Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Concussion Conundrum - How to take care of our players

Amanda Kessel will miss the entire NCAA season due to concussion symptoms

When it was announced by the Pittsburgh Penguins in January of 2011 that star player Sidney Crosby had suffered a concussion and that he would be out indefinitely, NHL analysts both professional and amateur took to the airwaves and blogosphere to analyze the injury and its repercussions. It seemed that for every game Crosby missed, the speculation, rumours, and theories just intensified. An injury to a superstar player and league poster boy took the concussion epidemic from being a sweep-under-the-rug nuisance to being the most talked about news story in the sport. At one point "Crosby Concussion" was even given it's own spot on the TSN ticker.

Fast forward to 2014, and another star hockey player has suffered a concussion that will see them miss significant time. Yet somehow, this player's news has barely made headlines. The player's name is Amanda Kessel, and to most people, the name probably only rings a bell because of it's similarity to that of Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel. Yes, Amanda Kessel is Phil's sister. But she is also a star hockey player in her own rights. Amanda is a gold medalist at both the World Championships and the 4 Nations Cup tournaments. She was part of the silver medal winning Team USA at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Beyond the national team, she has led the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers to back-to-back NCAA titles, and she won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation's top female collegiate player in 2011.

The reason Kessel's injury is important is because of the implications it has on other female athletes. When we think of concussions, we think of them being sustained as the result of big men being hit by even bigger men. The reality is, concussions are sustained in all different ways by all different types of people. In fact, research suggests that female hockey players at the collegiate level are at a greater risk to suffer a concussion than their male counterparts [1]. And yet, concussions in female sports are routinely misdiagnosed and overlooked. From talking to fellow hockey players at various levels of the game, it is astounding to hear how many of them were prematurely cleared to return to the ice after having suffered a concussion. In the cases of a few players, they were back on the ice within minutes. This could have occurred for a variety of reasons. Maybe the concussion test was administered too soon after initial impact and symptoms hadn't yet surfaced. Or maybe the player misreported their symptoms to avoid being pulled from the game. In the sad case of some, symptoms were disregarded because the coach needed the player back on the ice. In a few cases, this hasty decision saw careers come to an untimely end.

So what can we all do to help ourselves, our teammates, and our players, not fall victim to this epidemic? The good news is, we can look out for one another without having to first become brain scientists. The Pocket Concussion Recognition Tool can be used by parents, coaches, or even fellow team mates as a way to determine the presence of a concussion. It involves a basic line of questioning, as well as just observing behaviours that the patient may be exhibiting. An alternative test, the SCAT 3 - Sport Concussion Assessment Tool - is to be used by medical professionals only. However, portions of it, like the basic memory questions for example, can be administered by anyone to help determine a player's well being. These tools are by no means a black and white way of determining the presence of a concussion, but they are a way of quickly evaluating symptoms in a setting where doctors and specialists may not be around.

The player's best interest should always be number one when determining whether or not they should be cleared to go back onto the ice. It is not about getting them back into the game without missing a shift. Any athlete will tell you, they'd rather miss a shift or a few games and get the care they require, because the alternative is that they miss a full season or possibly a career. It should be noted that any player with a suspected concussion should seek medical advice as soon as possible. But if the above mentioned tests can prevent players from being rushed back into action and save careers from coming to premature ends, it means the sports community has succeeded in looking after their own people.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Go outside and get a tan! The case against year-round hockey

Hayley Wickenheiser at the 1998 Winter Olympics and 2000 Summer Olympics
Back to school commercials on TV, gleeful parents engaging in back-to-school shopping in anticipation of finally having a quiet household again, and grouchy kids begrudgingly following along, knowing their days of freedom will soon be must be the end of summer. For most, the arrival of September brings with it a change in schedules and routines. For us hockey players, perhaps September is the month where we return to our routines. Practice days, training days, travel days, game days, and rest days. All 7 days of the week might soon fall into one of those categories. If the off-season has been spent the right way, the return to hockey should be an exciting one. Players should be "feeling the itch" to get back on the ice for a new season of hockey. If you're not "feeling the itch" perhaps it is your body and your brain telling you that you need to change up your off-season activities.

