Will Women's Hockey Gold Medal Thriller Keep Sport off Thin Olympic Ice?

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2014

Canada came from behind to prevail for the latest Olympic gold medal.
Canada came from behind to prevail for the latest Olympic gold medal.Petr David Josek/Associated Press

Anyone fortunate enough to catch even part of Canada's 3-2 overtime win vs. the United States in the women's hockey gold-medal game at the Sochi Olympics would have to agree that it was an epic moment in sports.

But can it have any kind of lasting impact in a sport that overall lacks competitive teams and generally has to wait four years in between the only rivalry game that catches the attention of anyone outside the small circle of devoted women's hockey fans (i.e. mostly relatives of those playing in the games)?

Sadly, the realistic answer to that question is probably not.

But here's to hoping that maybe it will.

What women's hockey really needs to pray for is that lots of little girls and their parents watched Canada's remarkable come-from-behind win all over the world and that now the little girls are begging said parents for a pair of skates, a hockey stick and directions to the local ice rink.

David Goldman/Associated Press/Associated Press

That even goes for in America, where most girls who start out with a love for playing hockey as a youth move on to other interests by the time they reach their teens.

Former women's collegiate player Maura Grogan wrote on ESPN.com recently of her first-hand experiences of attempting to switch from figure skating to ice hockey as a youth, illustrating the far-reaching impact women playing hockey in the Olympics can have:

I finally had the chance to play ice hockey in 1978 when Yale University, where I was a student, created a women's ice hockey team. I loved the sport. In 1990 I took to the ice again when I as one of the only women in an adult league. By the time I hung up my skates in 2003, there were all-women tournaments across the country and today, 85 colleges have NCAA women's ice hockey teams.

The growth in women's participation that I saw firsthand is a direct result of women' ice hockey becoming an Olympic sport in 1998, part of the International Olympic Committee's efforts to promote women's participation in the Olympics.

Grogan went on to point out that in 1990, the year of the first International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championships, there were only 6,336 registered female hockey players in the U.S. Today, the IIHF says 65,700 participate in the U.S. and another 87,230 are registered players in Canada, according to ESPN.com.

Yes, this was a bone-jarring, gut-wrenching, hard-to-take defeat for the American women, who seemed to have the gold medal securely in their hands until they gave up a pair of goals over a 3 1/2-minute stretch—including the one that tied the score with just 54.6 seconds left—to see a 2-0 lead disappear in the third period on Thursday.

But over time, even those rooting for America who were devastated by the defeat should be able to see the value of the game and the sport's rightful place in the Winter Olympics lineup.

That, in itself, will not be enough to matter if other countries don't soon start catching up more rapidly with Canada and the United States in the international rink.

It would be cool to say that the sport already has come a long way since the morning of the gold-medal game between these same two countries back at Vancouver in 2010, when then-International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge surprised reporters by suggesting the sport was treading on very thin Olympic ice.

But it wouldn't necessarily be true.

Rogge's message that day, according to USA Hockey Magazine, was blunt: Improve the overall competitiveness of the game throughout the Olympic field, or start worrying about it soon going the way of women's softball as far as an official Olympic sport.

That was four years ago, of course. And Rogge was replaced as acting president of the IOC by Thomas Bach last year. 

No way the IOC is seriously considering tossing women's hockey from the menu in the immediate wake of Thursday's thrilling contest. But make no mistake. If Thursday's game doesn't have a resounding ripple effect that reaches outside of the borders of Canada—into the United States and even well beyond—the women's game could be right back in the IOC's crosshairs again four years from now.

Even the bronze-medal game was entertaining in Sochi, or at least the score indicates it was, as Sweden came from down 3-0 in the final period to defeat Switzerland, 4-3. Not too many folks invested the time to watch that one.

What the sport needs is to expand beyond its current Canada-U.S. domination and have some other countries rise up to challenge those major programs. The U.S. beat Sweden in the semifinals this Olympics by the score of 6-1, and it could have been worse.

But in 2010, Team USA beat Sweden 9-1. So maybe this is progress.

For a sport whose mightiest professional presence in North America (where it is most popular) is mired in obscurity in the five-team Canadian Women's Hockey League, more rapid progress is required. The CWHL, by the way, currently consists of four teams located in Canada (two in Ontario, one in Quebec, one in Alberta) and only one south of the Canadian border in Boston.

The game-winning goal, and gold, slips by U.S. goaltender Jessie Vetter.
The game-winning goal, and gold, slips by U.S. goaltender Jessie Vetter.Martin Rose/Associated Press/Associated Press

What's sad is that for a few brief hours in Sochi on Thursday, the Canada-U.S. women's hockey rivalry packed every bit as much emotional punch as the men's semi-final between the same two countries will when it is played this Friday. But when the winners and losers of the men's game go home, they'll have other big games to play over the next four years in the National Hockey League or elsewhere.

Heck, some of them arguably will play bigger games over the next four months.

The women won't go into hiding for the next four years. But in a few weeks after the buzz of this game wears off, it unfortunately is likely to sure seem like it to most of us.