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Improved Women's Hockey No Longer on Thin Olympic Ice

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USA TODAY

International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel makes it clear there is no doomsday clock counting down on the future of women's hockey in the Olympics. "We will stay, we will stay, there is no doubt," Fasel told USA TODAY Sports.

Women's hockey's Olympic future seemed hazier four years ago when a series of non-competitive, blowout games in Vancouver prompted public discussion of whether the sport truly was Olympic-worthy. The USA and Canada were the only countries with strong programs.

News media speculated it might follow the path of women's softball and end up ousted from the Games, particularly after then-International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said, "We cannot continue without improvement."

Fasel responded by putting together an eight-year plan to make the sport more competitive, and the IIHF work already has paid off with a closer, more competitive tournament in Sochi.

"There have been some good matches, and we are very pleased," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "It's a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, isn't it? You have to get into the program for the sport to develop, and it's clearly happening. "

In 2010, Canada won its first three games by a combined score of 41-2. In 2014, a total of 41 goals were scored in the first nine games of the tournament.

"We will get there -- I promise," Fasel said. "The gold medal will probably be played between USA and Canada, but we have interesting competition for the bronze. You could have Finland, Sweden, Russia, Switzerland and maybe even Japan."

In previous Olympics, Canada and the USA seemed two steps ahead of Sweden and Finland, which seemed two steps ahead of the rest of the field.

"I think we need to be patient," U.S. coach Katey Stone said. "There have been tremendous (strides) made in the sport ... and I think we should talk less about what if the gap's big vs. how do we continue to close the gap. I think it is closing.

"You look at all these teams. They have strong goaltending, and the players are much better in front of them than they ever have been before."

USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean also thinks the chances of women's hockey going away are "extremely remote."

"It's the only true women's team sport in the Winter Olympics," Ogrean said. "It must constitute a significant percentage of the female athlete positions in the Winter Games. And because of the new grouping and the work of the IIHF, we have seen better competitive balance in just four years."

The IIHF altered the preliminary-round format to group stronger teams together. That change eliminates some early-round blowouts without costing top teams any advantage.

As important, the IIHF has placed heavy emphasis on goalie training in countries with developing teams. "We said we have to have good goaltending, because that is the key to a good team," Fasel said. "When you have a good goaltender, you can stay in games. The old saying is a good goalie is 60% of a game and bad goaltender is 80% of the game."

The USA and Canada continue to have quality goaltending, and now Noora Raty (Finland), Florence Schelling (Switzerland) and Nana Fujimoto (Japan) are considered world-class goalkeepers.

Another issue is a lack of participants in many countries. According to Fasel, Canada has 80,000 registered female players and the USA has 60,000. "I would say Finland is next, and they have 5,000," Fasel said. "And Switzerland, it's just under 2,000."

Fasel said the IIHF put $2 million into improving the women's game after Vancouver.

"My dream is one day going from eight to 10 teams, and then another dream is to go 12 teams in the women's hockey tournament," Fasel said.

However, the big question is how long it will take before one of the developing teams is strong enough to challenge Canada or the USA. "I don't know, and I know journalists don't like that answer," Fasel said. "It took Switzerland 60 to 70 years to beat Canada in men's competition. I don't think it will take as long for the ladies as it did for the men."

Women's hockey is still in its infancy in terms of organized international competition. The IIHF didn't start sanctioning a world championship until 1990, and it became an Olympic sport in 1998. "It really takes time to build," Fasel said. "To build up a good hockey (program), it takes 20 years."

He also likes that the efforts to improve the sport have paid off with more fan interest.

"But it's not enough," Fasel said. "We have to do more."

Contributing: Dan Wolken

 

February 13, 2014

 

 
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