The concept of year-round athletics is debated in sports circles almost as much as year-round schooling is debated in academic ones. Should kids be training all year round or should they be given a break to do other things and pursue other interests? In some senses, a hiatus from hockey during the summer may seem like a bad idea. Players spend all year improving their skills, developing their hockey IQ, and reaching their peak physical conditioning. Why then would they waste all of that by taking 2 or 3 months away from hockey? That is the rationale behind why some parents and coaches opt to have their kids in hockey year round. But there is a flip side to that too.

In most sports, peak performance isn't reached until well after puberty. Studies show that female athletes don't reach peak performance until age 27 (1) , and males (specifically in the NHL) don't peak until age 28 or 29 (2). There is a myth that if players do not specialize in one sport early, they will not be good enough to make it to the pros when it's time for them to make that leap. This is far from true. Almost on cue for this blog, this tweet was posted by USA Hockey a few moments ago:

USA Hockey Magazine@USAHMagazine I would encourage playing other sports and not dedicating yourself to year-round hockey. Dan Bylsma
Here are a few reasons why year-round hockey is not a good idea:

1. We all know that kids get bored pretty easily - (think of the "are we there yet!?" question and how often it gets asked during long trips). Kids are just as likely to enjoy playing competitive hockey every day as they are to enjoy eating the same food every day. Even if that food is ice cream, they will eventually tire and ask for something else.

2. Physical development - Playing different sports strengthens different muscle groups. It is important for young kids to strengthen all parts of their bodies and not just one or two areas. Often times, the motions required to play one sport will compliment the motions of another sport too, so trying new sports is a great way to learn different skills while still working on improving at your "main sport". Henrik Lundqvist, goalie for the New York Rangers, has recently taken up tennis as a way to strengthen all the muscle groups required for the lateral movement of a goalie (3). 

3. Mental and physical burnout - Hockey is a fast and exciting game. It should never feel routine or inconvenient. But when you overdo it, there will be days where the motivation to get back on the ice is lacking. There is no way kids will perform at their best if they're exhausted. Summertime is a great time to heal up the bumps and bruises that are inevitably sustained during a long season, and to refresh the brain and get it ready for the new season as well. If the body is tired, players will look for shortcuts. Their stride will become lazy, their shooting motions may become abbreviated, and they will look to just make it through games rather than to thrive and succeed in them.

4. Sports IQ - The ability to think the game of hockey is not only developed by playing hockey. Funnily enough, one can work on their Hockey IQ - their ability to read the game, make creative plays, anticipate the moves of opponents, etc. - by taking part in other sports too. Thinking tactically about one sport might yield some ideas about how to succeed at another.

Pertaining specifically to the sport of women's hockey, there is perhaps no better example of this whole concept than to examine one of its greatest players. Hayley Wickenheiser has 5 Winter Olympics medals, but she also represented Canada at the 2000 Summer Olympics in the sport of softball. If there was any doubt that time away from hockey is a good thing, looking back at Hayley's career should erase all of that. If being a multi-sport athlete didn't hold Hayley Wickenheiser back, it shouldn't hold the rest of us back either!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Losing a Necessary Evil on the Path to Winning.

Risk assessment is necessary for anyone in life who wishes As much as some people will do their very best to defy this very simple logic, the reality is that without the ability to evaluate the risk in an action or activity, human beings would be putting themselves in dangerous situations far too often for their own good. On a daily basis, we are called upon to judge the risk in a situation more often than we might even realize. "Is it safe to cross the street? Is it safe to turn left with the oncoming traffic? Is it wise to eat an entire pizza in one sitting (it's ok, we've all been there at least once!)." This same process of risk assessment happens in the world of sports. The concept of risk manifests itself in several ways for athletes. Obviously, there is risk in playing sports in the sense that one could get injured due to the physical nature of sports. It can also be said that some of the most successful athletes in the world are those who know how to successfully assess risk. "Do I pass this puck up the middle? Should I go for the buzzer-beating 3 pointer? Should I try going for the ace on 2nd serve when facing break point?"

There is one aspect of risk in the world of sports that might be underrated or less analyzed, but it certainly plays a large role in defining the journey of an athelte. Simply put, it is the risk of losing. Athletes are fuelled by the desire to win. It's why we work hard, make sacrifices, and push ourselves to the max. It's because we know that the thrill of winning will make it all worth it. As we all know though, one can't experience only victory in the course of an athletic journey.

