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!