Women's hockey needs more Canada-U.S. matchups
Former Team USA coach suggests ideas to grow sport
OTTAWA – Ben Smith has a novel idea on how to grow women's hockey and prepare for the Olympic Winter Games at the same time.
If it was his call, the former coach of the USA Olympic women's team would do barnstorming tour of Canada and the northern states featuring Team USA and Team Canada leading up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
"Take them out on the road, showcase the sport,'' says Smith, who coached the USA to a gold medal in 1998, a silver in 2002 and bronze in 2006. "Play seven or eight games."
"To me, it is just like the 1930s when teams would do barnstorming tours across the U.S. Let's have a touring best-of-seven series. Let's do it."
While Smith acknowledges that a barnstorming tour of the two powerhouse teams in women's hockey would cost a few dollars to stage, he says the overall benefit outweighs the final tally.
"Pack the arenas. Show people how great these girls play. Why not? People love to see best-on-best hockey. Puts them in NHL arenas, Boston one night, Madison Square Garden the next. Then Montreal, Toronto."
While you could say that Smith's suggestion is a variation on a theme from the historic '72 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, he's not far off the mark when he says Canada and the USA don't square off enough against each other on the female side of the ledger sheet.
Take the 2013 world women's hockey championship for example.
Here at the 2013 world women's hockey championship, Canada beat the USA 3-2 in a shootout in the tournament-opening game and there is every chance they will meet again in the final on Tuesday.
If that happens, the gold medal game will mark the fourth time in the 2012-13 season that the world's No. 1 and 2 teams will face each other. And here is every chance they will split the season-series with two wins apiece. Canada lost in the preliminary round but beat the USA in the final of the Four Nations Cup.
Discussing a Summit Series
Four games a season is unfair to the sport, to the players and to growing the sport, says Smith.
"It is to everyone's benefit that they play each other more often,'' says Smith, who remains involved in the women's game with USA Hockey.
The idea of a Summit Series of sorts has been kicked around but nothing has gone past the discussion stage, says Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson.
"We've looked at different ways, different things,'' he said.
If it were up to Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, she'd all but pay her way on a barnstorming tour.
"I'd love a Summit Series,'' says Wickenheiser. "I've love to play the USA more often."
Heading into the Sochi 2014 Games, Canada and the USA will meet six times, which is seven times less heading into the inaugural women's Olympic tournament in '98. Nicholson said there are no plans to add more games in preparation for Sochi.
Another idea making the rounds in the national capital is to have a women's world championship every year, including Olympic years. That's the case with men but there doesn't seem to be a lot of support to add this to the sparse women's calendar.
‘Post-Olympic stress syndrome’
Finland goalie Noora Raty feels the schedule is already crowded enough for the top players, most of who play in North America either in the U.S. college ranks or the Canadian Women's Hockey League.
Raty joined the Finnish women in Ottawa after backstopping the University of Minnesota to a U.S. college title last week. She recalled how after the 2010 Vancouver Games, she played "awful" for her college team, in part because she was emotionally burned out after the Olympic competition.
"We call it post-Olympic stress syndrome,'' she said.
USA veteran Julie Chu feels the Olympic games are the "pinnacle" for her sport and it would be difficult to peak again at a world tournament less than three months later.
The last word goes to Smith.
He said the USA took extra satisfaction from winning gold in 1998 because they beat Canada in both the preliminary round and then for the ultimate prize.
"We didn't split. But it hurts the game when you only play them twice. We need to play more."