So many emotions in one picture
As a recreational-level goalie for 10 years, I always used to tell people "hockey has given me so much. I have learned so much just by being a hockey player. I owe the game so much." This was certainly true, but what I didn't know was that I was about to do more learning in my 11th year of hockey than I did in the previous 10 combined. It was the summer of 2013. My team entered a tournament that would see us compete against teams from across Western Canada. Within a few minutes of watching the other teams warm up, we knew we were the heavy favourite to win. The cities which, in previous years, had iced pretty stacked lineups, had for whatever reasons, not been able to do so this year. Fast forward to the gold medal game. My team went undefeated through round robin play and we gave up only 1 goal in 5 games. We are now leading 1-0 and there is less than 1 minute left in the gold medal game. We're already picturing our winning celebration when...the other team ties it at the 45 second-mark. Before we know it, we're in a shootout and their final shooter scores to win the championship. I've lost games before. Lots of them. But this loss broke me. For a person who eats, breathes, and lives the game of hockey, I remember leaving the ice that day and ripping my gear off in the locker room as though it might have been on fire. For the first time in 10 years I wanted nothing to do with the sport. For the rest of the summer I got asked to play goal in different leagues for different teams. "Stop calling me," I'd say to every last offer. The entire summer was spent deliberately staying away from hockey. This was extraordinarily hard to do. As I realized, hockey governs my life. It's everywhere!

As September rolled around, I knew I had a decision to make. Fall/winter hockey was about to get going and my team was going to come calling soon. They are an incredible group of women and I couldn't imagine not playing hockey with them. As much as the wounds were still fresh, I paid my fees like everyone else and showed up for the first game. If felt strangely foreign to put on my gear and even more foreign to step into the net. As it worked out, we got outshot by a wide margin in that game and we lost it 4-1. As I got into the car after the game, my dad, who had decided to join me, looked at me anxiously. He was afraid this latest lost was the last straw for me. My first words to him after getting in to the car? "Dad, I freaking love this sport. How could I ever have imagined not playing!?" Just like that the love was back.

Losing is inevitable. It is heartbreaking, but it is inevitable. It is also necessary. In an interview after winning the 2011-2012 NBA Championship, LeBron James described how his team's heartbreaking loss the year before had helped pave the way for the win this year.

"It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom, basically, to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person," James said. "... I got back to being myself. Last year, I tried to prove something to everybody, and I played with a lot of hate. And that's not the way I play the game of basketball. I play with a lot of love, a lot of passion, and that's what I got back to this year."

Sports have a way of bringing us back down to our core basics. Just when we're getting a bit cocky or just when we're starting to play for the wrong reasons or with the wrong attitude, events will transpire to remind us of why we're here. When you have your heart broken by a sport but you decide to go back and do it all over again, knowing that there's a risk of the same heartbreak all over again, that's when you know you love the sport. In my case, that knowledge alone has helped me heal and it has given me something to be thankful for. Through this loss I was humbled. I also stopped playing the game for others. I stopped worrying about awards, stats, compliments, and accolades. Through this gutting loss I became a better player, a better teammate, and a better person. Only after nearly walking away from the sport can I now say that I have experienced hockey from all 360°. It took 11 years but I have now experienced winning, losing, and downright collapsing. One thing I know for sure: my worst day as a hockey player was still a great day. It's a day I wouldn't change or take back. I was playing a great sport with people I love. And knowing that heartbreak could happen all over again? Let's just say that I'm willing to take the risk!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Women's Hockey: Why Harry and Ron neeeded Hermione

Boys will be boys. There aren't many truer statements in the English language. And that statement holds true at any age. Honestly, it's the cutest dynamic to observe a little girl attempt to boss around her older brother. "Don't do that! Mommy's gonna get mad at you!" Equally endearing is to then observe the same dynamic between a couple who has been married for 50 years. "I told you not to do that. You're going to hurt yourself. You're not young anymore you know!?" The best way to look at it is with a Harry Potter reference. Without Harry and Ron, Hermione would have been a bookworm who holed herself up in the library and didn't have much fun in life. The boys showed her how to take some chances and enjoy some adventures. Without Hermione, Harry and Ron's plans to save the magical world from doom would have had major flaws and they'd likely all have been killed.

