can win

“Most believe [the Olympic women's hockey competition] is a two-team tournament between the United States and Canada.”

That was a sentence spoken by an NBC Sports anchor on Saturday, hours after the U.S. and Canada devoured the Finns and Swiss, respectively, by a combined score of 8-1, to open this year’s women’s hockey tournament. Had this broadcast professional instead pursued a career in astronomy, one might assume that his assessment of the inky black void in which all known matter exists would note that “Most believe this universe is particularly large and old.”

Of course this is a god damned two-team tournament. It has been pretty much straight through since the inception of the women’s tournament for the Nagano games in 1998, because the U.S. and Canada have competed in the gold medal game in three of the first four tournaments ever held. The one time they didn’t, the U.S. still won bronze with a 4-0 rout of Finland, while Canada once again stomped the Swedes 4-1.

You hear talk that “the gap is narrowing.” Sure it is. The sun is also slowly but surely using up all its internal fuel and will eventually run out. But that’s like 5 billion years away, so there’s really no sense in worrying about it just yet.

As much as I love women’s hockey, though, things are getting worse for any non-North American team, not better. The big two have played four games, and scored 20 goals. They’ve allowed one. A plus-19 goal differential. All that remains in the group stage is a showdown on Wednesday between the two superpowers. And guess what: It literally almost doesn’t even matter at all; both have already qualified for the semifinals, and the loser will draw the winner of the quarterfinal game between the third-place team in Group A (which they will have already demolished earlier on) and whoever wins Group B (probably Russia, but maybe Sweden). Whichever team that is will pose no problem for the only two hockey powers in the Olympics worth mentioning.

To that point about the gap narrowing, here are the qualifying-round goal differentials for the U.S. and Canada, respectively, by year: in 1998, it was plus-26 and plus-16; in 2002, it was plus-27 and plus-25; in 2006, it was plus-15 and plus-35; in 2010, it was plus-30 and plus-39. When your closest goal differential through three games is plus-15, maybe you just don’t even bother any more.

Which is kind of what the International Olympic Committee did in giving the two teams a pass to the semis. The group stages only matter in terms of seeding the bottom six teams, and therefore the U.S. and Canada might as well play each other two extra times to get a little more practice for the gold medal game that looks for all the world like it will be the matchup you could have predicted 16 years ago.

Again, while we’re constantly being told the gap between even the third-best team in the world and these two giants is narrowing, the empirical evidence suggests this is barely the case. They’ve already bent the rules of qualification to absurd proportions in an effort to make this seem in any way competitive and have to this point failed to do so. You wonder how many more Olympics have to go like this before the IOC just says, “Screw it.”

You’ll recall that baseball and softball used to be Olympic sports, but that’s no longer the case. After four tournaments of dominance by North American and Asian nations in baseball (you know, the parts of the world where baseball is actually played), the Europeans stamped their feet and said they didn’t want to play it any more, and that’s without any teams having Major League Baseball players, because unlike the NHL, MLB wanted no part of stopping their season for a few weeks. If the best players in the world had participated, every game not involving the best four teams or so would have looked like the opening innings of the Gashouse Gorillas versus the Teetotalers.

Meanwhile, the U.S. softball team so thoroughly dominated the tournament — allowing a single run in the opening rounds of the final two Olympics combined — that they just said screw it, even as Japan won a shocking gold in 2008. There’s talk they’re going to bring both sports back for Japan’s Olympics in 2020, but nothing has been decided. If that’s the case, you can probably expect more of the same regional dominance.

Those sports, and hockey, are not like basketball, which has been adopted all over the world since the NBA was allowed to send players over in 1992. The Dream Team wreaked wholesale havoc on their opponents, but the rest of the world caught up in slightly less than a generation and games are, occasionally, somewhat competitive. But even there, the U.S. or Spain or Russia shouldn’t have to bother with playing, say, China or Tunisia or Nigeria, which ended with point differentials of at least minus-90.

