Fix or drop women’s hockey
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The opening rounds of women’s hockey at the Winter Olympics are not sport. They are ritual slaughter. The sport’s beasts – all two of them – put such savage, severe beatings on their feckless opponents that taking the sport seriously becomes impossible.
Which is a shame, really, because the United States and Canadian women’s hockey teams can play. Like, seriously play. The goal 20-year-old American Jocelyne Lamoreux scored Sunday afternoon against China, a between-the-legs special – first through her own to deke the defense, then through the goalie’s – would fit on any NHL highlight clip.
And yet the attention following the game focused on neither Lamoreux’s goal nor Jenny Potter’s hat trick. The score was the story for the second time in 24 hours, the United States’ 12-1 brutalizing of China coming a day after Canada trounced Slovakia 18-0. The same Slovakia team that, in an Olympic pre-qualifying tournament, beat Bulgaria 82-0. Uh-huh. No typo.
That is women’s hockey: a goal-a-minute beatdown in all but a few matchups. So wide is the chasm between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, the International Olympic Committee should issue an ultimatum to the sport’s powers that be: Figure out how to balance the sport’s competitiveness or risk losing standing as an Olympic competition after the 2018 Games.
Softball got only four chances before the IOC whacked it, competitive balance and United States dominance the foremost issue. For all the supremacy Team USA exhibited in men’s basketball, from the Dream Team through the Redeem Team, five different countries have finished in second place since the Olympics allowed professionals to participate. Another two have medaled.
The Vancouver Games mark the fourth for women’s hockey. Including the 18-0 win, two-time gold medalist Canada’s aggregate score is 127-19. The United States won the other gold. Its cumulative embarrassments: 113-18, which, after 16 games, comes to an average of 7-1. Six-goal games cannot sustain a sport.
By giving women’s hockey’s organizers eight years to grow the game – to make more than cursory inroads in China, where an estimated 200 women of the country’s 650 million participate in the game, and in other European countries, where thriving men’s hockey teams are offset by a stigma toward women who play – it gives respite to a sport that deserves a chance.
“It’s a concern,” United States captain Natalie Darwitz said. “It would be very unfortunate if they took women’s hockey out of the Olympics because this is all we have. This is our NHL, our Stanley Cup playoffs.”
Against China, it looked more like the NHL against a midget team. The United States outshot China 24-1 in the first period and held a 5-0 lead. Regular possessions resembled power plays, the Chinese defensemen reacting as though someone paused their internal DVRs and started playback a half-second late. By the time it held a 10-goal lead, the United States let up.
“It’s a lose-lose situation really,” Darwitz said. “Do you run up the score or pull back? They can both be insults.”
Admirable though the idea was, the Olympics aren’t a pity party. Athletes belong or they don’t. And so crash together the Olympic ideal of sportsmanship and women’s hockey, where it’s a nebulous-at-best concept.
“In any sport that’s new and introduced, you kind of have to have the frontrunners, and then you have to kind of be able to develop the other countries,” said Julie Chu, a three-time American Olympian. ” … With time, I think the development of the other countries will come.”
Maybe. Chu and her teammates like to say the other teams have improved. Only the last time the Americans and Chinese met in the Olympics, in 2002, the final score was 12-1, too. However much the Chinese and other teams have improved, so have the Americans.
Should USA Hockey and the other governing bodies around the world devote the proper resources the sport’s health, perhaps the teams will make the necessary leaps to save the sport’s viability. The women cite men’s hockey in the Olympics as a reason to preach patience, the early scores even more horrifying. In 1920, the United States beat Switzerland 29-0. Canada outscored opponents in pool play 85-0 the next time around and shut them out the next year, too. By the fifth Olympics, Great Britain won gold – with a roster full of Canadians, but still – and in 1940, at least five teams were legitimately competitive.
“This is our fourth one,” U.S. goalie Molly Schaus said. “You’ve got to give it a little more time to find out.”
Hockey, then, needs to give more to the Olympics than Jinelle Zaugg-Siergiej vs. Linuo Wang. Zaugg-Siergiej is a 6-foot, 176-pound on-ice truck, Wang a 5-foot-2, 126-pound Smart Car. When Zaugg-Siergiej chased down Wang from behind and nearly recorded the world’s first instance of death by poke check, it illustrated the difference between the teams. The United States is big, strong and smooth. China is tiny, feeble and jagged.
So as the Chinese managed a Jin Fengling goal against American backup Brianne McLaughlin to cut the deficit to 11-1, they celebrated with the gusto of a medal winner. So did the crowd, rooting on the underdog amid its public flogging. It was admirable, sweet even. For 57 minutes, the Chinese suffered indignity after indignity, and they persevered to grab one moment.
If China wants to succeed at something, it does, and if the Chinese government ever devotes the resources to women’s hockey, it will win, and quickly. Just last Olympics, Sweden upset the United States 3-2 in a semifinal matchup, leaving the Americans with a bronze medal. It was the right first step for the sport. It needs plenty more.
Say, a different gold medalist. It’s not happening here, Canada and the United States far too strong, and probably not in 2014 either. The 2018 Games are a worthwhile goal. With fresh medalists and without double-digit losses in preliminary games, women’s hockey would sustain itself instead of relying on two great teams, a couple mediocre ones and a bunch of also-rans.
“Our job,” Darwitz said, “is to hopefully put a good product on the ice.”
They do. The same can’t be said for the rest of women’s hockey.
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