Posted by: Ethan Johnson | August 25, 2010

First Softball, Now Hockey?

This was certainly the sort of news one does not want to see, but was apropos for a Monday: Women’s Hockey Could Lose Status as Olympic Sport

The World Hockey Summit kicks off Monday in Toronto, and there are plenty of serious issues to be discussed among some big names in the sport.

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Thursday is an important day for one growing facet of hockey. The future of women’s hockey is the main point of Thursday’s session. The International Olympic Committee is losing patience with the sport, which has been completely dominated by the United States and Canada on the international level since its inception.

I am a latecomer to women’s hockey appreciation (hockey in all forms, really), but after the rollercoaster ride that ended with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, I really want women’s hockey to remain an Olympic sport. The linked article doesn’t draw any parallels to women’s softball, but lest anyone be thinking along those lines here is my take as to why women’s hockey cannot be compared to women’s softball when considering its Olympic status.

Disclosure: At arm’s length is my “Bound 4 Beijing” program from 2008 when the USA played against Canada in a tune-up game in Oklahoma City, OK. I was impressed with the level of talent on Team USA and more importantly, saw the next generation in the stands cheering on their heroes and affirming their desire to be the next Jennie Finch, or Natasha Watley, or, especially after a towering home run hit, Crystl Bustos. Despite the PR blitz, softball was discontinued as an Olympic sport and is not eligible for reinstatement until 2016.

I was grousing about that development at the time, but in 2010 I came to see the bankruptcy of the sport at the international level. This does not mean that nobody plays the game outside of the USA or that softball is in some way “illegitimate”. Here’s what I do mean: When the World Cup of Softball potentially could result in a championship game featuring Team USA versus USA Futures, the sport is in trouble at the international level. Team USA won the cup 5-1 over Japan.

By contrast, much was made (rightly so) about Team USA and Canada racking up copious amounts of scoring during the 2010 Olympics. On the surface, it would appear that the only viable teams are USA and Canada, with all other countries lacking the commitment to grow and develop the sport. Not so. I remarked at the time that China will probably be a force to reckon with in 2014. They took their lumps (and how), but I saw flashes of brilliance even during lopsided losses. If China commits to developing their national team (they seem to be into winning medals so there are good odds of this happening), I think USA and Canada will be surprised and awed by their improvement.

I got the impression that 2010 was something of a wake-up call for women’s international hockey when “good” teams experienced the chasm between themselves and the “great” teams. I think that, like many issues pertaining to women in society, once the cultural stigma of women in sport is overcome, the next step is to develop and invest in the sport across genders. Like the linked article says, you can’t just flip a switch and make a team great. You also can’t flip a switch and get a country to rally behind a women’s team or individual players to the extent that say, Canada does. I think the USA took a step forward this year in recognizing the achievements and vitality of women’s hockey, and I would like to see similar strides around the globe.

With any luck, the IOC will examine the growth of the sport internationally and determine that more countries are committing to women’s hockey. I won’t get to see women’s softball in the 2012 Olympics, and don’t want a similar fate to befall women’s hockey.

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