Friday, January 24, 2014

Vancouver 2010's Women's Hockey Legacy

Olympic Cauldron - Jack Poole Plaza - Vancouver, Canada
If anyone is ever visiting Vancouver and would like a tour, please let me know. I am happy to show off the beautiful city that I am lucky enough to call home to anyone and everyone who is up for a nice long walk (green tea and yoga mat in hand of course). Just know one thing: the tour will start and end at the same location - the Olympic Cauldron at Jack Poole Plaza.

The Olympic Cauldron overlooks Vancouver's gorgeous waterfront and is a popular attraction for locals and visitors alike. To many it is an opportunity to stand where Wayne Gretzky stood when he lit the 5 pillars that make up the glacial sculpture during the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Olympics. To me, it is a chance to sink back into nostalgia - to go back and picture the packed streets of downtown with everyone clad in red and white clothing, to go back and remember the sounds of spontaneous outbursts of O Canada when our athletes would win a medal, and to go back and remind myself that even though the Cauldron has long since been extinguished and the athletes are now prepping for another Winter Games, the Olympics were here not too long ago in my city, and that when they were here, history was made and believers were born.

Up until the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver's history with the sport of women's hockey had been somewhat weak. Perhaps it explains why Team Canada has never had a BC-born player on its Olympic roster. Canada has hosted the IIHF World Women's Championships 6 times in 17 years, but never in Vancouver. We have also never hosted the 4 Nations Cup in Vancouver, despite Canada having been the host nation 5 times. So when the women took to the ice at UBC for their preliminary games and Canada Hockey Place for the medal games it was, for many Vancouverites, their first exposure to the sport of women's hockey. Smart and passionate hockey fans as we are though, we caught on fast, and by the end of the Olympics Vancouverites had gained a true appreciation for the sport's capabilities and we already had our favourite players picked out. When Finland's goalie Noora R├Ąty was presented her bronze medal, the Canadian crowd roared its approval because they recognized how talented this goalie was and how important she was to her team's success. When American Julie Chu was presented her silver medal, the crowd gave her a lengthy applause in recognition of her years of service to the sport, her incredibly sportsmanlike demeanour throughout her career, and the fact that she was of Asian descent much like a large share of Vancouver's population. And when Hayley Wickenheiser had a gold medal placed around her neck, the cheers from the home fans were deafening. If it's one thing we know it is that Hayley Wickenheiser is an icon.

Despite the boom of girl's hockey and women's hockey in Canada since the sport's inaugural Olympics in 1998, Vancouver and B.C in general are still in the dark. We have players and we have teams, but the level of play and the desire to strive for more is still lacking. Women's hockey got some much needed exposure during the Olympics and the legacy is something that will hopefully see the sport catch on more out west than it has in the past. Women's hockey in Vancouver wasn't just about the on-ice games. It started at the Opening Ceremonies when it was Wickenheiser who was selected to represent all 2,566 athletes in reciting the Athlete's Oath:
"In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams."
It was a mark of how highly regarded Wickenheiser is in the world of sports that she was entrusted with laying the groundwork for a fair and clean competitive event. Many of Canada's athletes became adored for their post-victory celebrations as much as for their achievements in their respective sports, and the women's hockey team was no different. Team Canada may have drawn criticism for their post-gold medal beers and cigars but to us, they were even more loved for it, and it further reinforced our belief in one statement we all know is true: "Canadian hockey chicks are cool!" On the same day as the gold medal game, IOC President Dr.Jacques Rogge released a critical review of the sport of women's hockey.

"There must be at a certain stage an improvement. We cannot continue without improvement," Rogge said. "There is an improvement in the number of nations - and we want to see this wider."

Dr.Rogge's comments were a blow at the time, and his words distracted away from a fantastic gold medal game, which Canada had just won on home soil, but it laid the groundwork for action to be taken. Since then, the IIHF has committed roughly $2.1 million into growing the sport internationally. That happened on our soil here in Vancouver. Is it enough? Probably not. Is it a start? Absolutely.

Since the 2010 Games, Vancouver has hosted the Esso Cup female midget championships, and the UBC Thunderbirds women's hockey team has gained attention by winning the Canada West title in 2013. Vancouver played host to the Wickenheiser Female World Hockey Festival for 3 years. The sport is in the news now. People are taking note.

Vancouver's Olympic legacy will not be one of extravagant venues and mind-blowing special effects at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Our legacy will be in what those 17 days did to change the face of sport in our country and beyond. In Vancouver we learned that in order to get the best results out of our athletes, we have to first provide them with the tools to train and hone their talents. We committed to more funding for our athletes. We committed to better training facilities for them. There is recognition that Vancouver now has an affiliation to the sport of women's hockey. We too care about its past, present, and particularly its future. We believe that our players can make the team too. There is support and there is hope. As VANOC CEO John Furlong said in his speech to close out the Games: "It is possible to achieve greatness through the power of a dream." 

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