Hockey

Mike Brophy - Wednesday Oct. 30, 2013 06:40 ET

Women’s hockey must gain worldwide appeal

NHL support would be a big boost

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In order for the women’s game to grow, nations like Russia must make dramatic strides from a competitive standpoint in the coming years. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

The problem with international women’s hockey moving forward is twofold. For starters, the game simply isn’t very popular worldwide.

Compared to men’s hockey, the women’s game is still very much in the infant phase.

Also, when two countries dominate as Canada and the United States do, where’s the drama? Sports fans live for the nail-biter. Even in hockey-playing nations the women’s game lags way behind on the popularity scale.

There is no easy solution to either of these issues, though most feel the women’s game needs to develop away from the rink more than it does on the ice to increase its popularity.

“I think the game, outside of the rink, needs a few things and number one is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League simply needs more support,” said former NHL defenceman Tim Bothwell, now head  coach of Canada’s national development team. 

“The Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs are helping out, but the league needs more support from the NHL from a ‘growing the game’ perspective. The players, once they graduate from university, need a good, solid, competitive professional environment so they can stay in the game and grow as players between Olympic years.”

Part of the problem, it seems, is managing expectations. If you watch a high-level women’s game expecting to see the same style of hockey you’d see when the world’s top male players compete, forget about it.

It’ll never happen.

But that does not mean the women’s game cannot be enjoyed.

Certainly Canada’s dramatic 3-2 victory over the United States at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games was proof of that. Canada managed to snap an eight-game losing streak to Team USA despite American referee Stacey Livingston calling 13 penalties on Canada and only six against the U.S.

Even the last gold-medal game at the Vancouver Olympics was a thriller with Canada defeating the United States 2-0. Team Canada took a 2-0 first-period lead on two goals by 18-year-old Marie-Philip Poulin, and held on for the victory. It was a thriller from the drop of  puck.

Hitting not allowed in women’s game

The biggest difference between men’s and women’s hockey is hitting is not allowed in the women’s game. This is not to suggest women’s hockey is not physical. On the contrary, incidental contact is tolerated, but strict body-to-body contact is a penalty. The reality is in high-level international competition things can get pretty nasty.

“Other than the hitting, I don’t think there are any real significant major differences in the two games,” said superstar Hayley Wickenheiser, captain of Canada’s national team.

Yet there are those who will not watch women’s hockey for that reason alone. It’s almost as though the attitude is, if there’s no hitting it’s not real hockey.

“There are two camps out there; one fairly strongly in favor of allowing body contact like the men and the other to keep things the way they are,” said Bothwell, who also believes the men’s game is flawed because it focuses too much on the physical side rather than showcasing the skill of NHL stars. “I like the women’s game the way it is because of the lack of emphasis on body contact. There is plenty of body contact in women’s hockey and there is physical play, but the rule that prohibits the all-focus-on-the-body and no-focus-on-the-puck is a great separator for the two games. The skill is more important.”

For a player like Wickenheiser, who is five-feet-10 inches, 180 pounds and has played in men’s professional leagues in Europe, size is not an issue. If hitting was suddenly legal, she’d have no fears.

But European countries that already have trouble attracting young players might be in trouble if all-out hitting was allowed. A player like American defenceman Angela Ruggiero, who is five-feet-nine inches, and 192 pounds, could crush smaller players.

It is hard to imagine all-out hitting ever being allowed in women’s hockey. The disparity in the size and skill of the best players versus the weaker players is simply too big a factor. Safety would be a huge issue.

So if women’s hockey is to gain popularity, it must first embrace its uniqueness and then figure out how to exploit it.

This is the second of a three-part series on the state of women`s hockey. On Thursday, in part 3, Mike Brophy takes a look who shares responsibility for improving the game. 

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