Hockey

Mike Brophy - Tuesday Oct. 29, 2013 07:26 ET

Melody Davidson, Canada's GM, admits women’s hockey faces key challenges

Marketing key to survival

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The women’s game has been dominated by Canada and the U.S. since the sport was first included into the Olympics in 1998. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

When it comes to women’s hockey, there is really nothing like a match between Canada and the United States.That’s because when teams from other countries hook up, nobody gives a hoot.

Canada and the United States represent the best in women’s hockey. They are the most dominant nations at major international events such as the world championship, the 4 Nations Cup and, of course, the Olympics. It always has been this way; it probably always will. All of the other countries are in a constant battle for third place.

And therein lies the problem, according to those who don't believe there is enough serious global competition to continue to allow women’s hockey to be part of the Olympic Games. Other countries – most notably Finland, Sweden, Russia and Switzerland – have at times been competitive, but with few exceptions, it’s a two-horse race.

“I really believe we have a good product,” said Melody Davidson, general manager of the Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team. “But it’s like any amateur or female sport; how do you market it and get people in the stands?

“It’s not just women’s hockey. It’s a lot of amateur sports. Look at [Canadian Interuniversity Sport] hockey — it’s a pretty good product, but we don’t fill any buildings with it.”

Women have competed in hockey at the Olympics since 1998 in Nagano, Japan, where the United States beat Canada to capture the first gold medal. Since then Canada has owned the Olympics Games, winning three straight gold medals, with the U.S., capturing two silvers and Sweden one. Odds are it will be a Canada-USA final again in Sochi with the Canadians trying to push their goal-medal winning streak to four.

There have been 15 women’s world championship tournaments, 10 of which – including the first eight – were won by Canada. The United States won the other five. Finland finished third 10 times, Sweden and Russia twice each, and Switzerland once.

Money issues

Former Canadian Olympic hockey team captain Cassie Campbell-Pascall believes other countries could be competitive if they pumped more money into their women’s hockey program. Of course, that could be said for a lot of things; more money often equals a better product.

“In the 1998 Olympics, China was right there and Finland was losing to Canada and the United States by just a goal,” Campbell-Pascall said. 

“They could have beaten us at any time. But what happens in their program is the players get to be 26 and 27-years-old and they have to get real jobs because they make absolutely no money playing hockey. The other countries can’t keep the core of their team together where we have been able to keep our core together for such a long time.”

The question now is what can be done before the International Olympic Committee decides to eliminate the sport from the Games?

To be clear, removing women’s hockey from the Olympic schedule is not imminent, but following the 2010 Games in Vancouver, then IOC president Jacques Rogge said, “we cannot continue without improvement.”

If the IOC deems a sport to be too one-sided, or in this case two-sided, it could eliminate it from future Olympic Games. Softball was eliminated as an Olympic event after four Games because the United States was simply too dominant. 

Davidson has heard the chatter and understands the situation.

“I think that is definitely a possibility and if we’re at that point then it’s probably for the best because the game is not at the point where we want it showcased,” Davidson said. 

“I think we have made some great strides since Vancouver. The countries ranked numbers three through 16 are very competitive and that’s what you have to do first, build the base. The next step is building the top eight to 10 teams to challenge against Canada and the United States.”

If the two superpowers – Canada and the United States – are smart, they’ll join forces in lending a hand to the other hockey-playing nations.It could help prevent their own demise.

This is the first of a three-part series on the state of women`s hockey. On Wednesday, in part 2, Mike Brophy takes a look at how to fix the problems with the game. 

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