How can women’s hockey build off Olympic spotlight?

Team Canada celebrates their win over Team United States in the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match.
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BEIJING (AP) — Speaking less than 24 hours apart over the final two days of the women’s Olympic hockey tournament, the two captains’ messages were emphatic, emotional and similar in their desire to grow the sport.

Kendall Coyne Schofield choked back tears following the United States’ gold-medal loss to Canada at the Beijing Games by saying: “We need to continue to push for visibility. We need to continue to fight for women’s hockey because (the status quo) is not good enough. It can’t end after the Olympic Games.”

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Switzerland’s Lara Stalder voiced a similar theme directed at her nation’s hockey federation after losing the bronze-medal game to Finland.

“My message is to build a league in Switzerland. Make the best league in Europe,” Stalder said, noting she and 13 of her teammates play professionally in other countries.

“Obviously, there should be one league, like the NHL, for all of us to compete against the best players,” she added, suggesting Swiss league men’s teams should consider sponsoring women’s teams. “But I think we’re far away from that in Switzerland, and that needs to change.”

Another Olympic tournament is over, and little appears to have changed. Canada and the United States met in the final for the sixth time in seven Winter Games, and the issue of how to improve the sport globally remains.

At a time when everyone agrees changes are required, there’s little concrete consensus on what needs to be done other than private or public entities making larger investments.

Such is the case in North America, where there are few signs of a thaw between the continent’s only pro women’s hockey league, the recently renamed Premier Hockey Federation, and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, whose membership includes nearly every U.S. and Canadian national team player.

Based on player responses, the PHF remains mostly off their radar despite the league announcing last month it is expanding from six to eight teams and more than doubling the salary cap for each team from $300,000 this year to $750,000 for next season.

In one breath, Canada forward Brianne Jenner said: “That’s a really exciting thing, and I think we want to see the success of that league.”

In the next breath, however, she all but dismissed the PHF as an option.

“But we also want to see something that is going to stand the test of time,” Jenner added, before noting the PWHPA is inching closer toward meeting its mission statement of establishing a player-driven league with a sustainable economic model.

Asked who needs to come to the table if it’s not the PHF, Jenner would only say, “That’s a great question. I think it’s going to be a culmination of corporate sponsors, or people that support our game. And I think we’re not far off there.”

The NHL was supposed to be that entity, before it backed off when the pandemic blew a major hole in its budget.

American star Hilary Knight congratulated PHF players for getting a boost in pay, before turning her attention back to the PWHPA.

The responses are a setback for the PHF, which has spent the past two years restructuring its governing model by bringing in private ownership groups. The league hoped its decision to invest $25 million over the next three years to increase salaries, provide health care and improve facilities would help lure the PWHPA members into joining.

If there was a bright side in Beijing, criticism that the world was falling further behind the U.S. and Canada after several lopsided wins seemed premature.

The Americans briefly trailed the Czech Republic before pulling out a 4-1 win in the quarterfinals. Canada, meantime, was on its heels in allowing the Swiss to cut their lead to 5-2 before rallying to an eventual 10-3 win in the semifinals.

What became evident was the U.S. and Canada benefitting in the early stages after spending the previous four months playing and practicing together. Most of the other nations didn’t have that advantage. Their players didn’t have much time to be together because they have professional commitments and had to deal with COVID-19 travel restrictions. They used the preliminary round games to find their chemistry.

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The Beijing Games were the first of seven Olympic women’s hockey tournaments in which every team registered a win, and with the field expanded from eight to 10 teams.

At the International Ice Hockey Federation level, newly elected president Luc Tardif attempted to fix a credibility gap, with the governing body criticized for favoring the men’s game over women. The latest example came a few months ago, when the IIHF canceled the Under-18 women’s tournament for COVID-19 reasons while pressing ahead with its men’s world junior championship.

The world juniors were eventually stopped a few days into the tournament because of COVID-19, and have been rescheduled for August. The Under-18 women’s tournament will also be rescheduled this year.

Tardif noted the IIHF added $5.4 million to its women’s hockey budget to increase its prize purse for players in both the qualifying tournaments and Olympics.

“I’m not the guy who doesn’t believe in women’s hockey. I think Zsuzsanna by my side, she’s always there to remind me, but she doesn’t have to push me a lot,” Tardif said, referring to women’s tournament organizer Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer. “I’m convinced, and I believe in women’s hockey.”

Tardif spoke at a news conference originally scheduled to start at 10 a.m., two hours before the women’s gold-medal final. The news conference was moved to 9 a.m. after the IIHF realized it could conflict with the game.

Stalder shook her head in dismay when informed of the potential scheduling conflict.

“Find your answer yourself in that,” Stalder said, sarcastically. ”We have to make women’s hockey a priority.”