Monday, 19 February 2018

Ten In 2022

Might Germany and Austria fill out the field at the 2022 Beijing Olympics? It was announced and made official today that the Olympic field for the women's ice hockey tournament in 2022 would follow the same path as the 2019 Women's World Championship going forward with ten teams rather than the eight seen at this year's Olympiad. Having more teams appear at the most prestigious tournament in the women's game is both good for the sport and for those teams who are striving to meet the level of play shown by the current eight Olympic teams. There are usually committees and consultations and meetings and reviews that last for years before a decision like this is made, so seeing the IOC and IIHF come to their senses without years of deliberation to feature a larger women's tournament shows real progress on their parts.

Perhaps nowhere has greater progress been seen, though, than in women's hockey when it comes to gaps closing between countries. IIHF council chairwoman Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer told The Associated Press' Teresa M. Walker and Stephen Whyno  that "the quality of women's hockey around the world is good enough for this step. She pointed to Japan beating Sweden 2-1 in overtime Sunday in the classification round and no team scoring more than eight goals in a game as signs of progress.

"'In Sochi, the first result was 9-0, and we now have here 8-0 both for the Korean team, so we can say that women's hockey developed a lot in the last eight and four years compared to Vancouver and Sochi,' Kolbenheyer said."

That true statement means that the women playing at the Olympic level are not only getting better at a rapid pace, but that the idea of a "Big Four" has now been reduced to a "Big Three" with Sweden falling off the pace, leaving just Canada, the US, and Finland as teams that regularly medal. Individually, we're seeing outstanding performances from players on Switzerland, Russia, Japan, and even Korea who was thought to be a write-off at this tournament, and that has to bode well for the development of other players within those countries who strive to be more than the fifth-place team.

Korea, who sits 17th in the IIHF World Rankings, is officially nine spots lower than Japan, yet there should be real optimism for this Korean team as they move forward. With the expansion to ten teams, Korea could find themselves as a mainstay on the Olympic stage if they continue to improve over the next four years. The seventh-ranked Germans will certainly want to grab one of those ten spots after missing out this year, and there should be a good battle between them, the Czech Republic, Austria, France, and Denmark over the next four years to see who can claim those two new spots. With China entering the running as the 19th-ranked team this year, they'll have some work to do if they hope to find success as the host team, but the expansion of the Canadian Professional Female League into that country is providing hope that they can accelerate that development.

The one thing that should be noted is that all of these countries aren't guaranteed anything when it comes to Olympic spots. Everyone will need to play for the next four years and jockey their positions with wins and losses at major IIHF tournaments to see who qualifies and who doesn't. If there are upsets, perhaps we could see a Great Britain or an Italy or a Mexico making their first appearances in women's ice hockey. By expanding the field and allowing more teams in, the chances of seeing an upstart team make the Olympics is now greater, and that provides better growth for the game as more people from that country and around the world tune in to watch these athletes who did the unthinkable.

With IIHF President Rene Fasel confirming the change on Monday after the Beijing Olympics organizers had requested the change, the IOC is also showing more commitment to inviting more female athletes than ever before. That, too, is something that should be celebrated as the Olympics really seem to be striving for equity between the men and women competing at their Games. We've heard the talk of the IOC trying to be more equitable in these when it came to female representation in all sports, but adding two more teams to arguably one of their marquee events shows some dedication to that decree. Yes, you can point to the fact that the Beijing Olympics organizers had made the request, but the IOC's quick approval on that request makes it seem like their trying to put their money where their mouths are.

Looking at this announcement and knowing the above, one has to be excited to see more elite female athletes on the world stage. Yes, it benefits the athletes who play and those of us who appreciate women's hockey immensely, but the end result is that more women will be invited to the 2022 Olympics than ever before. The growth and benefits to women's hockey should be felt throughout the women's hockey world as teams now are competing for an increased number of Olympic berths, and that may keep some of these amazing players in the game longer. More women, women playing longer into their careers, and more teams competing at the highest level? That sounds like a win-win-win to me.

Well done, IOC and IIHF. This is the best news out of this Olympiad yet.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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