We've all been there
Men and women are wired differently, which is why both sexes are critical in determining the successes and failures of the world. It is always suprising therefore, when people look at certain tasks or roles and claim that in order for them to be done right they must be done "like a guy" or "like a girl." And if they are done the other way they are considered to have been done wrong. Why? And what does that even mean? "Throw like a girl." "Cook like a guy." We all know that some of the best chefs in the world are men. And we probably all know a few girls who can throw a wicked fastball. It's not about doing a task "like" anyone. It's about doing it in a way that works.

The growth of women's hockey in Canada and worldwide has been a popular issue in the past decade or so. Many people like to ask the question of what it will take to establish and run a successful pro women's league in North America and what it will take to fill the stands, sell tickets and merchandise, and to make that league profitable. Often, these questions are answered through a comparison. It is declared that in order for all of that to happen, female hockey players must be able to play the game like men. Clearly though, the people who say this don't know very much about the differences between men and women. It's not as easy as women skating a little faster or shooting a little harder. What makes the men's pro game so fast and so strong is the attitude and approach of the men who play it. While women are a more calculating and analytical group, men live in the moment. They do things in the moment because it seems right in that moment. They don't often stop to consider consequences because, to them, consequences don't matter. In the moment, men narrow in on one goal and it becomes their chief purpose to achieve it. Apply this principle to hockey and this is how the same play is approached by the different sexes:

There's a loose puck along the end boards and there's a race between two players to see who can get to it first.
Male player: Skate as hard as you can and as fast as you can. Get to that puck first at all costs.
Female player: Skate as hard as you can and as fast as you can...but...the opponent has a step on me and if I push her she'll go flying into the boards and it'll be a dangerous hit, not to mention that I'll probably get a penalty or even a suspension for it so maybe I should either angle her off or let her win the race and then use my body to take her off the puck so she can't set up a scoring play.
That's a lot to compute in just a few seconds. But yeah, the female brain does actually work like that. The concept of consequences is ever-present in the female brain. It doesn't mean we battle any less hard or want to win any less. It just means we approach things a little differently. To get women to play like men is not simply to have them lift more weights until they get stronger. It is to change the genetic imprint of how they are wired. So when people say that women's hockey will not be a marketable product until it is played like NHL hockey, that is to say that women's hockey will never be marketable. One of most gender-equal sports in the world both in terms of prize money and in terms of skill level is tennis. But even the greatest female tennis player in the world - Serena Williams - plays the game differently than Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. She's strong and fast and tactical just like the men but she executes differently. Women's hockey at the highest level, Canada vs USA, and even in the NCAA has shown what a great product it can really be. In an era where the NHL is making headlines for reckless plays that threaten to end players' careers prematurely, there is more and more of an appreciation developing for how the women play the game. The will to compete and to win is equal and there is still an element of growing the game and playing for the right reasons, which doesn't exist in men's pro hockey anymore.

The goals, the passes, and the saves in women's hockey still leave fans gasping in amazement. And the competitiveness and dramatic moments still have us on the edge of our seats. There is no right or wrong way to play hockey. There is a safe and an unsafe way to play it, but not a right or a wrong way. Just as in the NHL, where certain teams prefer to be more defensive-minded while others take more offensive risks, the same can be said for women's hockey. The sport is riding a wave with Canada's Sochi heroics still fresh in everyone's minds. It would be wrong to discredit that and to say that the sport is not yet marketable. When an entire nation comes to a standstill to watch an event unfold, that right there is a marketable sport. We must appreciate women's hockey for what it is and work to establish more teams and more countries that can play at the highest level. We must capitalize on this rather primal place that the sport is in right now because to be part of a period of growth is also to be part of a legacy.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Handle With Care: How to take care of your goalie

These games are the reason why "you play hockey like a girl" is an endangered-species insult. You should be lucky to play like these girls.
Adam Proteau - The Hockey News - 2014 Sochi Olympics 
How to treat a goalie :)
Hockey is an emotional sport. This emotion is not specific to women, but it certainly doesn't help our mental state to have to be put through the wringer in do or die situations. When a group of people puts their hearts and souls into achieving a common goal, and when that common goal is or is not achieved, the outcome can lead to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. And sometimes, the difference between experiencing a high versus a low can be miniscule - a couple of seconds, a couple of inches. This is what we sign up for when we become athletes. Whether at a recreational level or at a competitive level, we are resigned to the fact that we will, at some point in our careers, experience heartbreak. We work like crazy to avoid it at all costs, but it is still inevitable.

