ESPOO, Finland — The hand-wringing over women’s hockey in 2010 changed the game in ways not easily measured because Canada and the United States keep moving the goalposts for the rest of the world.
When the U.S. and Canada outscored their opposition by a combined 88-4 in the 2010 Winter Olympics, then-International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said ”we cannot continue without improvement.”
Where the International Ice Hockey Federation’s CDN$2.1 million investment in female hockey in the four years after 2010 is most evident is in the churn among countries ranked third to 10th in the world.
The North American hockey fan might shrug at this year’s relegation of 2006 Olympic silver medallist Sweden for the first time in women’s world championship history.
But from Switzerland winning Olympic bronze in 2014, to Germany placing a best-ever fourth at the 2017 world championship, to Japan knocking Sweden down to the Division 1 championship, the competition behind Canada and the U.S. has never been tighter.
The IIHF’s post-2010 initiatives spurred women’s hockey in the geographic areas requiring the biggest jolt — Europe and Asia.
“I think before Vancouver there were only a few federations that really put money and effort in women’s hockey,” IIHF council member Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer told The Canadian Press.
“It’s changed a lot since then.”
Rogge’s statement perceived by many as a threat to boot women’s hockey from the Olympic Games galvanized powerful people in the sport.
The IIHF rolled out coaching symposiums, international player and coach mentorship programs, international high-performance camps and an annual women’s world hockey day that’s since expanded to a weekend.
The world championship and Olympic tournament formats were altered so the top two seeds would never face the bottom two. All but the mentorship programs endure today.
But those remedies haven’t consistently reduced the women’s hockey gap between North America and the rest of the world nine years later.
Finland is within striking distance at times, most notably beating Canada for the first time two years ago in a preliminary-round game at the world championship.
Canada and the U.S. have a combined 168,000 registered female hockey players to Finland’s 5,800, so there’s more internal competition to reach the national-team level in North America.
And when the players don their national colours, Canada and the U.S. keep pushing the boundaries of their sport to keep up with each other.
“I can tell you right now Canada and the U.S. have improved a lot since I started playing in 2010,” Canadian forward Rebecca Johnston said.
“We put that pressure on our programs and each other to improve each day.
Added U.S. defender Kacey Bellamy: “What we’re doing in the U.S. and Canada, we’re trying to set the bar for everyone else and we’re raising the bar.”
Canada’s 6-1 win over Finland and the Americans blanking Switzerland 8-0 and Russia 10-0 in the group stage in Espoo doesn’t help debunk a criticism of women’s international hockey being a two-horse race.
“The gap is still there. Nobody is questioning that,” Kolbenheyer said. “It’s getting a bit closer.”
Japan taking on the U.S. and Germany facing Canada in Thursday’s quarterfinals will most likely reinforce the large disparity that still exists among the world’s top 10 countries.
The semifinals are Saturday followed by Sunday’s medal games.
On the ice, the American and Canadian veterans of 2010 say there is a difference in the quality of their opposition.
“The scores aren’t necessarily always indicative of the effort and the game that’s unfolding,” U.S. forward Hilary Knight said.
“Switzerland has had some success on the world stage. Russia seems more skilled than they used to be. Both of those teams are faster than they were in 2010.”
Expanding the world championship and Olympic tournament fields from eight to 10 countries is an incentive for federations to get behind their women’s teams.
“There’s more opportunities for these other nations to now see what the next level looks like and figure out how they’re going to get there,” Knight said.