SOCHI, Russia — Women’s hockey isn’t in danger of being kicked out of the Winter Olympics because of a lack of competition, the head of the sport’s international governing body said at the Sochi Games today.
“That will never happen,” IIHF President Rene Fasel told a news conference. “I can guarantee that will never happen.”
Women’s hockey has long been dominated by the United States and Canada, who will play for the gold medal on Thursday night for the fourth time in five Winter Games. Between them, the North American rivals have won every Olympics and every world championship, and only once has another team even reached the championship game.
The lack of competition at Vancouver in 2010 prompted then-IOC President Jacques Rogge to say, “We cannot continue without improvement.”
But an IOC spokesman said last week that Rogge was misunderstood and Olympic officials would only be concerned if the problem persisted “way into the future.”
At a news conference with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman today, Fasel noted that the Vancouver Games included an 18-0 victory by Canada over Slovakia, among other blowouts. There have been no double-digit blowouts in Sochi.
“It’s much better, but we are not there,” Fasel said, already looking ahead to the 2018 Winter Games. “I really hope that in PyeongChang we will have a better result, but we have to work very hard.”
Although some of the games have been lopsided — the United States outshot Sweden 70-9 in a 6-1 victory in the semifinals — the competition has indeed been closer at the 2014 Olympics. Part of the reason is a new format that put the top four teams together for group play, with the bottom four teams playing each other in the preliminary round.
The top two teams in the top group, which turned out to be the United States and Canada, earned a bye to the semifinals. The United States beat Sweden to advance, and Canada beat Switzerland 3-1 — the closest the Swiss had ever come against Canada.
“I think for us, it was a great game,” said Swiss coach Rene Kammerer, who described himself as “happy to be disappointed.”
“Months ago, if we lose to Canada just 3-1, it would be a great game for us.”
Under the new format, which was tested at the last two world championships, in 20 games in Sochi so far there were only three blowouts of five goals or more, the measuring stick the IIHF uses to assess the quality of the competition.
There were nine games with a five-goal margin of victory or more at the Vancouver Games — almost half of the 20 games played.
Still, neither the United States nor Canada was ever really in danger of missing the title game. Only once has either nation ever lost in an Olympics to any other country: When Sweden upset the U.S. in a shootout in the Turin semifinals.
Fasel and Bettman, who have clashed in the past over the participation of NHL players in the Olympics, agreed that the women’s game needs to be a part of the Winter Games.
“On behalf of hockey, we would be distressed” if the women’s game were kicked out, Bettman said.
Fasel was also asked about the formation of a women’s league in Europe or North America that would allow players to play professionally. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which also includes a team in Boston, pays expenses but not salaries, meaning most players have to work full-time jobs.
Finland goalie Noora Raty, a two-time NCAA champion who announced her retirement from the national team, pleaded for a pro league that was competitive. She said she would try to find a job with a men’s league instead.
“I don’t feel that women’s hockey will grow or get any better in the future if the USA or Canada don’t get a professional league started soon,” she said in a letter posted on Twitter announcing her retirement. “That is the next critical step that our sport needs to take or our sport will never be respected like it should be.”
Bettman said a women’s league doesn’t make business sense, yet.
“But it is something we continue to look at and examine,” he said.