IIHF encouraged by closer games at women's world hockey championship
BURLINGTON, Vt. - Women's hockey took modest steps towards parity at the 2012 women's world championship.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said at the 2010 Winter Olympics the sport needed to become more competitive after he observed scores of 18-0 and 13-0.
"There must be a period of improvement," the head of the IOC said in Vancouver. "We cannot continue without improvement."
The threat implied in those words galvanized the International Ice Hockey Federation to establish a multi-platform, $2.1-million plan.
The IIHF needs to get more females in the game world-wide and reduce wide gaps between countries in international tournaments in time for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Two years into the program "Women's Hockey to Sochi 2014 and beyond,'' there are signs of change.
The number of one-goal games increased from four at the 2010 Winter Olympics to 10 at the world championship in Burlington, Vt.
Four-goal games dropped from 11 to eight. Overall goal differential in the tournament shrunk from 112 in the 2010 Olympics to 79 in Burlington.
"The close scores we've had in the games below the top two countries, Canada and the U.S., are really quite gratifying," IIHF vice-president Murray Costello said prior to the gold-medal game Saturday.
Switzerland won a medal for the first time, defeating Finland 6-2 for bronze. The Swiss hosted the world championship last year in Zurich for the first time.
"It shows with heart and dedication even small countries can win big games," Swiss assistant coach Michael Fischer said. "Hopefully it will show the world has taken the challenge of going closer to the top two nations in the world."
Finland lost to Canada by one goal in the preliminary round.
"We were issued a challenge in Vancouver after the Olympics when Jacques Rogge said the women's game had to get more competitive, more parity, more balanced, if we want to keep our spot in Olympic competition," Costello said. "I think you're beginning to see that happening now."
While the world order shuffled from positions three to eight. Canada and the U.S. remain far out in front. Canada edged the U.S. 5-4 in overtime for gold Saturday.
The number of females playing hockey in those countries is over 80,000 and 65,000 respectively.
Finland, with less than 6,000 players, can keep the score close with both countries only as long as goaltender Noora Raty is in net and on her game. That's unsustainable over the long term.
Russia may pay more attention to women's hockey now because they're hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. A sixth-place finish was disappointing for a country that wants to win bronze at their own Games.
"We had a big head start here in North American, in Canada and the U.S," Costello pointed out. "The calibre of the game has been well advanced beyond what's there in Europe. I think we're about 20 years ahead of where they are.
"They're still trying to overcome the old boys' network where there's still a lot of people who feel this isn't a game for women and they're not willing to give up the ice time for practice or for games. You know about the old boy's network in this country and in Canada. You can quadruple that in Russia."
The IIHF adopted a new format for the women's championship this year in an effort to have countries closer to each other in ability face each other in the preliminary round.
It also meant neither Canada nor the U.S. would play last and second-last seeds in the tournament, which removed two blowouts from the final statistics.
The U.S., Canada, Finland and Russia were in Pool A based on their results from last year's world championship. Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia and Germany were in Pool B.
The U.S. and Canada got byes to the semifinal for finishing first and second respectively in Pool A. Finland and Russia, third and fourth, faced Switzerland and Sweden from Pool B in the quarter-finals.
The new format wasn't without its flaws. Russia didn't win one game, yet finished sixth and avoided relegation because of the advantage their seeding in Pool A gave them.
The bottom of the field may tighten in 2014, but no country is ready to challenge Canada or the U.S. for the gold and silver medals in 2014.
"We may not see what we want, but I think by 2018 you will, where there's as many as six or eight nations could be the gold-medal, odds-on favourite," Costello said.
"We're trying to get the ones that can play to play better — Sweden, Finland, the Czechs and Russians. Russia will give a strong effort in the next two years now because they're hosting and no one wants to be embarrassed when they're hosting.
"Rogge will certainly notice."