USA coach Mark Johnson watches the women's preliminary game between USA and Finland. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
When we were designing our Olympics preview special issue, Chasing Glory, a few months back – and having some challenges making elements fit on a particular page – one of my colleagues turned to me and offered as a way to save space, “For the women’s schedule, we only need one line: the gold medal game. It’s the only game anyone cares about.”
Before you charge sexism, be aware this was a female staffer with expert and intimate knowledge of the women’s game.
And so it goes.
With Canada and the United States again steamrolling the competition en route to another gold-medal showdown, critics have risen to the surface like a stubborn case of acne, arguing the sport should be ejected from the Olympics until more national programs are competitive.
How much of a mistake would that be? Let us count the ways.
1. For starters, Canada vs. the United States remains one of the most compelling rivalries in all of hockey. It doesn’t matter the rest of the tournament isn’t competitive. This once-every-four-years predictable matchup is riveting, fuelled simultaneously by bad blood and mutual respect. Removing this spectacle from the grandest stage would rob fans of a special treat.
2. It isn’t the North Americans’ fault their programs are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the world. These women have trained every bit as hard and made as many sacrifices as the top downhill skiers, figure skaters and bobsledders. They’re world-class athletes in a beloved sport who deserve the spotlight treatment.
3. For all the predictability of the contests, the occasional upset does occur. When Sweden ousted Team USA in the semifinal in Turin behind the sensational goaltending of Kim Martin, a truly memorable Olympic moment was born.
4. The Olympics gives the women’s game the showcase it needs to inspire young girls around the hockey globe to take up the sport and speeds international development. The Kim Martins and Hayley Wickenheisers and Angela Ruggieros serve as heroes and role models to impressionable minds, kids who inevitably convince their parents to sign them up with the local program.
5. The Olympics, meantime, are the dangling carrot for national federations, providing heightened incentive to get better. Remove the carrot and the horse slows down.
6. Best-on-best competitions are critical for the embryonic hockey programs. It not only provides a measuring stick for executives, demonstrating how big the gap is between their programs and others, but gives the actual participants first-hand experiences and lessons on how to improve. You can study all the film you want, but there’s no substitute for facing a superior foe in real, intense competition.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays.
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