Wednesday, April 25, 2012

NHL's loss, Women's Hockey's gain? Capitalizing on the NHL's blunders

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing some incredible hockey - fast, physical, agile, and skillful, with intense rivalries, upsets, and edge-of-your-seat overtime heroics. NHL playoffs you ask? Sadly the answer to that is no. Since my beloved Vancouver Canucks barely even made an appearance in the playoffs (*moment of silence *) I have found the NHL’s post season quite difficult to watch. Between the diving and embellishing to try and draw penalties (yes I know my Canucks are guilty of that), the line brawls breaking out at every whistle, and the potentially career-ending head hits being delivered on a daily basis I was starting to wonder where the pure, skillful hockey had gone. Luckily I didn’t have to wait long for my answer. 

Women’s hockey doesn’t get a whole lot of air time. Particularly in Vancouver where we don’t have a CWHL team and our CIS team the UBC Thunderbirds aren’t exactly stellar (they finished the season with a 1-21-2 record), if we want to watch high-level women’s hockey we have only limited opportunities to satisfy our interest. Luckily this season SSN Canada live streamed every game of the Clarkson Cup tournament and TSN showed most of Team Canada’s games at the 2012 Women’s World Hockey Championships. Of course TSN did not show the gold medal game live. Those of us without TSN2 were forced to follow along on USA Hockey’s live blog for updates from the gold medal game. 

How I found out who won Gold at the Women’s World Championships
Thanks USA Hockey for the live blog!
 It was a good thing women’s hockey got the exposure it did this year because I found myself thoroughly enjoying the action and appreciating the brand of hockey that was being played. In my opinion, the NHL was at its finest when it was being led by people who loved the game for what it was. When it wasn’t about multi-million dollar contracts, TV deals, and marketing the game to people in places who don’t understand it anyways. The game was the finest when it was about homegrown heroes; superstars who came from humble beginnings and were cultivated in their own backyards. Women’s hockey is right now where the NHL used to be back in the 70’s and 80’s. There is no hype and fanfare surrounding the players but there is passion – passion for the sport and for the cause – and the players are playing for the right reasons. Because body checking is illegal in women’s hockey the players defend against opponents the right way – with their speed, positioning, and defensive awareness. Players are being able to make beautiful plays with the puck. Goals are no longer the result of a fluky bounce - they are works of art. The players are skating faster, shooting harder, and making stronger plays. And almost every team in the CWHL and on the National Teams has a goaltender that is capable of putting the team on her back and leading them to victories.  There is a genuine understanding and appreciation that is evident when the ladies play. They are appreciative to be there, to have support, and to be playing the sport they love at a high level. They don’t complain about the fans or the media pressures being too demanding mainly because they don’t have those pressures. These ladies have real pressures such as how to keep their league running on a season to season basis, how to incorporate their careers, families, and educations into a very busy hockey schedule, and how to ensure that their sport continues to grow worldwide. And there is an underlying respect between the players. There are bitter rivalries, sure, but they never spill over into line brawls, cross checks, deliberate collisions, and blindsided hits that result in one player being carted off the ice on a stretcher. Scores are settled the right way – on the ice, during plays, between the whistles.

The NHL is losing respect from its loyal fan base every time Brendan Shanahan has to suit up and record another suspension video. There were years past where the couch in front of the TV would be my perch for hours at a time while I watched game after game after game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year I’ve watched maybe 3 games of the first round because the antics of the league and its players is so demoralizing. And I can’t be the only one. But yet I watched every Clarkson Cup game and every Team Canada game. There is a great opportunity looming for women’s hockey. If the sport and its players continue to develop the way they have so far, and if the national teams can continue to bridge the skill gaps between the nations, even the sport’s toughest critics will have no choice but to tune in and recognize that this is the way hockey was meant to be played. This mission could be given a further boosted if there is an NHL lockout next season. Major networks like Rogers Sportsnet , TSN, and CBC will have large time slots available with no NHL games to broadcast. What a perfect opportunity for the CWHL, CIS, and NCAA to showcase their skills to fans in Canada and/or the US. It could be the one thing the sport has been looking for to give it a real boost.

Honest hockey is still out there folks, we just have to embrace it. The NHL’s loss could be women’s hockey’s gain. One thing is for sure: we are approaching a pivotal time for the sport of women’s hockey. One more Raffi Torres knockout hit in the NHL and it might just send fans flocking in our direction as they crave to watch hockey in its purest form, and the way it was always meant to be played.

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