was too late. The IOC voted to remove softball from the Olympic program, and the international federation has failed so far in its efforts at reinstatement.
But certain countries have traditionally dominated certain Olympic sports, and the IOC hasn't seemed that concerned about it. The Netherlands holds sway in long-track speedskating, but Japan, Korea and China are rising even as countries such as the United States are falling back. Nordic combined was on the original Olympic program in 1924. Norwegians swept the medals in 1924, 1928, 1932 and 1936 -- and no one suggested dropping the competition because one country had won all 12 medals. (The United States kept plugging away, and just 86 years later, it had its first Nordic combined medal!)
The German women dominate luge: They've won 29 of 39 medals awarded in the sport since it was added to the Olympics in 1964, and they swept the medals in 2002 and 2006. An Austrian managed to sneak onto the podium somehow this year. The Austrians used to dominate women's downhill skiing -- at their peak, they swept the medals in 1964 -- but other countries caught up. They've won one medal in downhill in the past four Olympics, including this one.
And so on. The point is, the rest of the world needs time to catch up. U.S. softball officials sent players all over the world to try to spread the game, and I believe it was working before IOC officials pulled the plug. In fact, the IOC needs to move slowly for several reasons. Gender parity is not legislated in the Olympics, of course, but the IOC should be careful about eliminating women's team sports, which would further unbalance its participation numbers. And the Euro-centric group also should make sure it's not eliminating only sports in which North Americans excel.
Sweden and Finland, runners-up in their respective groups, have made great strides in women's hockey. Sweden upset the U.S. women's hockey team four years ago in Turin in a shootout in the semifinals, denying fans the expected U.S.-Canada showdown for the gold medal. In fact, Sweden has slowly built itself into the No. 3 power in the sport, with a fifth-place finish in 1998, a bronze in 2002 and silver in 2006.
Of course, it can't be pleasant to be on the receiving end of one of these beat downs. In a 12-1 victory over China, the U.S. team took 61 shots and faced just seven. In a 13-0 blanking of Russia, the Americans took 34 shots and again faced seven. In a 6-0 win over Finland, they took 42 shots and faced an absolute barrage -- of 23.
Hannu Juhani Saintula of Finland, who coaches the Chinese women, said the drubbing by the United States was instructive.
"Without this game, we can't learn anything, and it's a good lesson for us how to learn ice hockey," he said. "It's a good lesson for us on how to play in our own end. We can't practice that. I'm really proud of my girls because they fought."
Valentin Gureev, coach of the Russians, knows he will have to have a team ready for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia; as the host nation, his team will receive an automatic berth.
"Today it was a game of two teams who have different skills," he said. "In Russia, women's hockey just started. We have a big problem in Russia women's hockey; there are just six teams."
That is a problem not dissimilar to having what seems like just two teams in the Olympics. But here's hoping the IOC gives the women's game a chance to catch on. In the meantime, it seems unfair to penalize the best competitors in the game simply for being the best.
Or to put it another way: There would have been no Miracle on Ice without the Russians.