Posted: Sunday February 12, 2006 4:34PM; Updated: Monday February 13, 2006 2:34AM
There is some chicken-and-egg to the debate: Should a sport earn its way into the Games or should the Olympics embrace a sport in order to be a springboard for its growth? The most compelling argument for keeping women's hockey is its growth potential seems greater than softball, pretty much a non-starter in Europe. (The Greek softball team talked like it had emigrated to Athens from SoCal, which, basically, it had.) But the hockey numbers reveal a chasm not likely to be closed by happy talk. According to International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel, there are 65,000 registered women hockey players in Canada and 50,000 in the U.S. Meanwhile there are 400 in Italy, double that in Switzerland. "It took 64 years for the Swiss men to beat Canada," Fasel said, "but it will not take that long for the women."
Can somebody e-mail me in the afterlife when it does happen?
The reason women's hockey is a more secure than softball is the nature of the Winter Games. The summer Olympic program is chock-a-block, the winter relatively sparse. For the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, ABC ponied up a then-record $309 million for the American rights on the proviso the Games move from 12 days to cover three weekends, 16 days worth of competition. The IOC needed content, padding for the program. In the past five Olympics, freestyle skiing, snowboard, short track speedskating, skeleton, women's bobsled and women's hockey all have found a niche as medal sports. Some, such as snowboarding and freestyle, have been riotous Gen-X successes. Some, like short track, have provided a slew of wildly exciting, if sometimes wacky, moments. Women's hockey has produced one riveting, high-caliber game per Olympiad.
"It won't always be just U.S.-Canada," said Swiss (and former UM-D) goalie Patricia Elsmore-Sautter, who made a handful of world-class saves against an American team that displayed an alarming lack of finish around the net. Finland and Sweden are getting close. "If we score a goal, maybe it's a different game."
Maybe not. The truth is 16 years since the first women's world championships, the game remains in its embryonic stage in most countries. Only when more Europeans get into the American college system -- where they can get the requisite training, ice time and coaching -- will it develop to truly Olympic standards.
Until then, the IOC should let Canada and the U.S. play a best-of-seven for the Rogge Cup.