TORONTO - When International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge announced in February that women's hockey could not "continue without improvement," he was not really threatening to remove the sport from the Winter Games, according to Canadian star Hayley Wickenheiser.
Speaking on opening night at the world hockey summit in Toronto, Wickenheiser told an audience the women's game needs improved access to facilities and stronger international leadership to strengthen the game in some of the weaker countries. Canada and the U.S. have dominated the sport, which prompted Rogge's remarks.
"I kind of look at it as more of a call to action for the hockey community to say, 'Look, what can we do to really grow the game here?'" she said. "And at the end of his statement he said, 'I would give them more time, personally, to develop.'
"And that's what the game needs. It's come a long way. We can't forget that. We get caught up in Canada and the U.S., but really, there's a lot there, and a lot of good."
More than 300 delegates gathered at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night to kick off the four-day event, designed to draw some of the sport's biggest names into an open public forum. Wickenheiser was on one of four rotating panels, asked to discuss the "state of the game" alongside Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, long-time player-agent Don Baizley and German men's team head coach Uwe Krupp.
Canada and the U.S. have combined to win every Olympic gold medal since the women's game was admitted 12 years ago. Rogge has suggested the sport could face expulsion if weaker countries do not begin to show signs of closing the expansive competitive gap.
"Facilities is a huge issue for kids in general, whether you're male or female, or wherever you live in the world—there's not enough rinks," Wickenheiser said. "You look at a country like Russia, which is hosting the next Olympic Games, and as big and as powerful a hockey nation as it is, there are six arenas where women play hockey in the entire country."
They need more, she said.
"It's not acceptable," Wickenheiser said. "It's not enough."
Stakeholders in the women's game met with representatives from the NHL before the summit began on Monday, with talks of a potential partnership. The Canadian Women's Hockey League and the Western Women's Hockey League have struggled to find stable footing.
"We've been in a dialogue with Hockey Canada and with women about, potentially, helping facilitate the creation of a women's league," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "And to the extent we can do that, and there's a sound business model, it's something that we certainly would be looking to be helpful on."
Daly, IIHF president Rene Fasel and KHL chairman Vyacheslav Fetisov were on another panel discussing pressing issues such as international contract disputes.
"I think we're on a different road than we've been in the last couple of years (with the KHL)," Daly said. "We obviously have had some misunderstandings and differences of (opinion), and you only bridge those differences of (opinion) by continued dialogue. And I think we've improved the level of dialogue in recent months."
Daly said he does not think either league is interested in a what he called a "classic" player transfer agreement.
"We want to forge common understandings," he said. "Our bedrock principle is respect of contract, mutual respect of contract. We want to get to a place where we each respect each other's contracts, as the should be respected."
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was on a panel with NHL super-agents Don Meehan and Pat Brisson to discuss minor hockey systems, and the role of agents with young players.
The event drew measured criticism before the doors opened on Monday night, with some questioning the cost of admission ($450 for the week), and others wondering what any of the non-binding discussions could produce.
It was not immediately known how many fans purchased tickets, though it was difficult to spot many in the crowd.
Player development will be discussed on Tuesday, followed by a global-themed agenda Wednesday and debate over the future of the women's game on Thursday. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is scheduled to host a question-and-answer session on Wednesday.
"Some concrete ideas can come out of this, but at the same time I think it’s more to start a discussion and see if it can have legs and go from there," Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "But I think everybody wants the same thing: grow the game of hockey, make it better."
—With files from CanadianPress reporter Gregory Strong