Thursday, January 13, 2011

For the Greater Good of the Game

The elated (and deserving) bronze medal winners: Team Finland
I want my beloved Vancouver Canucks to win a Stanley Cup...NOW. After 40 painful year of suffering through rises and rebuilds, after being teased with the success of Pavel Bure in the early 90's and the West Coast Express in the early 2000's - neither of which resulted in a Stanley Cup - myself and my fellow fans are ready for Lord Stanley to be hoisted into the air by the Vancouver Canucks. And let me be clear about one thing: In hockey I don't switch loyalties. If the Canucks are eliminated from the playoffs I don't simply move on and jump onto the bandwagon of another hockey team. There is a long process of anger, acceptance, and healing and sometimes I even flirt with a visit to rehab. Rough times I'm telling you! My point is, I love my hockey team and I cheer for them and only them.

It's no different with my other favourite hockey team - the Canadian National Women's squad. Prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics I had said that the only gold medal I really wanted was in women's hockey. I know that all of Canada was desperate for the men's team to win gold on home soil and I'm not going to lie, when Crosby scored that goal in OT I jumped about as high into the air as Alexandre Bilodeau did a few days earlier in his golden moguls run (albeit my jump didn't include a fancy twist in the air). But knowing that the Games were at home and that there would be young Canadian girls watching as our team took to the ice, I knew that this was the sport's greatest chance to gain some glory. This was a chance to inspire young players and, for the members of the team, it was a chance for them to become national heroes - a title that they so deserved. I wanted the women's team to experience the 18,000+ at Canada Hockey Place cheer for them and sing the national anthem with them. This is something the men's teams experience almost every day in the NHL. For the women, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Now that the Games are over and the team will go down in Canadian history for having won gold at home, I admit that my loyalties are starting to shift just a little bit. Many of the other women's hockey teams at the Olympics caught my eye - hearing Team China communicate on the ice in their native tongue, watching the Team Switzerland coach jump for joy when his team scored their one and only goal against Canada, seeing Team Slovakia still attempting to block shots in a game where Canada was leading them 18-0, and seeing Team Finland stand and sing their national anthem after winning the bronze medal made me acquire a great affection for these other teams. They have managed to play on the same stage as Canada and the USA with about half the financial and structural support from their respective national governing bodies. They share the same dream as their Canadian and American counterparts but whereas the latter have the backing of solid hockey organizations like Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, the former are usually supported only with funding left over from their nations' respective men's programs.

For these teams to beat the likes of Canada and the USA it will be no small task. The level of hockey within their teams needs to improve exponentially because, at the present time, the discrepancy between the nations is glaring. And the level of play will not be improved simply through focusing on the twenty-somewhat members of the Olympic teams. The game has to be grown at a grassroots level, knowledgeable coaches, managers, and trainers have to take over at the helm of the programs, and the number of high level athletes needs to increase so that the talent pool from which the national teams are formed are larger and more competitive. But ironically, winning games and eventually tournaments is what will fuel this progress in the first place and it is imperative for the growth of the games in their own countries and worldwide. The women's hockey movement has to reach the furthest corners of each nation and talent needs to be discovered wherever it may exist. For example, not all the members of Team Canada come from big cities like Toronto, Montreal, or Calgary. Shaunavon, Ruthven, Beauceville, and Uranium City (ummm where the heck is that!?) are all cities that have produced top level hockey players. While the players may have eventually moved to bigger cities to gain better opportunities in hockey, they got their starts in these small town hockey organizations and yet were still discovered and given a chance on a bigger stage. By contrast, all 23 members of the Chinese National Team were born in one of two cities - Harbin or Qiqihar - and all belong to club teams from one of those two cities. This means that there are likely females who are interested in playing hockey but who live on the outskirts of the country and are, therefore, unable to gain access to the national program. That's like saying Canada will only look at players from Ontario. Well in that case, we'd have no Hayley Wickenheiser (a Saskatchewan product), no Marie-Philip Poulin (a Quebecois), and no goalies (Szabados, St.Pierre, and Labonte are all from outside Ontario). The greatest talents in the country would be left undiscovered.

The easiest solution is to bring players from Europe and Asia over to North America. This is already starting to happen with players coming over to play college hockey in the US and in the CWHL here in Canada. But at the same time, it's one thing to ask Teemu Selanne to move to North America and quite another to ask a women's hockey player to do it. There are no multi-million dollar contracts, no endorsements, and no lives of luxury here for women's hockey players. There is only the prospect of leaving their families and their homes to live in a foreign land with the hope of being given opportunities to play hockey at a higher level. Financially though, the incentives are pretty sparse.

Perhaps it would be in the best interest of the sport that Canada and the US send their own personnel over to these secondary nations to do some scouting and developing of the young players. In most sports, it's unheard of that nations help each other make progress. However, in the case of women's hockey, it is no longer about one country vs. the other. It's about the sport as a whole and, at this rate, the sport will not survive to see much past the 2014 Sochi Games. In such a short time span, women's hockey has made so many strides. Each nation has produced a few star players who have become the face of the sport in their respective countries. At events like the Hayley Wickenheiser International Women's Hockey Festival that was held recently in Vancouver, a spotlight was shone on a team from Kladno, Czech Republic. The team with no money, no matching equipment, and no real national program put on a show for the locals. Their brand of hockey was hard working and skillful and they ended up winning their tier of the tournament. It didn't matter that some of them had red hockey pants while others had black ones. They were given the opportunity to shine and they did. It's time to give that same opportunity to female players everywhere so that the positive strides can be reflected on the international stage.

So, for the greater good of the game, I truly hope that someday soon I am forced to watch as Team Finland stands and sings their national anthem at the Olympics - only this time with their flag being raised higher than those of Canada and the US. I hope that Team China stuns my beloved Canadians with a big win at the Nationals. I hope women's hockey finds its version of the "Jamaican Bobsled Team" that comes out of the woodwork and takes everyone by storm. Because when that happens, I won't be disappointed or frustrated in the effort of Canada. I will be proud in knowing that it was our players and personnel who had a hand in another team's triumph. I will be satisfied in knowing that somewhere in that victorious nation young girls will be saying "I want to play hockey too." And I will be thrilled, because in that moment, the sport I love will have made its greatest stride yet.

1 comment:

  1. It will be difficult, but with incentives and patience on all involved, it certainly can be very gratifying on the long term. I'd love to see teams like the Slovaks succeed sometime, given that they have a much better chance here than in the men's tournaments.
    Women's games have the potential to be quite more entertaining than the "strength" profile of men's games.