Women's hockey taking baby steps to parity
Canada, U.S. remain head and shoulders above the competition
OTTAWA - It is hard to fight the optics when it comes to the competitive level of women's hockey.
The preliminary round of the women's world championship tournament this week showed that Canada and the United States are in an arms race, and they are just pushing forward.
As for the remainder of the field in the eight-team competition, the gap is closing, but only to a point.
"Canada and the United States are like a Ferrari screaming down the highway, and the rest are like a Volvo on a dirt road,'' says Peter Elander, the former coach of Sweden's national women's team who is head coach of the University of North Dakota women's team.
With the movers and shakers of the global female game gathered in the national capital for the world tournament, there has been a lot of talk whether the International Olympic Committee will eventually cut women's hockey from the Winter Games, as it did to women's softball in the Summer Games.
Just think back to the comments by IOC President Jacques Rogge after the 2010 Vancouver Games. Three years ago, he put women’s hockey on notice, saying the gap had to close if women’s hockey is to remain in the Olympic program.
"There is a discrepancy there. Everyone agrees with that," Rogge said at the time.
Now less than a year out from the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the gap has narrowed, albeit not at the top of the heap. While Canada and the United States breezed through the preliminary round, most of the games involving the other teams have been competitive, which wasn't always the way.
IIHF responds to Rogge’s comments
The International Ice Hockey Federation responded to Rogge's comments by pouring money and resources into European programs.
Shannon Miller, who coached Canada at the inaugural women's Olympic tournament in 1998, helped mentor Russian coaches, while Elander took the same role with the German team. Development camps were held across Europe and other forms of development assistance were provided.
The efforts have helped make the bronze-medal game a battle at the world tournament.
Russia could easily finish third, as could Finland and Switzerland. The defending bronze medallist Germans qualified for the quarter-finals, which is a success for them.
And while it's not a changing of the guard atop the podium, it is a start.
"Where was Switzerland in Vancouver [i.e. the 2010 Olympic Winter Games]?" USA coach Katey Strong said. "They weren't anywhere? Here comes Germany and the Russians are getting better. People need to be patient. They need to be anxious but they need to be patient as well. It just takes time."
Money and depth
The main reasons for the gap between the North Americans and Europeans basically comes down to money and depth.
Canada and the USA operate like professional franchises, with the best coaching, training and nutritional expertise, and Elander feels the Europeans should follow suit.
"I think the expertise in women's hockey could be bigger. You do not get world-class coaches,'' he said about the European teams. "Canada has a video coach, a strength and conditioning coach, and the other countries need to put in qualified people to do that job."
"If you have one coach and one assistant coach, how do you expect to beat Canada?"
Another factor is money poured into development streams. Canada and the United States have sunk millions into producing players for the national under-16 and under-18 programs that serve as a feeder system to both the national team, and as important, the U.S. college system.
Since it became law in the USA to provide women's college sports the same funding as the men's program, the number of U.S. college team in the last two decades had increased from a handful to 45. That represents millions of dollars being spent on developing competitive teams.
"The budget we have for North Dakota is bigger for all the women's hockey budget in Finland and Sweden,'' said Elander, whose Swedish team upset the USA women in the semifinals of the 2006 Winter Games, and then lost to Canada in the gold medal game.
"We have four fulltime coaches and a staff of nine. There are no budget problems. We just do it and I think that helps the athletes be a good athlete. There is no [equal] funding in Europe."
Teams look overseas
With the rise of women's college hockey in the USA, teams have looked overseas for the top Europeans. Each of the European teams at the world championship had at least one player competing in the U.S. college ranks.
If was up to Strong, she would add more Europeans.
"I have said all along, and maybe it is unpopular to say and goes against the grain, but give more scholarships to the European players versus some North American kids,'' she said. "If you can provide more opportunity for Europeans, and some schools have done it consistently, the international game will reap the benefits."
Another factor is the rise of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which is the destination for players when they finish with their college teams. There are approximately 30 CWHL players competing at the world tournament.
When the championship ends on Tuesday, the teams will go home and begin preparations for the 2014 Winter Games.
Hockey Canada will announce its training camp roster in about a month and the players will then centralize. Trouble is, it is not the same for everyone.
Swiss co-coach Michael Kammerer is trying to get permission from the Swiss federation to allow his women's team to play in a men's league. There is also a plan to train in Russia for six weeks, but he's not sure whether all his players can get time off work to participate.
Elander feels this is an issue the IIHF should look at.
"I think the IIHF should look at how teams prepare for the world championships and Olympics,'' he said.
While the efforts have narrowed the gap, Canada and the USA are on another planet, and the results of their games against the lesser nations produce optics that are hard to overcome.
After Canada thumped Switzerland 13-0 Wednesday night, there was a lot of focus on how the outcome played into Rogge's hands.
It was the worst beating Canada has given the Swiss in five world championship meetings, but Canadian head coach Dan Church did not want his players to let up.
"Are we supposed to try and aim for goal-posts? We’re not trying to embarrass them. We’re trying to get better," Church said. "If we take a period off, I don’t think it helps us and I don’t think it helps the game.
"Should Usain Bolt ease up at the 50-metre mark? I don’t know how you do that and become as good as you can. We want to be as good as we can and I don’t think we should apologize for that."
Try fighting those optics.