With no NHL players at the Olympics, the timing is perfect for the compelling and underrepresented women's game to get more spotlight.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The US women's national team risked plenty when they took a stand. They threatened to boycott a tournament on home soil if they weren't given equal treatment to that of the men's side of USA Hockey. With the stakes raised, they forced change at the bargaining table and won the 2017 world championships.
Like many women's tournaments, it was about much more than the hockey.
With the women's game at this year's Olympics being the sport's true representation of a best-on-best tournament, you shouldn't make them fight for your attention. Their stories deserve as much of a stage as any, and this is the year to watch and listen to them, coming at a unique time for the women's game. South and North Korea's combined team has already had political consequences, professional leagues around the world are beginning to pay women salaries, and the Canada-US rivalry remains one of the best in all of sports. China, meanwhile, invested heavily last spring in the Canadian Women's Hockey League for the long-term goal of icing a team at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
The women's game, of course, is made up of individuals who on their own make for appointment television. Team USA's Hilary Knight has become an icon for the sport with her dominating play and social media presence. Her teammate, the highly decorated Amanda Kessel, has won at every level except gold at the Olympics. Team Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin should be a household name if she isn't already. You may know about her gold-medal-winning goals at the previous two Games but she is possibly the best player in the world today, and at age 26, is in her prime. And the goaltending, a big part of what makes the sport close competitively, features stalwarts like Canada's Shannon Szabados—winner of two Olympic golds—and Finland's Noora Räty, who can single-handedly steal a game.
There are countless others, not least of which being Team Canada's Brigette Lacquette, the first First Nations skater to play on the national team.
Their stories won't just be of international bragging rights and rags-to-riches, but also of equality and opportunity. These best-on-best tournaments are crucial to the growth and marketing of women's hockey, where players get the rare chance to showcase the international sport on millions of screens during the Olympics.
All of this is not to say you shouldn't watch the men's side that won't see NHLers for the first time since 1994, only that the spotlight should be centered on the underrepresented women's game. Instead of waxing poetically or cynically about the state of men's Olympic hockey, consider how much higher the stakes are for the women's game and for the women and girls watching.
That gold-medal game in Sochi was, after all, the more entertaining of the two hockey finals, and the men's tournament featured the best NHL players in the world. It took two goals from Canada in the game's final four minutes to tie the contest at 2-2, including one after the puck traveled the length of the ice toward the empty Canadian net only to deflect safely off the post. Poulin, naturally, scored the tying and overtime markers, leaving the Americans, who had won four of the previous six world championships, stunned.
Women's hockey is the fastest growing demographic in the sport, but you wouldn't know it based on the disparity of coverage between it and men's hockey. A 2016 IIHF survey, which counted 1.7 million hockey players across 72 countries, showed that the women's game is on the rise, with a four percent jump in participation year-over-year and growth being witnessed all around the world.
Though the majority of skaters play in Canada and the United States, the field is deeper than ever at the highest level. Some of that can be seen in the attention the IIHF and Hockey Canada give to international goaltending development. A July 2017 goaltending camp was hosted in Granada, Spain, by the two organizations and 40 goalies from non-North American countries attended. Top North American coaches, including Lisa Haley, an assistant coach with Team Canada in Sochi, oversaw the first of this kind of camp. The aim was to level the sport's playing field by strengthening its most important position.
"The rationale for it is that it's the position where the biggest impact can be made," Haley told me in August. "You may have an underdog team, but if you have strong goaltending, you can be competitive with the more skilled countries."
Strong goaltending is what almost led to Finland upsetting Canada at the Sochi Games. The aforementioned Räty, now among the highest-paid women's pro hockey players since signing with the CWHL’s Kunlun Red Star in China, held Canada off the board for two periods before the Canadians broke open a scoreless tie and eventually won the contest.
Räty's story is one of many that make this tournament so compelling. Players around the world are beginning to make a living from hockey, and the CWHL is chief among the leagues making that more of a reality. A couple of wealthy business investors in China sunk an untold sum into the North America-based league that now has two Chinese teams (made up of imports and national team players) and is able to pay players like Räty more than they've ever made. No one has disclosed just how much players on the Chinese teams make but Räty told Sportsnet last year that she can now "even save some money."
The players on the CWHL's North American teams, meanwhile, have started to receive a modest salary for the first time in league history this season. Salaries range from $2,000 to $10,000, so few have likely quit their day jobs. The US-based NWHL, which paid salaries since its inception a few seasons ago, is able to pay similarly modest sums. The trend extends to parts of Europe, as well, where several former NWHLers and CWHLers have been able to play as full-time athletes, a novel concept for the women's game. It's, at the very least, a start to be sure.
The sport has seen a bump in exposure the last few years as Sportsnet has broadcasted a handful of CWHL games each season including the Clarkson Cup, while the NWHL has a broadcast deal with Twitter which streams select games. Without consistent media coverage of league play, though, it's difficult for casual fans to invest in unfamiliar players, teams, and rivalries.
But the wealth of untold stories and potential for on-ice drama is palpable in women's hockey anywhere you look. Team USA is fresh off of making unprecedented gains in support from USA Hockey, and now South and North Korea will ice a combined roster in one of their shows of attempted solidarity.
The North-South Korea experiment is particularly engrossing since the relationship between the countries is understandably cool. Sarah Murray, head coach of South Korea, has communicated her doubts about disrupting her team's roster, though just three North Koreans are required to dress for each game.
"We feel like one team," Murray said to reporters Friday. "Not that we're making a political statement, we're just here to win."
South Koreans in the hundreds have petitioned online to stop the arrangement, and the decision has cost South Korean President Moon Jae-in points in his approval rating, according to a South Korean pollster.
Add to that the electric rivalry between Canada and the US in which the Americans win all the world championships (four straight and seven of the last eight, all over Canada), while the Canadians swoop in and win each Olympic gold medal—save for 1998—and you've got all you want out of a short-burst tournament.
The stakes are higher, the theatre is more compelling, and there's never been a better time for the best female hockey players on the planet to get the worldwide exposure they deserve.