Talented, driven and trending toward photogenic, Noora Räty could be a standard bearer for the advancement of women's hockey — and instead, the formidable Finland goalie says she is quitting.
Räty, a two-time NCAA champion with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, held both Canada and the U.S. to three goals during preliminary round play at Sochi 2014. Finland was fallow offensively, though, and was eliminated from medal contention on Saturday with a 4-2 quarter-final loss to Sweden. Following the game, Agence France-Presse ((hat tip: NBC Olympic Talk) reported the 24-year-old Räty is quitting women's hockey. Hours later, the goalie elaborated and explained in a statement released over Twitter — more of a passionate plea to get the puck game's power brokers to pay more than lip service to investing in high-level female hockey — that she will retire if she can't find a competitive league to play in next season. By her definition, that would mean a men's minor league team, since she does not believe there is any such women's-only option.
The gist of it:
I play hockey because I love to get challenged as it drives to get better as an athlete and goalie. Thus, I would love to take on the challenge and try playing with men since I can’t play college hockey anymore and there’s no professional league for females in North America. But I guess the time will show if some men’s pro team is willing to give a chance.
In fact, I don’t feel that women’s hockey can grow or get any better in the future if the USA or Canada don’t get a professional league started soon. That is the next critical step that our sport needs to take or our sport will never be respected like it should be. Asking players to work full-time and then training like a pro athlete at the same time is just too much and unfair.
... I hope that all this positive TV and press coverage our sport is getting will lead to some great things in the future. Every player here is a tremendous athlete and deserves better opportunities. The USA and Canada are still a step or two ahead of other countries. Other than that, you never know who is going to win on a given day … Just like today Sweden played a great game and was able to beat us.
It's hard to believe that Räty has gone rogue and is not voicing what a lot of hockey women think about having constantly defend their inclusion in the Olympics. Team sports aren't always a top priority for amateur sports funding; there's only one available medal. Canada's women's hockey team was centralized for months on end before Sochi, but that's more of an exception and a relatively new thing. I still remember hearing former Olympic team goalie Sami-Jo Small, who took engineering at prestigious Stanford University, give a talk where she mentioned living out of her car in order to be able to afford to train.
It is essentially true that every Olympics or women's worlds seems to boil down to the Canada-U.S. prelim game and a rematch in the gold medal game. The 49th-parellel rivals are a tier unto themselves. But, speaking as someone whose hockey fixes come from more niche sources than the National Hockey League, there is more parity than every before in the next tier. Switzerland and Sweden, who are guaranteed of playing for a medal, finished sixth and seventh at the 2013 worlds in Ottawa. Finland and Russia, who were eliminated today, played in the bronze game.
Looking at the men's side, it's easy to conclude that the NHL's 1990s expansion, along with advances in training, sports medicine and whatnot, have created many more hockey-playing jobs for men and broken down a lot of barriers. Correlation doesn't imply causation but how else do you explain Switzerland winning a silver at world championship?
There has been more investment in North America, where there is the five-team Canadian Women's Hockey League. Alas, the CWHL hasn't received many shout-outs from CBC, TSN and Sportsnet talent relative to how often players' major junior teams are mentioned during TSN's broadcasts of the world junior championship. How many people know Canada's Meghan Agosta-Marciano and Team USA's Julie Chu are teammates with the Montreal Stars? (Thank you, Wikipedia.)
Point being, Räty, unlike a lot of her teammates' shots, is not off the mark. Following the 1996 Summer Olympics, two women's pro basketball leagues launched, with the NBA-buttressed WNBA winning out. It's not everyone's class of bubble tea, but the NBA believed underwriting a women's league was necessary to grow the game and do what's right. There are certainly hockey people in high places who feel similarly, but it's hard to see that day being close. Point being, look at the Räty story as one of a needless loss and not to ponder whether she will become this century's answer to Manon Rhéaume, since that misses the point how slow progress is in coming.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.