This was the money game. This was the showcase for women’s hockey.
And the competitiveness of the game didn’t disappoint.
The Canadian’s 2-0 win over the United States in the Olympic gold medal game was physical and fast with a healthy amount of finesse. It was entertaining — particularly if you were a fan of Team Canada.
For fans of Team USA it was frustrating. A prolonged 5-on-3 power play yielded a few opportunities, but no goals. The offense couldn’t establish itself in front of the net and when they did apply pressure, couldn’t solve the riddle of goaltender Shannon Szabados.
The Canadian team played stronger and quicker than the Americans, shutting down an U.S. power play that had dominated the Olympic Games. And they did it in front of an energized, packed house in Vancouver with expectations of nothing short of gold on its home soil. Negotiating that kind of pressure, when you usually play world championships in relative obscurity, is a gold medal feat in itself.
But aside from picking apart the game on the ice (which there is plenty available there to discuss), the Olympic moment brings attention to areas otherwise not highlighted for women’s sports.
In no particular order we have:
1. The celebration controversy. Those of us who watched the game then changed the channel after the traditional handshakes missed the beer, cigar and champagne celebration that Team Canada brought onto the ice. This is concerning from the International Olympic Committee point of view as the celebration on ice may have overstepped the boundaries of the Olympic spirit and good taste. Of course, it begs the question: If a men’s team celebrated in such a manner would they be critiqued as roundly? Or do we expect that kind of behavior from our guys and dislike similar celebration displays by our female athletes?
2. The death of women’s hockey. Yes, the columns keep coming that women’s Olympic hockey is on its last legs because since 1998, when the sport was first introduced into the Games, Canada and the U.S. have dominated with Canada owning three of the four gold medals awarded in the sport. Competitive parity was non-existent at these Games. But is that the fault of the sport? While IOC president Jacques Rogge talks a good game about increasing women’s participation in the sport, writer Christine Brennan pointed out that he has done little to actually encourage countries (and the IOC) to increase opportunity and funding to develop women’s sports. Adding a sport is great. Having the opportunity is wonderful. But you won’t be competitive at it unless you put time, energy and a little money into it. Competitiveness doesn’t grow in vacuum. And the answer isn’t to take away the opportunity, it’s to invest in making the opportunity is meaningful.
3. Marie-Philip Poulin is really good. If you hadn’t heard of Poulin, you did on Thursdaynight when her quick release scored both goals for Team Canada. The 18-year old has been compared to Sidney Crosby. Poulin also can be seen wearing a pearl necklace her mother gave her under her jersey during games. We can talk about feminine markers but anything that’s outside the ordinary, anything that’s unexpected, has a bit of an intriguing factor. After all, the pearls had nothing to do with her ability to let go a wrist shot so fast, the MSNBC broadcast almost missed one of her goals.
4. The veteran decision. While Team USA had 15 first-time Olympians on its roster, many who will return to collegiate teams, the veterans face some tough decisions. What do Angela Ruggiero and Jenny Potter do? Retire? Take another job for the next two years before the next gear-up for the Olympic cycle begins? Scrimp and save and try to find a place to play? There are no elite level hockey opportunities in women’s hockey in the United States and finding a way to keep on top of your game, let alone improve your game, can be difficult.
“It’s a lot easier on the men’s side what they do just because they have more opportunities,” U.S. national coach Mark Johnson said in an Associated Press story. “The next two years for these players will be a difficult time. Where are they going to play? How are they going to pay the bills? Do they need to move on with their life?”
It’s another reminder that while the U.S. and Canada may have put money and support into women’s hockey, even the sports super powers struggle to find a way to create meaningful competition and practice for its star players. Personal (and family) sacrifice is part of the game for elite level athletes who aren’t making a significant living via professional contracts or endorsement deals. But creative ideas to grow the game and increase opportunity must be out there.
Now is the perfect time to listen.