When these devastating losses occur, we as a group need to ask ourselves how we wish to respond. Looking around the locker room and seeing the agony on the faces of your team mates is always tough. It is natural to go through the process of asking "what could I have done better?" The experience is even tougher for goalies. It is often said that goaltending is the closest thing to an individual position in a team sport. By sheer virtue of the fact that goalies look different, play a different role, and often act different (hey we're not THAT weird!), they are primed to always be picked out of a crowd. When a team wins, the goalie is the hero. When a team loses, all eyes are on the goalie. It really is a double-edged sword. Unless you've been a goalie, it's hard to ever relate to the feelings of isolation that are felt when you've given up 5 goals, you're only half way through the game, the hockey net looks like a soccer net, and the puck looks like a marble. As members of a hockey team, everyone needs to get to know each other. When a large team of people come together there are always different personalities and energies within the group. Priority one is for each player and each coach to figure out what different personalities they have amongst them, and what role each of these personalities will contribute towards the overall group dynamic. Once that has been established, the team as a whole is more prepared to support one another through the good and through the bad times that inevitably come in the duration of a hockey season.

As a goalie for 11 years, here are some of my general tips on Goalie Handling 101:

  • Take the time every now and then to chat with your goalie. Checking in with the goalie is like a staff meeting. Goalies often have a different perspective of how the team is playing because their vantage point is different. It's never a bad idea to make sure they are on the same page as the rest of the team.
  • If you have an experienced goalie, feel free to turn to them during a game and ask "Hey, what are you seeing out there? Anything we should be doing differently?" It makes goalies feel appreciated for more than just their role as puck stoppers. And we like to be confided in. We want to help our team mates out.
  • Listen to their suggestions. Goalies, especially experienced ones, are very specific in how they want their team to play defensively in front of them. Some want their D's to try and block shots in front of them, while others prefer to have a clear view of the shot so that there's no danger of a screen or deflection from their own team mate. If they tell you to move...MOVE!
  • If a goalie is struggling and you see something they could improve upon, feel free to mention it...respectfully. If we can critique our players, certainly our players should be able to give us tips too.
  • Sense when your goalie is in pre-game prep mode. It's great to talk a goalie's head off about your latest boy (or girl) troubles, how you're pretty sure you picked up a nasty infection from your pedicure place, or why you need to move out of your parents' house pronto. We care about our team mates and we'd love to counsel you through these clearly very tough times...but not right before a game! When your goalie is trying to get into "the zone" please leave them to it.
  • Recognize what the goalie brings to the team. Often, especially at the rec league level, multiple goalies lobby to get onto the team, but one goalie is clearly the frontrunner to be the team's #1. Don't make that goalie split games 50/50 with a backup if one's skill level is clearly superior to the other. Give credit where it's due.
  • Light a goalie up in pre-game warm ups. You want your goalie to be confident heading into a game, and sending pucks whizzing past them, or worse, drilling them in the mask from close range, is not a good way to achieve confidence. Start with basic warm-up shots and get harder as they get more comfortable.
  • Kid-glove a goalie. Most goalies who have played the position for a long time know their capabilities and limitations. They don't need anyone to point out that they had a bad game. And the worst is when a goalie has a bad game and all their team mates can say is "OMG you were AMAZING!" Thanks for the gesture, it's appreciated, but it's actually also a little humiliating. To use Roberto Luongo's favourite word, goalies are not looking for a "tire-pumping". We just like appreciation (when it is deserved) every now and then.
  • Compare them to the back-up or to the goalie at the other end. Much like parenting multiple kids, nothing pisses a goalie off more than to be compared to someone else. There is a tremendous amount of respect between "tendys" but there is also a recognition that each goalie has their own style of play. While we are always trying to improve our respective games, telling us to mimic someone else is a great way to puncture our belief in our own game.
  • Gloat. I once played in a league All-Star game where the format was All-Stars vs Alumni. A current team mate of mine who had been struggling to perform so far that season was put on the Alumni team because they needed a few extra players. She scored a few goals on me and then loudly and publicly gloated about it for the rest of the day. She'd walk by me (several times) and yell "oh yeah guys, it's coming back! I can feel it guys, the swagger is coming back and no one can stop me, I'm back baby, yeah yeah yeah." I know it was just a fun event, but goalies are competitive and we like to play well all the time. The irony was that in a few days, we'd be on the same team again, and all this player had done was gain confidence by trying to shatter mine. A friendly ribbing when you score on a team mate is always fun, but walk the line and don't cross it!
A confident goalie is a good goalie. It's not easy being on a team with so many different personalities and roles. But that is also what makes it great. Having that person who will jam tunes and have an impomptu dance-off in the locker room right before a big game to lighten the mood and ease the nerves, or having that person who will rally the troops after a tough loss and get everyone to believe in the team again - these are the people and these are the moments that make the losses so worth it. Because when they finally lead to a victory, in that moment, you realize that this is why you play on a team.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sochi 2014 Women's Hockey - the gold belongs to the sport

