I have had the privilege of covering the IIHF Women’s World Championships in Ottawa during my internship at the Ottawa Citizen. It has been an amazing opportunity and experience. I’m covering Group B which includes the Czech Republic, Germany, Russia and Sweden. The games between these teams are competitive, close and fun to watch.The intensity on the ice is electric.
And that’s the problem with the tournament – the divide between the North American teams and the European teams only appears to be growing bigger. It’s hard to picture a little girl watching her national team in Switzerland get flattened and think she wants to go play hockey now. These women are the best in their country and, frankly, they’re no match for the Canadian women. Even the International Olympic Committee has caught on to the inevitability in the sport and is threatening to take women’s hockey out of the Olympics, which would only de-legitimize the sport even further and create a bigger gap between the continents.
There are a few theories on why this gap persists. The best female athletes in Europe don’t play hockey, there isn’t a female hockey culture in Europe. Some compare the geographically-limited talent pool to having American football become an international sport. The US would dominate, Canada would compete, and then who?
So what’s the solution?
It’s a hard question to answer. But I think the IIHF could put some basic changes in place to start limiting the damage. First, the round-robin goal differential needs to go. There has to be a better way to settle ties. This will prevent teams from blowing out opponents, or running up the score to keep others at bay. Specifically this refers to Canada and the US. Essentially, every time they play against a given team, they compete with each other to see who scores the most goals against that opponent.
A small mitigating step, but it seems like an important one.
On a larger scale, there’s an opportunity here for women’s hockey as a whole to consider some new ideas, and here’s mine: I’ve often thought that it would be interesting to see a regional North American tournament made up of 5-6 teams. For example, Team Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic, Prairies, Rockies, Northeast US and Mid-West US among others could all have teams. The hockey could be very competitive as a structure similar to this would draw the best players from the continent. It might even develop a similar following as the Brier or Scotties in curling, which thrives on pitting regions against each other.
At the same time, the IIHF World Champs should be made an ‘every second year’ tournament, much like the IAAF Championships in Track & Field. It not only makes that track meet more special, but it allows athletes to plan for two-year training cycles.
Then in off-championship years, Europe could have a Women’s European Championship that would undoubtedly be competitive, without the 13-0 blowouts vs. Canada. European teams could compete for something they have a legitimate shot at winning. Winning often leads to building and improvement. In North America you could have the aforementioned regional championship run simultaneously. Then after the two-year cycle, hold the traditional World Championships after teams on both sides of the ocean have had two years to build. My two cents.
Women’s hockey has a lot of potential. And it would be great to see it grow outside of North America. The competitiveness of this tournament is felt when Canada plays the US, and everyone else doesn’t play these two. It’s not really fair, and the IIHF should find a way to promote a great game for women rather than have 13-0 blowouts.