Women’s hockey is just fine in the Olympics, thank you very much.
The women’s hockey portion of the Sochi Olympics concluded Thursday, with Marie-Philip Poulin further cementing her place in Canadian hockey history in leading Canada to a 3-2 comeback victory in overtime over their arch-rivals from the United States.
For Canada, it’s their fourth straight Olympic gold, and it came in what may well have been the best women’s Olympic hockey game played since its introduction in 1998.
Yet women’s hockey went into Sochi with a cloud over its head after former International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said women’s hockey needed to become more competitive in order to remain an Olympic sport beyond the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
However, let’s consider a few things first.
While the viewing market and demographics must be taken into account, #CANvsUSA is still trending on Twitter in Canada, and the game ended nearly nine hours ago as of this post. While some of that is likely hype for tomorrow’s semifinal showdown on the men’s side, there were people glued to their televisions watching, not to mention a sold-out Bolshoy Ice Dome.
While the end result is a familiar one, I still say mission accomplished for women’s hockey.
For the first time since women’s hockey became an Olympic sport, there were no games where a team got into double-digits for goals in a tournament where goal differential is significant.
Prior to Sochi, there had been at least two games in every Olympics where the score was run up insanely high, but the worst it got this time around was a 9-0 American victory over Switzerland in the preliminary round. Apart from that, the majority of the games were decided by four goals or less, so I see any issues of parity decreasing.
To put things into perspective, Canada scored 48 goals en route to the gold medal in Vancouver in 2010. In Sochi, they only scored 17. The United States scored 22 goals in Sochi, which is a decrease from the 40 they scored four years ago.
It wasn’t always The Amanda Kessel Show, as some expected it to be. In fact, the majority of Kessel’s six points came in the previously-mentioned 9-0 victory over Switzerland, and she failed to register a point in two games against Canada.
However, it points to something bigger happening in women’s hockey.
While some will point to the bigger ice surface as a contributing factor, the competition is just getting better. Many young female European players come to North America, whether it’s to play NCAA or CIS hockey, to further their development now, and they see more top-tier competition on a regular basis, which in turn forces them to become better players to keep up.
Furthermore, if you look at some of the coaching staffs, you’re likely to find links back to North America, meaning there are people working hard to grow women’s hockey around the world, to the point where I believe women’s hockey pioneers like Geraldine Heaney, Angela James, Cammi Granato, and Angela Ruggiero would be proud of how far the game has come.
Even programs where the talent pool isn’t as deep didn’t get run out of the rink in Sochi the way they would before. For example, Japan made its return to women’s hockey after getting in as the host team in 1998. While they lost every game, they didn’t get blown out every time. In fact, three of their five games were decided by one goal, with some even saying Japan got the short straw against Russia in the preliminary round.
The 2010 bronze medalists from Finland, in particular goaltender Noora Raty, also got in on the action.
In the midst of announcing her retirement from the Finnish national team at the age of 24, Raty was a wall in Finland’s preliminary round game against Canada. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher very nearly following in the footsteps of Antero Niittymaki in Turin in 2006, along with World Junior performances from Tuukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen, and most recently Juuse Saros in the tradition of Finnish goalies stealing big games when the lights are at their brightest.
Even Germany, with the goaltending performance they received from Viona Harrer in their opening preliminary round game against Russia, got its fair share of attention.
However, no team created more storylines over the last two weeks than Switzerland, the two women’s hockey superpowers included.
For one, Sochi marked Florence Schelling‘s coming-out party as a goaltender. You’ll have to excuse the pun, but Florence was a machine, and her teammates fed off the confidence of the tournament’s top goaltender.
Schelling, who played collegiately for Northeastern University, is the reason Switzerland became the first non-Scandinavian country in Europe to medal in women’s hockey at the Olympics.
In fact, Schelling’s 28-save performance in the bronze medal game against Sweden was the 24-year-old’s lowest output in Sochi, having stopped more than 40 shots on three separate occasions, including a combined 109 saves in two games against Canada.
Youth was also served for the Swiss as the game-winner was scored by Alina Muller, who will turn 16 in three weeks, though she played well beyond her age from a maturity standpoint.
The Swiss may only have won twice in the tournament (being in a group with Canada, Finland, and the United States doesn’t help), but those wins were massive.
In addition to the bronze-medal victory over a heavily-favoured Swedish squad, Switzerland also defeated Russia for the second straight Olympics, except this time, they did it in Russia to knock the host country out of medal contention.
They didn’t fold when confronting more skilled teams, even putting pressure on the Canadians late in their 3-1 semifinal loss before defeating Sweden for bronze.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. Canada and the United States still hold a sizeable lead over the rest of the women’s hockey world, and today’s gold medal game was fittingly reminiscent of a Balboa-Drago fight.
However, even though the song remains the same for now, the gap in women’s hockey is closer now than it’s ever been, and I look forward to seeing the trend continue into 2018 and beyond.
What do you think? Is women’s hockey getting to a more competitive place? What is the next step to gaining even more parity across the board? Make yourself heard with a comment here, or Tweet your thoughts @TMMOTS or @gecarragher.