9:00AM (PST) on February 20th, 2014 -  All across Canada, nervous Canadians are tuning in coast to coast to cheer on their hockey team as they take on arch-rival Team USA in the gold medal game of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
11:13AM – It’s 2-0 USA with about 5 minutes left in the 3rd period. Team USA has done a masterful job of limiting Team Canada’s chances. We knew they’d be hungry for revenge after what happened at the Vancouver Olympics. I guess they really came to play in this one. Thanks Canada, it’s been a great ride on top, but now it’s time for a new Olympic champion.

11:15AM – Brianne Jenner scores. 2-1 USA with 3:26 left. That’s an eternity in hockey time.

11:17AM – GET OUT OF THE WAY YOU CRAZY OFFICIAL…followed by…Thank you Hockey Gods…and thank you Sochi Goalpost…wow that could have been game right there.

11:20AM – TIE GAME! Is “Marie-Philip Poulin” French for “clutch?”

Intermission – No one talk to me. Seriously…everyone out.

11:51AM – History = made.

When Marie-Philip Poulin scored the Golden Goal 11:50 into overtime, Canadians across the country leaped out of their seats and into each others’ arms to celebrate the most improbable of hockey comebacks. While most were celebrating with uncontainable excitement, a select few fans across the country had noticeably different reactions. Theirs were reactions of sheer and utter relief, and of understanding that this moment would go down not just in Canadian women’s hockey history but in hockey history in general as one of the greatest comeback stories of all time. These select few fans sat, likely alone, hands cupped against their mouths in shock and disbelief, tears involuntarily streaming down their faces, knowing that a wrong had just been righted in the world of women’s hockey and in women’s sports. For many people, this was their first exposure to the sport of women’s hockey. “Hey these girls are pretty good.” But there are others who have been involved with this sport for 10, 20, 30, 40, even 50 years. And for them, February 20th, 2014 was their day of redemption.

These were a pivotal Games for the sport of women's hockey. Coming out of the Vancouver Games, the sport was put on high alert. Improve competition or you risk expulsion from the Olympics. Whether this was just a threat made to scare hockey federations into supporting their women's teams, or whether the sport really was in danger of being cut from the Olympics is anyone's guess. But, in all honesty, the sport did need to improve its level of competition. Like many other amateur sports, women's hockey comes onto most people's radars once every 4 years. Not many are tuning in to watch 4 Nations Cups or World Championships. All people want to know is: has the sport improved at the Olympic level? Things needed to go well for women's hockey at these Olympics. And boy, did things ever go well.

From day 1, and actually, even before day 1, women's hockey was well-represented in terms of story lines and exposure in Sochi. It started months ago when Team Japan successfully qualified for the Olympics. They made headlines at home and it earned them the nickname "Smile Japan" because of their positive and fun-loving attitude towards being Olympians. A few weeks before the Games, U.S President Barack Obama announced that former Team USA player Caitlin Cahow would be part of the US Delegation to head to Sochi. A short time later, it was announced by the Canadian Olympic Committee that women's hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser would carry the flag and lead Team Canada into the stadium for the Opening Ceremony. And then the puck dropped. Florence Schelling became a household name as she made 64 saves in a losing effort against Canada. Finland scared the heck out of Canada in the very next game when, going into the 3rd period of their round robin game, Noora Räty was shutting the door and the score was 0-0.  Japan played Sweden in their first game of the tournament and only lost 1-0 against a nation that, not too long ago, won silver at the Olympics. Sweden shocked Finland in the quarterfinals, eliminating a team that had just upset the Americans to win silver at the 4 Nations Cup. And then of course, there was the gold medal game. Women's hockey at its finest, skill on skill, will on will, and a comeback of epic proportions that brought with it a fighting message of what it means to be confident and to never give up. As the world marveled at what Canada and the USA had just showcased on the ice, adulation for the sport and its athletes continued to pour in. USA veteran Julie Chu was selected as American flag bearer for the Closing Ceremonies. Hayley Wickenheiser was elected by her peers to the International Olympic Committee's Athlete's Commission - an honour that speaks to her reputation internationally. The tournament All-Star team was named by the media, and it included Canadian and American players, but also a Swiss and a Finn. And finally, representatives from the IOC and IIHF, at a joint press conference with the NHL, looked into the sea of media surrounding them and vowed: “That [women's hockey being cut from the Olympics] will never happen. I can guarantee you that.”

