Sunday, 14 February 2010

Blowouts Can Be Fixed

Yesterday saw the women's hockey event kick off at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Canada played Slovakia, and were followed by the Swiss battling Sweden. There's no doubt that there are three or four different levels of talent in the women's field at the hockey event. The elite teams are generally well-known, and then there are the bronze medalists. Of course, that leaves a number of teams as either tournament fodder or afterthoughts, but these women are proud to represent their country on the biggest stage that they'll ever see. The problem is that the two elite teams generally put up blowout scores when playing the teams outside their talent levels. Today, we look at how the Olympics can keep the games fair for everyone while still providing the entertainment needed to have this Olympic sport as a viable TV event.

The two elite teams in the world are Canada and the USA. These two teams have won gold and silver every year except 2006 where the Americans brought home a bronze medal. The World Championships always feature these two teams in the final, and there is a strong belief that the 2010 Olympic Final will also feature these two teams based upon their overall records and their past performances.

Canada opened their 2010 Winter Olympic Games with an 18-0 trouncing of the Slovakian team. The Canadians ended up outshooting the Slovaks by a ridiculous 67-9 margin as Meghan Agosta and Jayna Hefford had hat tricks for the ladies in red-and-white. This is the very first appearance at the Olympic Games for the Slovakian women's national team, but I'm sure they didn't want this kind of result in their first game at the Olympics.

On the other side, the Americans opened against China earlier today, and the Americans had their way with the Chinese ladies as they won by a 12-1 score. The Americans outshot China 61-7. A third period powerplay goal by Haijing Huang beat Brianne McLaughlin, but it was 10-1 at that point. The Americans did face a very good goaltender in Yao Shi, who made a spectacular save on Julie Chu, but the Americans were just too much for the Chinese women. Jenny Potter had a hat trick for the Americans in the win.

First, we need to see the differences in how the countries stack up in numbers alone. The Canadians and the Americans have a significant lead in terms of the numbers of registered females playing the game, giving them a much deeper pool of talent to choose from. You can see from the following numbers just how big the advantage is. Here are the 2009 stats, as provided by the IIHF's website:

  • Canada - 85,309
  • USA - 59,506
  • Sweden - 3612
  • Finland - 3527
  • Switzerland - 735
  • Slovakia -288
  • Russia - 278
  • China - 166
Not so pretty when you consider those numbers. It takes 23 players to fill out a roster. That means approximately 14% of the 166 women in China are representing that country in the Olympics this year. You can see why the top two teams are essentially the best in the world based on the numbers alone. They continually have players pushing each other to be better, and there is always someone else who can take someone's place.

The question was posed today during the IOC-VANOC joint briefing about introducing the possibility of a mercy rule. IOC director of communications Mark Adams said that the topic has not been brought up between the IOC or VANOC, and it sounds as though the idea may not gain much favour.

"It's an interesting idea," Adams offered to The Canadian Press. "I'm not sure it would have been good last night. I enjoyed watching the game."

I watched the full game myself, but I can't help to think that it wasn't much fun being on the Slovakian side of the ice. While I was into the game for the first period, starting the second period with a 7-0 lead makes cheering for the Canadians a little tougher for me. Adams tried to buoy any of the negativity as best he could.

"Clearly if you're on the losing side of a hiding, it's never much fun," Adams, who was at the game, stated. "But I'm sure they had a great experience and I'm sure they're thankful to be Olympians.

"You know these things happen in all sports, at all levels. They're a good team but clearly yesterday Canada were the better team - by a long way."

So how can the Olympics make the competition better? There has to be some way to encourage these teams who don't have the numbers back home like Canada and the USA to build their programs and promote growth. While the IOC has their own problems to worry about, I think it's time for the IOC to bring the Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to a conference to help these other countries.

Sweden and Finland are well on their ways to building solid programs, and some of their top players are being trained in the NCAA at prestigious hockey schools as you read this. That will only help their programs, but we need more. The Russian Ice Hockey Federation only has 278 women registered in hockey. China, a country with over a billion people, only has 166 registered women.

For two of the more populous countries in the world, Russia and China should hit the ground running. While both countries are still slightly to moderately oppressive in the area of women's rights and women's liberation, both countries need to start getting their women's hockey programs built. Outside of Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland, the bottom-three teams in the Olympic tournament have to start growing their programs.

How can we make the Olympics fairer in terms of reducing the number of blowout games? We all need to chip in and help out. Keep encouraging girls and young women to follow their hockey dreams. Donate any old equipment to local hockey programs so they can give it to someone that needs it. Go see your local women's hockey teams play. And, by all means, speak to local hockey executives about encouraging the growth of women's hockey in your area.

The best way to improve the game is to get more people involved. Women's hockey will only get better with time and more involvement. After all, Slovakia qualified for their first Olympic Games. In Sochi in 2014, there may be another team that makes its first-ever appearance.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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