Women’s pro league needed to spur sport’s growth



TORONTO — The gap keeps getting wider.

When women’s hockey was first introduced at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Canada and the United States outscored opponents by a combined 50-8 over eight games. This year in Vancouver, there was an 80-goal discrepancy, also in eight games.

That lack of parity is why International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge mused in February that the women’s game might be dropped out of future Olympics.

“There is a discrepancy there, everyone agrees with that,” Rogge told reporters. “This is maybe the investment period in women’s ice hockey. I would personally give them more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement. We cannot continue without improvement.”

Closing the gap might not be an easy thing to do. Canada and the United States promote women’s hockey at both the grassroots and elite levels, as well as put money into the sport. Countries in Europe have a different view.

According to Sweden’s Peter Elander, who is the associate head coach of the University Of North Dakota women’s team, a delegate from another country said that having a morning discussion on women’s hockey meant that he could sleep in.

“Where are the Russians?” moderator John Shannon said. “Why aren’t the Russians more involved in women’s hockey? Maybe someone can answer that for me.”

Those are the obstacles that the sport faces. Canada pumps $2.1-million into the national women’s program, while countries such as Russia do not believe hockey is suited for females.

The danger is that, if the Olympics also turn their backs, growing participation and acceptance will likely become even more challenging.

Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser has been working with the National Hockey League in hopes of organizing a professional league. Presumably called the WNHL, the league would attract the top women’s players in the world. By giving players from Europe something to aspire towards, the thinking is that the sport will have a better chance of growing.

“We start by bringing the top European countries over to North America where hockey is the most popular, where it’s growing,” said Wickenheiser, who has won three Olympic gold medals. “Now we invest in them, we have them and they learn what it’s like to play at the most elite level and they take those experiences back to their countries.”

It is a concept that will take co-operation.

Wickenheiser said that she has been in talks with the NHL about funding the proposed five- or six-team league and that there has been some interest. But considering there is not an appetite for the NHL in some U.S. markets, trying to get people interested about the women’s game could be difficult.

“They have to look at it, not necessarily as a business plan right now, but from an investment sponsorship level to get it off the ground, to get it growing,” Wickenheiser said. “We’re not talking about big salaries. We’re talking about just sensible steps to just putting a product on the ice that can entertain people and then go from there (and) ultimately down the road having that elite WNBA-type league, which I think we can do.”

Wickenheiser said she is open to new rules, such as introducing checking, half-visors and even fighting, which might “spice up the game.” Just as long as there is a place for players to compete.

“The (NCAA) serves that function until they are 21 or 22,” said Wickenheiser. “But they leave the game and eventually stop playing because there is nowhere else to go. I see it as a feeder system. When they come out of college, they would ultimately play in this top league, which we would start in North America and potentially look to expand and grow the game in Europe.”

That is the end goal. Canada and the United States are having no difficulty producing top-level players. But the challenge is doing the same in Europe, where the opportunities are fewer.

“After Sochi, if we don’t have the best-of-the-best league in North America, I think that the gap will get bigger and bigger,” Elander said. “If you have 26 of the top players spending so many days together (in training) and Sweden maybe has five or eight top players spend half of the day together, how will they close the gap? It’s a pure math thing.

“I hope that after Sochi there will be a professional league run by Mrs. Bettman.”

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