Scott Russell - Tuesday Feb. 18, 2014 18:17

Field of Play: Olympic hockey missionaries required

Strong female teams need to share their talent

Rene Fasel and Gary Bettman at a hockey press conference at the Sochi Olympics
International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President Rene Fasel, left, and National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman discuss the future of Olympic hockey at a joint news conference in Sochi, Russia on Tuesday. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The men wearing the suits said all the right things when the subject of women’s hockey and its Olympic future surfaced here today.

Now that the suggestion has been floated, yet again, that this discipline faces removal from the program because of a lack of competitive balance, Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League (NHL), sounded somewhat hurt but not outraged in his response.

“On behalf of hockey we would be distressed,” he mused.

“That will never happen,” jumped in Rene Fasel, the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). “I can guarantee that will never happen.”

“That’s what I was hoping you would say,” Bettman retorted.

These two administrators have long sparred as scene stealers when it comes to the future of hockey at the highest level — on the Olympic stage.

Most of the negotiating surrounds the place of NHL professionals on the big ice surface. Fasel is constantly prodding Bettman, very often in a public way, with the notion that the NHL would relegate itself to a sort of minor sport status if it gave up its Olympic credentials.

Bettman sometimes scoffs and reminds all who will listen that the decision is the NHL’s to make, and that it will be affirmative only if it’s in the best interest of the league and its players. Read that as being in the best interest of the league and its owners.

That said, the more pressing issue is the maintenance of the women’s game on the Olympic program. And it’s good to know that the man who runs the NHL at least has it on his radar and is openly talking about it.

That’s because the spectre of Olympic hockey for females not having a future beyond Sochi is not something that anyone who loves team sport can envision. It would be tantamount to a giant step backwards for gender equity — not only for Olympic sport but for sport in general.

Grassroots efforts badly needed

Still, there is a long way to go to make sure the women’s game can grow and flourish internationally.

“It’s much better than Vancouver, but we are not there,” Fasel admitted. “I really hope that in PyeongChang (South Korea, host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics) we will have a better result, but we have to work very hard.”

The hard work means a concerted effort to grow the game at the grassroots level internationally. It means Canada and the United States can no longer be complacent and rely on a select few players with talent from European countries coming to play in North America.

Competitive depth is built by developing good infrastructures for youth in any sport. That means Canadian and American players are going to have to go into the field, and for longer periods of time, to share the expertise that exists in abundance back home.

There can be no jealous guarding of talent and technique so as to ensure that we will always be the gold medal favourites. We have to learn to be even more generous with the secrets of the game and discuss them in increasing measures with others. Our greatest female players and coaches are, in a sense, going to have to become the missionaries of hockey.

It seems to have worked with curling.

No longer, as once was the case, is Canada the default gold medal champion in the “Roaring Game” at the Olympics. It’s because a bevy of Canadian coaches and even some of the most talented active performers like Kevin Martin, Mike Harris, Marcel Rocque and others have ventured overseas to spread the message of curling and plant the seeds for grassroots development. Emerging curling nations like China, South Korea and Russia are a testament to this effort.

In addition, women’s hockey needs a voice willing to trumpet the virtues of the game at the highest levels. This is something which cannot be left up to men who have proven in the past to be all too willing to be passive in the defense of gender equity at the Olympics.

That’s why Hayley Wickenheiser’s potential election to the International Olympic Committee’s Athlete’s Commission is vital for the continued growth of women’s hockey at the Games. She is arguably female hockey’s most accomplished and well known player, and with a seat on the IOC she would have a platform to ensure that the best interests of her sport remain on the agenda.

While the comforting words of the men in the suits made some headlines today, they should be taken for what they are, namely posturing by folks who aren’t hugely invested in the future of the female game.

That’s why the women who play one of the lone team sports at the Olympic Winter Games must now become the missionaries of hockey to ensure that their faith can survive the next quadrennial.

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