Ice needs leveling in women's hockey

AP Photo/Toby Talbot

Goaltender Florence Schelling led improving Switzerland to the bronze medal at the world championships, its first-ever medal in women's hockey.

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- A clear warning was issued two years ago to women's hockey: Grow the global depth of the game beyond the U.S. and Canada or face possible elimination from the Olympics.

This wasn't loose talk from some women's hockey hater. The words came from the top -- Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee.

"There is a discrepancy. Everyone agrees with that," Rogge told The Associated Press. "This may be the investment period for women's ice hockey. I would personally give them more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement. We cannot continue without improvement."

Two IIHF Women's World Championships have come and gone since Rogge's bombshell statement. With the 2014 Sochi Winter Games looming, the U.S. and Canada continue to lead the way in women's hockey. The Canadians won the 2012 title over the weekend and the Americans took the 2011 title in Zurich. The world final has featured the Americans and Canadians for 14 years running.

Many of the games from this year's tournament were lopsided. The U.S. pounded Switzerland 10-0 in the semifinals and Canada dismantled Russia 14-1 in the preliminaries. But the players and coaches say clear progress is being made, sometimes hidden behind the scores.

"I'm tired of us in women's hockey, and female athletes in general, of having to defend ourselves while we grow. It's ridiculous, and it has to stop," said four-time U.S. Olympic medalist Angela Ruggiero, who is now a member of the IOC and the incoming president of the Women's Sports Foundation.

Ruggiero, who is retired from the U.S. team, was in Burlington to take in the tournament.

AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson

Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser, celebrating after scoring to help defeat the U.S. for the gold medal, said there was better play from top to bottom at the world championships.

"I know what this sport was like when we started in the Olympics back in '98. We're so, so much better now; I can't even count the ways," Ruggiero said. "The progress is clear to me. Countries like Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland are improving. But other countries, especially the ones who have strong men's programs like Russia and the Czech Republic, aren't investing enough to help grow the women's game.

"I think it's good we're talking about this, because it means people care about the women's game. We need to talk about this so we can make progress."

In the way of progress, Switzerland won the bronze Saturday -- its first medal in women's hockey. The Swiss were beyond giddy after it defeated Finland, 6-2, acting like it had just won the Stanley Cup. In many ways, the victory was that monumental.

"This medal we have won is very important for women in our country, because it shows what we can be," said Swiss goalie Florence Schelling, who was named the top goaltender of the 2012 tournament. "It is what we can dream about. It will put us in the newspapers and on the television back home, with people talking about us.

"I think it clearly shows we are getting stronger, and who knows, maybe this will mean we can possibly win an Olympic medal too. We are trying."

Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser said Switzerland has improved since its fifth-place finish at the 2010 Olympics. The Finns won the Olympic bronze in Vancouver.

"Are we and the U.S. still ahead of everybody else? Of course, you can't deny that and be honest about this," Wickenheiser said. "But if you watched this tournament closely, you will see that every single team here has improved in some way. The speed is increasing on the ice. There's better play from top to bottom. We're ahead here right now in North America because we have the resources and the infrastructure to grow players. We need to spread that to the rest of the world."

To Wickenheiser's point: It's all about ice time, coaching resources, funding and a structured system that can make a team successful. The American and Canadian hockey federations have invested those things into their women's programs, and the proof shows on the ice. Many of the Canadians and Americans played NCAA hockey, and now there is a small but steady trickle of European players coming to play in college. Schelling just finished her senior year at Northeastern.

But Schelling is also amazed by the amenities at Northeastern, where the women have ample ice time and a big locker room. The Swiss national team struggles to get onto the ice and had only five days to practice before the world championships. The Finns have similar issues and are begging to get a full-time coaching staff hired and to play more games internationally.

"We cannot compete with the best because we are not a good level in all things, and that is upsetting to me," Finnish coach Pekka Hämäläinen said through a translator. "We need these things, but they are not there for us yet. It is very hard to win without these things. We need to keep asking."

Swiss assistant coach Michael Fischer envies what the Americans and Canadians have in terms of support. Switzerland, a country of 7.8 million, will never be able to cull the same number of elite female players as the U.S. or Canada, he said.

"I would like to be able to see many girls playing hockey in my country, but we do not have that yet," Fischer said. "It will take a long time for us to get the interest, but we do see it growing."

But population doesn't assure strength in women's hockey. Russia has 143 million people, and a legendary hockey tradition, but it finished 0-5 at the world championships.

Two-time U.S. medalist Caitlin Cahow, who is not on the current national team roster because of an undisclosed injury, said it is up to the women's hockey community to better itself. She sees the strength of U.S and Canada being part of the solution, not the problem.

"We're all so lucky, because we grew up with Title IX, so we could dream of being college hockey players, the Olympics, winning world championships," Cahow said. "We've never grown up with any limits, but there are still too many places that put limits and obstacles on their women's teams. I think if we share how we're doing things organizationally, share our coaching skills, how we improve, it will catch on even faster.

"We need to be the ones demanding what we need and helping the other teams see what they should be asking for. There is no reason why women's hockey can't keep growing. All we're asking for is the time and support. I don't think we're being unreasonable. Not at all."

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