Women's hockey ready to face scrutiny again

The Canadian Press Vancouver 2010

VANCOUVER - When Canada's women's hockey team opened the 2006 Olympics with a 16-0 win over host Italy, hockey personality Don Cherry shamed them on national television.

''To run up a score like that, that is wrong,'' said Cherry. "It is not the Canadian way.''

The women shook off that comment en route to the gold medal. It wasn't the first time they'd been criticized for being good at what they do.

And it won't be the last.

Canada opens the defence of their gold medal Saturday against Slovakia, the 11th-ranked women's hockey team in the world making its Olympic debut. A lopsided score would once again open the door for those who believe women's hockey shouldn't be in the Olympics.

A national newspaper columnist recently called women's hockey ''an intramural competition between the same group of Canadian and U.S. women."

A two-horse race, not competitive enough, too predictable: these are all slogans that will likely surface as Canada and the U.S. make their way to what seems an inevitable meeting for gold on Feb. 25.

"People who are looking for negative things to say, they're going to find it whether it's 2-1 or 15-0," Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser said. "I just remind people in the men's tournaments in the early Olympic Games the same thing happened. Go back and look at those scores."

Women's hockey made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games. The U.S. women outscored the opposition 36-8 en route to the gold medal.

When men's hockey made its debut in 1924, the Canadian men outscored their opposition 122-3. At the 1936 Olympics, the margin had narrowed to 55-9. By comparison, the Canadian women scored 31 goals and allowed five at last year's world championship.

"It actually is coming faster than the men's game in terms of the years of development and in terms of the gap closing between countries," Wickenheiser said.

At this year's world junior men's championship in Saskatoon, Canada outscored the opposition 30-2 in its first three games. In 2009, it was 28-2 in three games, yet the legitimacy of that competition isn't questioned.

Regardless of the competitive level, women's hockey isn't getting booted out of the Olympics, according to International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee.

"The IOC does not have concerns," he said in an email. "Women’s hockey is in the Olympics to stay.

"Women's hockey is one of the sports that sells most tickets in the Winter Olympics and the women are playing a highly entertaining brand of hockey and they play it for all the right reasons."

The gap in women's hockey is closing, but too slowly for a society used to instant gratification.

"Unfortunately in the world we live in with all the technology, patience is a word people don't use very often," U.S. head coach Mark Johnson says. "You look back at when women's basketball started in the NCAA in the early days and the struggles they had to go through and where they are today, it's much different.

"Women's hockey is still young in my eyes."

Even though the gap is closing, fans aren't seeing it. Finland has beaten the U.S. twice and Sweden upset Canada for the first time within the last two years. Those games were not televised and seen by only a couple hundred people in the arena.

The biggest stage women's hockey has is the Olympics, which happens only every four years. The most significant development in the game was Sweden's upset of the U.S. in the semifinal of the 2006 Olympics.

At the world championships two years later, Switzerland beat the Swedes.

"If you look at the last few international tournaments, the results aren't as predictable as you would think," says Canadian forward Jennifer Botterill.

But the 2010 Olympics will probably do little to dissuade those who view the women's tournament as a foregone conclusion.

With the full resources of their hockey federations behind them, Canada and the U.S. are the clear favourites for gold, the Swedes and Finns will likely battle for bronze with China, Switzerland, Russia and the Slovaks also-rans.

Financial backing and the size of a country's player pool are factors in the gaps between countries. The Canadian team's Olympic budget was $3.5 million. Finnish and Swedish officials say their budgets are about a third of that.

The Canadian team could afford to spend the last six months together and play 55 games, while Sweden played about 30 games and spent three and a half months together.

Over 85,000 women play hockey in Canada and almost 60,000 in the U.S., compared to about 5,000 in Sweden and less than 1,000 in China and Slovakia.

Russia's stagnation is a mystery, especially in such a strong hockey country. After winning a bronze medal at the 2001 world championship, the women's team backslid and there were a couple of years when the country barely maintained its position in the World A championship.

"There's no reason Russia shouldn't have an outstanding women's program," U.S. defender Angela Ruggiero said. "The pressure should be put on the governing bodies of those federations to increase their support of their women's programs."

Fasel says he's doing that.

"Regarding the emerging hockey programs, they can only improve if their sports authorities and the national ice hockey associations get as serious about their women's program as they are about the men's," he said in an email. "They must become as committed as Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are with their women’s program."

Defender Beckie Kellar, a four-time Olympian, says there will come a day when Canadians will say: "Remember when we used to win all the time in women's hockey?"

"People in this country at least should embrace the fact that we're still a powerhouse," she said. "It's a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up and then they'll say what happened? You used to always win."

Wickenheiser, who has played men's professional hockey in Europe, shrugs off criticism of the women's game she has heard many times before.

"This is something we've always faced in the game and it's something we're going to face in Vancouver again," Wickenheiser says. "Those people who show up every four years and talk about women's hockey can find something negative if they want to, but it's not my concern.

"I'm there to play, put on a good show and win a gold medal."