Mike Brophy - Thursday Oct. 31, 2013 12:36 ET

Women’s hockey outreach a shared responsibility

Canada, U.S. need to lend a hand: Part 3

Canadian hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser is part of a program that helps grow the sport to other nations. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

If other countries are going to develop and become more competitive, Canada and the United States need to lend a hand.

That has actually been happening the past few years as part of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Ambassador and Mentor Program. Some of the top Canadian, American and even Swedish and Finnish players have been assisting the coaches from other nations.

“It is basically a sharing of ideas and techniques,” said former NHL defenceman Tim Bothwell, now head  coach of Canada’s national development team.

Bothwell added the coaching mentoring program is sponsored by the International Ice Hockey Federation. The co-ordinators of the program are Melody Davidson, GM of the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team, and superstar Hayley Wickenheiser.

The program has been a hit thus far. When given an opportunity to share their experience, many players and coaches have lent a hand. For instance, Peter Smith of McGill University worked with the Czech Republic team at the world championship in Ottawa last spring. Former Canadian player Carla MacLeod  started working  with the Japanese national team as a volunteer, and now as a paid assistant coach.

She spends one week each month in Japan working with the team and will be on the bench for the Olympic Games in Sochi. Any federation that requests that kind of assistance can get it from Hockey Canada and USA Hockey.

The problem is, it may be years before we start to see the benefits of having North American trained players working with the other developing nations.

“It’s a good idea, but it’ll bring long-term success, much like when we mentored other countries in men’s hockey,” said former Team Canada captain Cassie Campbell-Pascall. “Short-term I think we need consequences for those associations that do not support their women’s hockey program. If you are a team that is not ranked within 10 ranks of your men’s national team, then your men’s national team does not get to go to the world championship. I know that sounds drastic, but I believe it would help put women’s hockey on the map.”

Lighter puck could help women’s game

Are there changes to the game itself that would help increase the popularity of women’s hockey?

It has been suggested that perhaps using a lighter puck to help increase the speed of their shot would be a positive change. In high-level women’s basketball, a smaller ball is used to accommodate their generally smaller hands. The women’s ball is 72.4 centimetres, which is 2.54cm smaller than an NBA ball. Would lighter pucks make a difference in allowing women hockey players to have harder shots?

“It is something that has been floated out there before and it’s my understanding that they have experimented with it and the physics doesn’t quite work,” Bothwell said. “It bounced and fluttered too much. Intuitively you would think the lighter puck would be great because the shots would come a little bit quicker and give less of an advantage to the goalies.

“Having said that I would say there has been a tremendous amount of progress in the last five to seven years and a lot of the best women can shoot it pretty darn hard.”

Davidson feels the key to taking women’s hockey to the next level in  the public eye is in marketing. One idea is to join forces with major junior hockey and hold back-to-back games drawing both audiences together for what could be more of a family package.

She also said women’s hockey would benefit from being played on a consistent night. She added there has been talk of playing the season either before or after the NHL season so the women’s game has the hockey stage to itself.

Tradition NHL ice surface

As for changes to the game itself, Davidson said the main thing she’d like to see is all women’s games being played on the smaller, traditional NHL ice surface, which is 61 metres by 21 metres – compared to 61 by 31.5 in international arenas.

“I’d say the small ice is what we want because the games are more physical,” Davidson said.

The reality is hockey is hockey. Making significant changes to the game itself are not likely going to help increase the popularity of women’s hockey.Campbell-Pascall said aside from more funding for women’s hockey in other countries, their top players should experience playing a season or two in North America.

“It might hurt their leagues back home in the short term development-wise because their young players are not going to get to see their heroes play, but long term I believe we need the best players in the world training and playing with the best players in the world. Then it becomes contagious and it trickles down.”

One thing is clear, if something is not done soon to make the playing field more even for countries other than Canada and the United States, women’s hockey will continue to be in danger of being swept off the world stage.

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