SOCHI, Russia — On Monday, the U.S. women’s hockey team took on an improved Swiss team with a hot goalie. Florence Schelling, playing in her third Olympics, is the only woman ever to play on a men’s B team in Switzerland.
The Americans won, 9-0. They gave Schelling a royal shelling, firing 53 shots on net. They set an Olympic record by scoring three goals in a span of 55 seconds. But it wasn’t a total loss for the Swiss. At least they finished with more shots on goal (10) than the U.S. had actual goals.
In Olympic women’s hockey, this is what qualifies as progress. The women from the U.S. and Canada, who have an obvious self-interest, insist that the other countries are slowly catching up, even when the evidence argues to the contrary.
Evidently, the International Olympic Committee isn’t buying. After the 2010 Games, when the U.S. and Canada steamrolled the field by an aggregate 86-4 score on the way to the final, the IOC put women’s hockey on notice. If things don’t get more competitive, the sport could get dumped.
They modified the format for Russia. They put the top four countries (U.S., Canada, Finland and Switzerland) in Pool A, which allows the weaker sisters in Pool B (Sweden, Russia, Germany and Japan) to avoid playing the two dominant world powers in the preliminary round.
That should eliminate some of the epic blowouts that illuminated the sorry lack of depth in the women’s game – like Canada’s 18-0 win over Slovakia in Vancouver. Now the top two teams go directly to the semifinals, while the bottom two teams in Group A the top two in Group B battle in the quarters.
But what does is say about your sport when half of the Olympic field needs to be coddled that way? The one sure thing in the Olympics, aside from hearing the word “gnarly” at the halfpipe venue, is that the U.S. and Canada will meet in the women’s hockey final.
They’ve met for the gold medal in three of the four Olympics since women’s hockey was added in 1998. The U.S. won in ’98 and Canada the last three. They have played for the World Championship the last 15 years in a row.
To no one’s surprise, they’re safely in the semis after sweeping the Finns and Swiss. So Wednesday’s game between Canada and the U.S. means virtually nothing, except who will have to face Finland, the third-best team in the tournament, in the semifinals.
This doesn’t make for great drama. As entertainment value goes, it wasn’t very gripping to see the U.S. players buzzing around the Swiss net Monday, firing pucks at poor Schelling. Molly Schaus, the U.S. goalie, had so much free time she could have read “Crime And Punishment” in her crease. Swiss fans cheered wildly for the odd, innocuous two-on-two rush.
So what do they say to skeptical sports fans who watch this stuff and don’t see signs of the world catching up at all?
“Oh, I disagree,” said U.S. coach Katey Stone. “I just think there’s so much more to this than one little game. I sat here yesterday afternoon and watched Russia play Germany and it was one of the best experiences that I’ve had in my hockey life.
“To see the Russian athletes be able to play in front of a crowd like that was unbelievable. I didn’t want to leave the building.”
Stone got emotional when she talked about it. She has coached for 18 years at Harvard and won 378 games. Stone has seen women’s hockey grow in the U.S. She was a little girl when Title IX was passed, cracking open the doors for American females to receive equal access to athletics.
Like any woman who came of age during that time, Stone knows change didn’t come overnight. Progress has been even slower around the globe. Gender equity has come gradually in the Olympics. But it has been encouraging in recent years to see the females catching up.
The Olympics are the one major sporting event where women are on close to an equal footing. The extreme sports celebrate women. Ski jumping is finally in the Games after a 90-year wait. Women’s boxing is now an Olympic sport.
But the IOC likes to throw its weight around now and then. This is reminiscent of the argument over women’s softball, which was tossed out because the Americans were too dominant. Then, in the final year of Olympic softball, the U.S. lost the gold medal to Japan.
Really, should Canada and U.S. apologize for being so much better than anyone else in hockey, when most of the girls in the world have never even had a chance to play? The winter sports are fairly exclusive to begin with. You don’t see many people of color in the downhill or the moguls.
There are only 562 registered female hockey players in Russia. That’s amazing, when you consider the long, glorious history of men’s hockey in the old Soviet Union. As we’ve seen on the gay issue, the Russians aren’t the most evolved country on the equity front.
“It is true that Russians do not know much about women’s hockey,” said former NHL star Alexei Yashin, the general manager of the Russian women’s team. “A lot of people think that girls aren’t supposed to play hockey at all.”
Perhaps some Russian girls saw their country’s 4-1 win over the Germans and wondered if they might give the sport a try. Look what happened to girls’ soccer in the U.S. after the national team went big . It’s about inspiring young people and giving them an opportunity.
The American and Canadian girls seized the opportunity and set a standard for women’s hockey that is very tough to equal. If you penalize them for being so much better than everyone else, when does everyone get a chance to catch up?
“You have to focus on the positive,” Stone said. “Kids are knocking themselves out, women are knocking themselves out, to put the best possible product on the ice. I think people have to be patient.”
Remember the days when the U.S. men’s basketball team was unbeatable? By setting a very high standard, and showing the world how the game was meant to be played, the U.S. lifted the game internationally. Soon enough, we got beat, too.
Rather than complain about the U.S. and Canadian women being too good, we should celebrate them. Let girls around the world know what’s possible. Some day hockey, and the Olympics, will be better for it.