So you see, long before Marie-Philip Poulin scored the Golden Goal for Team Canada, the women's hockey tournament at Sochi had already been won. It had been won by the sport itself and by all those who have invested money, time, sweat, and tears into securing the sport's future. The progress is palpable. 4 years ago in Vancouver, Switzerland lost a game against Canada by a score of 10-1. Today they are bronze medalists. The Swiss could have opted to rest their all-star goalie Florence Schelling in the semi-final vs Canada. There was a good chance Canada was going to win that game anyways. Why not keep the #1 goalie fresh for the bronze medal game? But no, 45 saves later, Team Switzerland and Florence Schelling could stand proud knowing that they didn't hand the game to Canada. They made them fight for it. 

The sport got what it wanted out of the Sochi Games. Increased competition, closer results, upsets, international attention, and ultimately, security. But now is not the time to rest. When 24-year old Finnish goalie Noora Räty announced her retirement after the Games, citing a lack of financial security as her reason for having to walk away prematurely from the sport she loves, it was a reminder that we have a long ways left to go. We want these women to train like professionals and we want them to play like professionals, but we can not afford to pay them even remotely like professionals. They have only one league to play in after they graduate from college. The Canadian Women's Hockey League is home to the game's greatest players, and yet it can not afford to pay its players and it averages an attendance of only a few hundred fans per game. No now is not the time to rest. If anything, it is the time to capitalize on the sport's marketability and to keep building towards a brighter future. But, just as in the early days of the NHL when there were struggles and bumps in the road, these are the times for struggles and triumphs for women's hockey. Mississauga's Mayor "Hurricane" Hazel McCallion grew up playing hockey for $5 a game in a 3-team women's league in Montreal. Today, the 95 year old pioneer stood at the Toronto airport and watched as Team Canada arrived home from Sochi with their gold medals around their necks and with hundreds of fans packed into the arrivals terminal to welcome their heroes home. What a moment that must have been for her. 

The sport of women's hockey has been around for decades, but it was never given a chance to succeed because society wasn't ready for women to take on the role of a "professional" anything back then. Women playing hockey in the 1920's or 30's wouldn't have been any better received than women going to medical school or women owning their own businesses. But society has changed. We are ready for a new era of women in positions of power, and that is why this is women's hockey's best chance to succeed and to become a part of sports culture forever. Even 15 years ago, we were not ready. I am 25, and when I was 10 I was told "if you play hockey you'll be an outcast and society won't accept you." Today, I play hockey, I coach hockey, I write about hockey, and I work in sports development. And no one questions my presence in the field. 

21 players came home from Sochi 2014 with gold medals in women's hockey. 21 more came home with silver, and 21 others with bronze. But for every Olympic medalist there are hundreds more who were once told they couldn't play the sport. There are those who did play but were eventually forced to quit because of gender discrimination. There are those for whom playing wasn't even an option because no team would have them. For every Olympic medalist there are tens, hundreds, and thousands more who have been defending their sport from critics for decades. For everyone who has ever fought and continues to fight for the sport of women's hockey, February 20th, 2014 was for you. Now let's get back to work. There's lots more to accomplish!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Vancouver 2010's Women's Hockey Legacy

Olympic Cauldron - Jack Poole Plaza - Vancouver, Canada
If anyone is ever visiting Vancouver and would like a tour, please let me know. I am happy to show off the beautiful city that I am lucky enough to call home to anyone and everyone who is up for a nice long walk (green tea and yoga mat in hand of course). Just know one thing: the tour will start and end at the same location - the Olympic Cauldron at Jack Poole Plaza.

