Blowouts not good for women’s hockey

  • By John Boyle Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, February 17, 2010 9:48am
  • SportsSports

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Can we just skip to the good part?

It seems inevitable that Canada and the United States eventually will meet for Olympic gold in women’s hockey, and when they do it should be a great game. The two best teams in the world — by a large margin, by the way — are both loaded with skilled players and elite athletes who no doubt will put on quite a show.

The problem is the rest of the games. So far in two games, Canada has outscored Slovakia and Switzerland by a combined score of 28-1. After rolling past Russia 13-0 Tuesday, The U.S. has piled up 15 goals and allowed just one.

In their humiliation of Russia — and if you saw Russian coach Valentin Gureev after the game, you’d know it was a humiliation — the Americans scored at will, and sometimes almost by accident. The final scoring summary needed a second page to summarize all of the goals, which were scored by 10 different players.

By the midway point of the second period, even the face-painted, flag waving USA fans could only muster half-hearted celebrations as the goals piled up. And with nine minutes remaining in the second period, after his team had fallen behind 10-0, Gureev pulled his starting goalkeeper not so much as a strategic move but an act of mercy.

“Today was two teams playing who have different skills,” Gureev said. “In Russia, our women’s hockey just started.”

And these blowouts aren’t just boring, they’re bad for the sport, and could put its Olympic future in danger.

In large part because of the non-competitive nature of the games, the IOC voted softball out of the Olympics in 2005, and if more countries don’t improve in a hurry, you have to wonder if women’s hockey isn’t headed for the same fate.

“As athletes, our job is to work as hard as we can and go out there and put on a good show, but do you think about it that maybe 12 years down the road women’s hockey might not be in the Olympics if the scores continue?” U.S. captain and forward Natalie Darwitz said. “Maybe, and that’s a concern obviously that we have, because this is really all we have — the Olympics for two weeks.”

Women’s hockey is a relatively new sport to the Olympics, and there are signs, such as Sweden’s semifinal upset of the U.S. in 2006, that the world will catch up to the North American powers eventually, but that needs to happen sooner than later.

As much as the Americans crave a gold medal, they wouldn’t mind working a little harder to get there.

“It starts with grassroots, and again I don’t know what other countries are doing, but I really hope that one day we can have Olympics where we don’t talk about this and it’s tough to get to the medal round,” Darwitz said. “That would be ideal.”

The problem goes deeper than just the beat downs dished out by Canada and America. Slovakia, a team that lost 18-0 in its Olympic opener to Canada, qualified for Vancouver by beating Bulgaria 82-0. Think about that for a second. A team that was 18 goals worse than Canada — and it’s being very generous to say the gap is even that small, because Canada no doubt could have scored more — was able to win a qualifier by 82 goals?

According to U.S. coach Mark Johnson, a member of the 1980 “Miracle on ice” team, there is hope for women’s hockey.

“The sport is still young,” he said. “Different countries have made different commitment levels to their young athletes. As I’ve seen, the countries that are willing to put their money, their resources, make that commitment, it doesn’t take long for them to gain speed.

“Sometimes we as coaches, we as viewers, we as the media, have to be a little bit patient and let it grow. It’s an uncomfortable position when you’re on the bench and the score starts to get a little bit crazy, but that’s part of the pain that maybe you have to go through to help your sport in the long run, that’s how I look at it. To me that’s not a major concern right now.”

But the question has to be asked. What if enough countries don’t dedicate the money and resources? What if the Olympics continue to be a two-horse race?

“If different federations and countries aren’t willing to do that, then the problem becomes more magnified than it is right now,” he said. “… I’m anxious to see what it looks like in five or six years. I hope the picture’s a lot brighter.”

If the picture doesn’t become brighter, it may instead fade to black.

So when Canada and the U.S. inevitably face off for gold, make sure you savor what should be a memorable game. Sadly, there might not be too many more like it.

“That’s definitely something that we think about, and we’re trying to, every day, push the level of women’s hockey higher,” said Karen Thatcher of Blaine, who scored her first Olympic goal Tuesday. “We like to see teams like Finland and Sweden that are coming up and really building their programs. As much as we still want to beat them, we love the competitiveness. We love that they’re building their programs too, because it’s great for the sport worldwide. That is something that we do think about and we do worry about, so as other teams grow it’s great for the sport. It’s a lot more fun to play great teams.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: For more Olympics coverage, go to

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