On Golden Ponds: Women's Olympic Hockey In Trouble? - NBC Bay Area
Winter Olympics Sochi 2014

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On Golden Ponds: Women's Olympic Hockey In Trouble?

As the Olympic Committee showed in the Summer Games, it is not scared to shut down sports that aren't pulling their weight.

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    This is what it must feel like to opposing teams trying to score on Team Canada.

    While Team Canada and Team USA are two of the favorites to win gold in men's Olympic ice hockey in Sochi, there are a handful of other teams that could win it all.

    The same can't be said in women's Olympic hockey. It's the United States and Canada ... and no one else. How dominant have they been? They're the only two squads to capture gold since women's hockey was added as an Olympic sport in 1998. The U.S. was able to take home the initial gold issued in Nagano, while Canada won the next three.

    The U.S. has an outstanding 18-3 record in Olympic play. Canada is even better at 20-1. Canada's one loss came against the U.S. Team USA's only loss to a team other than Canada came in 2006, when Sweden pulled off perhaps the biggest miracle on ice with a 3-2 win, knocking the United States out of the gold medal game. It took the Swedes 60 minutes of regulation, 10 minutes of overtime and a shootout to do it, but history was made.

    Will it ever be done again? Some thought that 2006 upset would be a turning point in women's hockey, where the doormats of the sport would suddenly realize that Goliath could be toppled.

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    Not quite. The 2010 Olympics saw Team Canada outscore its opponents 48-2. Team USA blasted its opponents 40-4.

    Forget high school football, you'll find all the bullies you need on the hockey rinks at the Winter Olympics.

    This has led several Canadian columnists to pose the obvious question: How long can these drubbings go on before the IOC says, "Pas plus!"

    The entire Olympic model is based on competition. But in women's hockey, the competition for gold comes down to just two teams. (For the record, the other Olympic squads in Sochi are Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Russia.)

    As the Olympic Committee showed in the Summer Games, it is not scared to shut down sports that aren't pulling their weight. Could the same fate await women's hockey? It sounds like the players know the sport is in trouble.

    Team Canada's Caroline Ouelette told the Winnipeg Sun's Ted Wyman that the Canadian team is often in a lose-lose situation, despite crushing opponent after opponent.

    "If we play as well as we can play and we end up beating an opponent by a large margin, then some people will say that we are not respectful," she told Wyman. "If we don't play as well as we can play, we are cheating ourselves, we are cheating our performance, we are cheating our preparation, we are cheating the opportunity to display the best level of women's hockey we have to offer."

    Toronto Sun columnist Steve Buffery says despite Team Canada's Olympic dominance and the influx of gold into his country, ending women's Olympic hockey is the right thing to do. Stunning, eh?

    His explanation:

    "And frankly, that’s probably the right move, which is not a shot at the tens of thousands of women and girls who play hockey in Canada and the U.S. It’s just the sad reality of the sport. Women’s ice hockey is a two-horse race, and it’s been that way for far too long with no end in sight."

    Is there any hope? Who will save this Olympic sport?

    One hope is that Team Russia will put up a good fight on their home ice in Sochi. They've got some star power in the front office, at least. Former New York Islander and Ottawa Senator Alexei Yashin (he of the stylish on-ice turtlenecks) has been hired to be the team's general manager and assistant coach.

    But there's only so much one man in a turtleneck can do. He needs players, and according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, he's at quite a disadvantage. The IIHF says that Canada has nearly 87,000 female hockey players lacing up the skates, while the U.S. has about 67,000. Russia, according to the IIHF, has about 500.

    That doesn't bode well for the sport's future. Until other countries start getting more female players involved, the sport won't grow at an international level. And that means the 2018 Games will be in doubt.

    If you're a women's ice hockey fan, enjoy the Sochi Games as much as possible. It may be a long time before you see female Olympic hockey teams again.

    Jim Iovino is senior news editor of operations for NBC Local Integrated Media. In full disclosure, he was a coach of the women's hockey team at Penn State University during its first three years of existence. He also hopes women's hockey will remain an Olympic sport for years to come.