CALGARY — A dearth of international women's hockey is about to be replaced by an abundance of it.
Next month, the International Ice Hockey Federation is expected to add a women's world hockey championship to the same calendar year as a Winter Olympics. The men play a world championship in an Olympic year, but the women currently don't.
"It was the only championship program within the IIHF, the only category where we had no top tournament in an Olympic year," IIHF council member Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer told The Canadian Press.
A world championship in August 2022, in a location yet to be named, would mean three major women's tournaments in the span of a year after two years of meagre international women's hockey because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2021 championship, which was rescheduled and relocated to Calgary in August because Nova Scotia refused to hold the championship in May, is less than six months out from February's Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The IIHF council proposes returning the women's championship to spring in non-Olympic years.
"The more programming we can add to the schedule the better," American forward Hilary Knight said. "Obviously these are world-class athletes competing on a world stage.
"A lot of emphasis is placed on the Olympics, but to have a world championship even during an Olympic year is important."
For countries that run a full-time women's team in the months heading into a Winter Olympics, it means ramping up preparations again next summer for a championship not long after medals are hung around necks in Beijing.
Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada's director of national women's programs who won Olympic gold with Canada in 2006 and 2010, is preparing for that shift in 2022.
"If we want to grow our game internationally, we want to make sure we're visible and we continuously play at that high platform, having a world championship every year is crucial," Kingsbury said.
"It's going to be interesting to see where they position it in the season. It needs to be strategic in the amount of rest we provide our athletes. We need to think of the athletes first and make sure it fits in their yearly training plan."
The world championship in Calgary is the first in over two years. The recent lack of international games has increased the appetite among players for more in the future.
"Every opportunity we have to play hockey, and play games, we'll take it," Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin said. "It's been a couple long years for women's hockey to have games, and to play against the best and to play with the best, we've been missing that a lot."
Canada's assistant captain Brianne Jenner says where the world championship is inserted into the calendar during an Olympic year is important to her.
"I'm not entirely against it, but it would have to be a time that fits the well-being of players and something that would work within the schedule," she said.
"Looking at this year, it's different having a world championship and an Olympics in such a short time, and I think there will be a lot of opinions on that, but I can tell you right now as a player that gets me excited."
World championship hockey operates like European soccer leagues. Teams below the top-tier world championship play for promotion to a higher division, and try to avoid relegation to a lower division.
The IIHF began holding lower-division women's championships in an Olympic year in 2014 to encourage federations who don't invest a lot in women's programs to do so.
Promotion and relegation remained an issue without the top-tier women's championship, however.
Slovakia earned promotion in 2017, but didn't qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics and thus had to wait until 2019 to compete in a top women's tournament.
"It was tough for Division 1 players and staff to prepare for a world championship where you can't get promoted," Kolbenheyer explained.
The pandemic wiping out the 2020 championship, also scheduled for Nova Scotia, further complicated the promotion-relegation issue.
"COVID pushed us to do it now because next year we're going to have a Division 1A tournament, but if we couldn't have this top tournament in August, then they again won't have a chance at promotion," Kolbenheyer said.
Kolbenheyer believes international women's hockey has evolved enough to accommodate a second major tournament in an Olympic year.
"We all agree within the council and within the women's committee that this is the next step we're supposed to do to develop our game and develop women's hockey," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press