Thursday, August 26, 2010

The common goal: Women's hockey at the World Hockey Summit

Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser and USA's Angela Ruggiero
“I would love nothing more than for every boy and girl have an opportunity to play the greatest game in the world.” - Angela Ruggiero

There's was something slightly ironic for me when I heard that Hayley Wickenheiser and Angela Ruggiero would be coming together to speak about women's hockey at the World Hockey Summit this week in Toronto.  Here are two members of rival national hockey teams - 6 months ago they stepped onto a sheet of ice in Vancouver with only one goal in mind: to physically dominate and outscore each other and claim supremacy in women's hockey on the world's biggest stage.  Now, only half a year later, here they are speaking about their common passion and fighting for the same cause.  Yup that's how things roll in women's hockey.  The players of different nations can be bitter rivals but, at the end of the day, they have more in common than they do apart and those commonalities are what unite them and it might just be those commonalities that save the sport they love.  

After four days of dialogue, discussion, and debate between some of the world's greatest hockey minds, the 2010 World Hockey Summit wrapped up today in Toronto.  Analyzing hockey is a pass time here in Canada.  I think it's actually part of the cliché image that other nations have of us.  When they think about Canadians they picture us sitting in our igloos with a cup of Tim Horton's coffee in our hands sipping away as we discuss hockey and stroke our pet beavers!  It's pretty common to pass people in the streets who are analyzing the latest Canucks game, mockingly wondering when the Leafs will snap their 43-year Cup drought, or even wondering how our World Junior Team will do this year.  In the NHL, the league's brass are always thinking about ways to improve the game.  This Summit was not breaking new ground nor was it new territory.  It was merely a way to formally and publicly convey some thoughts for the future of the league and its players.  Even for international hockey, the Summit was important but not critical.

For women's hockey, though, this was a lifeline; an opportunity to address the problems and the needs of the sport in the presence of the greatest minds in hockey - minds who can help the women do something about the state of their sport.  The Summit was more important to the women's program than to any other that was included in the agenda.  It was therefore appropriate that the women's hockey panel consisted of respected players and coaches who see the challenges and fight the obstacles everyday.  Keynote speaker Hayley Wickenheiser (player - Canada), and panelists Angela Ruggiero (player - USA), Mel Davidson (coach - Canada), Mark Johnson (coach - USA - (yes the Miracle on Ice Mark Johnson!)), Arto Sieppi (female hockey director - Finland), and Peter Elander (coach - Sweden) didn't mince words when talking about the problems facing the sport and what can be done about it.  Ruggiero and Wickenheiser brilliantly described their journeys in hockey.  You could tell just by listening to them that they wanted to keep the dream alive for young girls all over the world.  Sieppi candidly admitted that when he was approached before the 1998 Olympics to take on the position of assistant coach for the Finnish women's hockey team he immediately said no.  Why?  In his opinion "women could not skate" and "were not athletes."  After turning down the job several more times Sieppi finally relented and agreed to get involved.  Today he is one of the greatest advocates for women's hockey and is probably one of the main reasons that Finland's national team won bronze in Vancouver.
"I've been on (the women's hockey) road for 12 years now and I don't have a single regret," Sieppi said. "There is no difference in hockey -- girls or boys -- it's hockey; the greatest game."
 It was encouraging to know that people were sticking up for the sport.  Still, I couldn't help but think that it wasn't enough.  Everything in our world is controlled by money.  No amount of hard work or determination is enough if you don't have funding.  Women's hockey is a prime example of this.  The Calgary Oval Xtreme of the Western Women's Hockey league is not in operation this year because of budget cuts at the Oval.  It would take $160,000 to run the team for the 2010-2011 season.  NHL players have cars in their garage that are more expensive than that.  Heck, Ray Emery's jewelery probably costs more than that!  And yet the team that has produced our last two Olympic team captains and is home to some of the game's best players will not be operating this season because they don't have that money.  Women's hockey is a victim of a lack of funding and the situation will not improve unless this changes.

It was, therefore, a relief for many when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly divulged that the league does have women's hockey on it's radar and that they do recognize that they will have to contribute and help the women's game out.  If the women's hockey leagues can work with the NHL to form a professional league here in North America it will attract the world's best players.  Women's hockey will gain more exposure and there will be a place for it's stars to develop and perfect their games.  It is not an overnight solution but it provides hope.  The NHL needs to get its players and its teams to support the women's teams.  And for NHL personalities like Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux there should be a personal investment in helping out the women.  Crosby's sister Taylor is a goaltender with dreams of playing on the national team and Lemieux's daughter Stephanie is a left winger with similar aspirations.  Even Atlanta Thrashers' defenceman Tobias Enstrom has a sister, Tina, who is on the Swedish national team.  A professional league formed with the help of the NHL is, I'm sure, the ultimate goal for advocates like Wickenheiser and Ruggiero.

Women's hockey has grown leaps and bounds in the last two decades.  The athletes and the sport are too good to just be dropped off the radar.  We haven't come all this way to give up now.  We are taking small steps towards where we want to be.  Female hockey players will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame starting this year, the Canadian Women's Hockey League held their first ever draft this summer, and the ladies finally have their own version of Lord Stanley - the Clarkson Cup (given to the league by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson) is the coveted trophy that young girls will hopefully grow up dreaming of hoisting.  The calibre of hockey is growing too.  Each generation of players is better than the one before it - in the same way that Crosby is better than Gretzky the women's game in North America is showing similar progress.  As an example, younger Olympians like Tessa Bonhomme, Marie-Philip Poulin, and the Lamoureux sisters showcase a much higher skill level than the likes of Danielle Goyette, Angela James, and Cammi Granato.  This is encouraging and we need to build on this.  We are fortunate to have so many superstar players who are willing to fight for equality in the sporting world.  Without them we wouldn't be here right now and, when we finally have a professional women's league and we are no longer fighting for support, they will go down as the legends who made it possible for young girls to fulfill their dreams. But now that the World Hockey Summit has highlighted what needs to be done the responsible parties need to take action immediately.  If Sochi 2014 doesn't showcase better quality hockey from European nations there won't be much anyone can do to save the sport from being cut.

Society likes to promote events by making them sound like battles - one vs. the other, Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin, Canada vs. USA, etc.  But the amazing thing is that, when it comes to hockey, Sid and Ovi, Taylor and Tyler, and Canada and the USA are all working towards the same thing: showcasing the game at the highest level so that it can open doors to facilitate global growth of the sport.  The same is true for women's hockey.  There will always be stages on which to showcase the rivalries that exist within the sport, but the 2010 World Hockey Summit showed that now more than ever is the time: now is the time for the greatest minds of hockey to unite, broaden their goals, to come together and provide the tools for the women.  If they can provide the stage I can guarantee that women's hockey will respond with a performance of a lifetime in Sochi and beyond.

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