Canada’s done its part. The U.S., too.
But how much farther women’s hockey can advance as a viable female athletic option rests not with North American countries, but rather those traditional hockey-playing European nations.
And there’s the problem.
In Canada, the number of females playing the game has risen from about 8,000 in 1990 to 85,000 this year.
On the global stage, Canada has been utterly dominant, winning the past three Olympic gold medals and vast majority of the world championships and 4 Nations Cup championships (formerly the 3 Nations Cup).
The States continues to provide a training ground for women’s hockey, with its numerous colleges and universities offering varsity hockey programs for women. And when Canada isn’t winning Olympic gold medals (1998) or world titles (2005, ’08, ’09), it’s the U.S. rising to the top.
The other countries? They show up.
The biggest news to come out of the Vancouver Olympics in relation to women’s hockey — with the exception of another gold for the home team, in front of 17,000 red-clad fans — was the salvo International Olympic Committee boss Jacques Rogge launched across women’s hockey bow.
On the morning of the Canada/U.S. final — a coincidence? — Rogge basically said it’s not good enough to have a two-tiered system in women’s hockey; Canada and the U.S., and everyone else.
“We cannot continue without improvement,” he said.
Many have suggested that the formation of a women’s pro league — kind of like basketball’s WNBA in the U.S. — would be the saviour to women’s hockey.
Maybe. It will keep women in the game following their college careers.
But it won’t solely be enough to keep women’s hockey afloat.
Because the game doesn’t catch the public’s fancy.
Outside a small cult following in Toronto, Brampton, Burlington, Montreal and Boston — yes, Boston — few people are tuned in to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Its exposure is virtually nil.
At a 4 Nations Cup exhibition game at The Glacier in Mount Pearl last Sunday, a Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador official was saying the international women’s hockey tournament had come up in a recent conversation.
The official’s friend, a male, said he hadn’t planned on taking in any games; that women’s hockey was akin to “watching paint dry.”
You take those simple-minded, loutish comments for what they’re worth, but it should be mentioned here, because like it or not, it’s the opinion of a small, ignorant segment of the population.
A segment that remains unimpressed with the players’ ability to lift a shot off the ice.
Women’s hockey is kind of like curling and figure skating, in the sense that it’s wildly popular during the Olympics — then again, so is halfpipe snowboarding — and world championships, yet would be challenged to survive in a season-long league format.
Outside Canada and the U.S. on the global stage, Finland and Sweden have had their moments in women’s hockey, but that’s where it ends.
At the IIHF World Hockey Summit in Toronto last summer, the Russians apparently didn’t bother sticking around when the discussion turned to women’s hockey. And that country is staging the next Winter Olympics.
It’s just a blip on the radar in other traditional hockey-playing countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany.
So, what can be done?
For the game’s survival, Canada and the U.S. must consider lending support to the European countries, be it coaching clinics, playing host to more teams over here or even providing financial support.
If those countries are unwilling to fund the sport or provide stimulus, the likelihood is the gulf between us and them will continue to widen.
All this, of course, might be conceived as supplying the bullets that will be used to return fire, but in this case it might be one of the increasingly few options facing women’s hockey.
Because if there is no Olympic Games, female hockey’s death as a mainstream, universal sport is all but imminent.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org