Saving Olympic women's hockey on tap at World Summit
International player transfers, safety and harmonizing world events also on docket
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson concedes there is a chance women's hockey could be removed from the Winter Olympics because of a pronounced competitive imbalance, and he says his organization is willing to help any rival nation looking to improve its program.
The issue will be one of the key items on the agenda when the World Hockey Summit opens this summer in Toronto. The three-day symposium will look at issues ranging from player safety to international player transfers, along with the goal of preserving the women's game as an Olympic sport.
Canada and the U.S. have established a monopoly of power on the ice, with the countries combining to win every Olympic gold medal or world championship. IOC president Jacques Rogge raised the issue of bumping the sport earlier this year in Vancouver, declaring that "we cannot continue without improvement."
"Other sports have been removed, so I guess you look at that, and the IOC could make that decision," Nicholson said Tuesday. "I don't think it's on their immediate agenda, but I think it's something that could be there down the road."
Canada and the U.S. have combined to win all four gold medals awarded since women's hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998. The two countries have also combined to win the world championship every year since its inception in 1990.
Russia, an established men's hockey power, has never even reached the podium in a women's Olympic tournament. Its best finish at the world championship was a bronze medal nine years ago.
"We can only improve those countries if they jump in with both feet," Nicholson said. "They have to show leadership, they have to make sure there's a commitment to their players, and to their coaching staff."
Part of that leadership would include securing better ice time for female teams and increasing funding, Nicholson said. Hockey Canada has offered to allow representatives from other countries work out of the Canadian offices in Calgary to pick up tips and learn the best practices.
Rogge did not publicly set a deadline for when other countries would have to show improvement.
"It's an issue that I am glad he made a top-of-the-agenda item, so that a lot of these other countries — Russia, Switzerland, Germany and China — will devote more to making their teams better," USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said. "I think what is required is two things: Political will and funding."
The issue was discussed during the men's world championship in Germany last month, and will be revisited again in July. It is one of six main topics set to be covered at the summit.
Skill development, player safety and the possibility of harmonizing a rotation of major international events are also on the docket. The event will be open to the general public, with 500 spaces available for anyone willing to spend the $450 to attend.
There will be interactive seminars, presentations and discussions.
This summer's gathering has its roots in the suffering of Canada's notoriously neurotic hockey fans. That suffering reached a plateau in the late 1990s, after the men's national team failed to reach the podium at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
The Open Ice summit was held in the summer of 1999, attended by some of the biggest names in the game — including fabled NHL coach Scotty Bowman — and hundreds of minor hockey coaches from across Canada. It produced a host of non-binding recommendations that focused on player development.
Similar goals have been set for this summer's event, which will run from Aug. 23-26 in Toronto.
The IIHF, the NHL, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and the CHL have all been listed as partners, with Molson as title sponsor. One group that seems to be missing from the roll call is the Russian-based KHL, which has been looming just beyond the NHL's borders, looking for players.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league reached a deal with the KHL a few weeks ago to share more information "so we don't step on each other's toes."
"[It is] an agreement to try to consult on any conflicts that might arise from differences of opinion on contractual status," Daly said. "It's a step in the right direction. It's not a player transfer agreement, and it's by no means a cure-all for everything. But it's good that we're moving forward."