The Olympic Cauldron overlooks Vancouver's gorgeous waterfront and is a popular attraction for locals and visitors alike. To many it is an opportunity to stand where Wayne Gretzky stood when he lit the 5 pillars that make up the glacial sculpture during the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Olympics. To me, it is a chance to sink back into nostalgia - to go back and picture the packed streets of downtown with everyone clad in red and white clothing, to go back and remember the sounds of spontaneous outbursts of O Canada when our athletes would win a medal, and to go back and remind myself that even though the Cauldron has long since been extinguished and the athletes are now prepping for another Winter Games, the Olympics were here not too long ago in my city, and that when they were here, history was made and believers were born.

Up until the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver's history with the sport of women's hockey had been somewhat weak. Perhaps it explains why Team Canada has never had a BC-born player on its Olympic roster. Canada has hosted the IIHF World Women's Championships 6 times in 17 years, but never in Vancouver. We have also never hosted the 4 Nations Cup in Vancouver, despite Canada having been the host nation 5 times. So when the women took to the ice at UBC for their preliminary games and Canada Hockey Place for the medal games it was, for many Vancouverites, their first exposure to the sport of women's hockey. Smart and passionate hockey fans as we are though, we caught on fast, and by the end of the Olympics Vancouverites had gained a true appreciation for the sport's capabilities and we already had our favourite players picked out. When Finland's goalie Noora Räty was presented her bronze medal, the Canadian crowd roared its approval because they recognized how talented this goalie was and how important she was to her team's success. When American Julie Chu was presented her silver medal, the crowd gave her a lengthy applause in recognition of her years of service to the sport, her incredibly sportsmanlike demeanour throughout her career, and the fact that she was of Asian descent much like a large share of Vancouver's population. And when Hayley Wickenheiser had a gold medal placed around her neck, the cheers from the home fans were deafening. If it's one thing we know it is that Hayley Wickenheiser is an icon.

Despite the boom of girl's hockey and women's hockey in Canada since the sport's inaugural Olympics in 1998, Vancouver and B.C in general are still in the dark. We have players and we have teams, but the level of play and the desire to strive for more is still lacking. Women's hockey got some much needed exposure during the Olympics and the legacy is something that will hopefully see the sport catch on more out west than it has in the past. Women's hockey in Vancouver wasn't just about the on-ice games. It started at the Opening Ceremonies when it was Wickenheiser who was selected to represent all 2,566 athletes in reciting the Athlete's Oath:
"In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams."
It was a mark of how highly regarded Wickenheiser is in the world of sports that she was entrusted with laying the groundwork for a fair and clean competitive event. Many of Canada's athletes became adored for their post-victory celebrations as much as for their achievements in their respective sports, and the women's hockey team was no different. Team Canada may have drawn criticism for their post-gold medal beers and cigars but to us, they were even more loved for it, and it further reinforced our belief in one statement we all know is true: "Canadian hockey chicks are cool!" On the same day as the gold medal game, IOC President Dr.Jacques Rogge released a critical review of the sport of women's hockey.

"There must be at a certain stage an improvement. We cannot continue without improvement," Rogge said. "There is an improvement in the number of nations - and we want to see this wider."

Dr.Rogge's comments were a blow at the time, and his words distracted away from a fantastic gold medal game, which Canada had just won on home soil, but it laid the groundwork for action to be taken. Since then, the IIHF has committed roughly $2.1 million into growing the sport internationally. That happened on our soil here in Vancouver. Is it enough? Probably not. Is it a start? Absolutely.

Since the 2010 Games, Vancouver has hosted the Esso Cup female midget championships, and the UBC Thunderbirds women's hockey team has gained attention by winning the Canada West title in 2013. Vancouver played host to the Wickenheiser Female World Hockey Festival for 3 years. The sport is in the news now. People are taking note.

Vancouver's Olympic legacy will not be one of extravagant venues and mind-blowing special effects at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Our legacy will be in what those 17 days did to change the face of sport in our country and beyond. In Vancouver we learned that in order to get the best results out of our athletes, we have to first provide them with the tools to train and hone their talents. We committed to more funding for our athletes. We committed to better training facilities for them. There is recognition that Vancouver now has an affiliation to the sport of women's hockey. We too care about its past, present, and particularly its future. We believe that our players can make the team too. There is support and there is hope. As VANOC CEO John Furlong said in his speech to close out the Games: "It is possible to achieve greatness through the power of a dream."