One has to wonder how much this niche sport (on a global level) will be something about which even the vast majority of its participants care; why devote resources to improving something like this if even taking a huge step forward still means you lose by six and don’t score? Is winning bronze — at the very best — every four years really worth the investment?

Now, to be fair, hockey is probably the biggest draw of all the Winter Olympic sports in terms of the number of people who actually buy tickets and file into the buildings, and that has to be taken into consideration. The IOC is, after all, going for nothing but money at all times, so perhaps this tournament is safe. But if we’re going strictly by results, there’s little reason to keep such a top-heavy event in the regular rotation.

Comments (62)

  1. There’s a vicious circle here. The Americans and Canadians centralize and practice together for six months. The other teams play together for maybe ten days before the tournament starts. The coach of Germany, ranked sixth in the world, is part-time and has a job in a factory. Under those circumstances, it’s hard for anyone else to put together a team that can challenge, even though the Germans, Swedes, Russians and Finns have a lot of talent on their roster. And without the results, you don’t see any incentive to invest. Hopefully the growing popularity of girls’ ice hockey in other countries will eventually lead to a level of popularity that makes other nations decide to invest before the results come. But if things don’t change, if other countries don’t centralize, they won’t be able to compete.

  2. The Canadian men won every Olympics but one between 1920 and 1952, with the US not placing only twice. No one was complaining then.

  3. Simple solution a friend at work came up, every other country in the Olympics gets to draft one player from Canada and one from the USA to play for them.

    • And thereby negating the most important aspect of the Olympics: playing for your own country.

      And even then, do you think just taking out a few players from the US and Canadian teams will make that much of a difference on the scoresheet? Oh no! Canada loses Crosby! How in the world will Toews, Nash, and Bergeron score?! I used the men’s team, because I have no idea who the top point-getters are in women’s hockey, but the same idea applies.

      Not trying to troll, but the talent and skill level of the North American hockey powerhouses (sorry Mexico), who conveniently also make hockey a year-round career, just leaves the rest of the world in the dust, especially in women’s hockey.

  4. The goal differential for the tournament so far is also a little misleadingly close, because they put Germany and Japan in the other group to avoid the unsightly 12-0 blowouts that happened last time around.

    • Therein lies the problem. The 20-1 differential is against the 3rd and 4th ranked teams, not the scrubs like usually happens.

      Even more telling than the 20-1 margin is the shot disparity… combined, the two powers have outshot the opposition 207-53 (96-25 for US, 111-28 for Canada). Hell, Canada put more shots up against the Swiss (69) than the Swiss and Finns have put up in four games!

      • Yeah, I agree. I was clumsily trying to point out that the disparity is even worse than the article suggests.

  5. How is this any different than other sports like Ice Dancing, Table Tennis or Speed Skating?

    • Speed skating has 4 countries with 60+ medals and three more with 25+. It is not just a two-country show.

      Ice dancing has seen six different countries medal in the last three Olympics with the gold going to a different country each season.

      Women’s ice hockey medals have gone to four countries in total and only two for the gold in 4 Olympics.

  6. There so much wrong in this article, I don’t even know how to keep a response focused at all, so I apologize if this lacks coherence and goes on way too long. You say, “there’s little reason to keep such a top-heavy event in the regular rotation…” which is just sick in the face of the history of men’s hockey at the Olympics, where it was a two-team tournament for the first three decades, and a three-team tournament for the next three. We give men’s hockey 60+ years before someone other than Canada, the USA, or the Soviet Union manages to be remotely competitive, but 15 is too long to wait for the women?

    USA Hockey had its first senior national championships in 1981. Sweden’s first league was created in 1987. Finland started having women’s teams in the 70s. Women’s sports in general haven’t had significant amounts of time to develop in a serious way, and in countries without programs like Title IX in the US, very little effort is put into making up the enormous gaps caused by this lack of development time. Women’s hockey teams don’t have the funding to build strong programs, full stop. It’s not that their feelings are so hurt by how good the US and Canada are that they can’t get out of bed the next morning. They don’t have enough funding. Players can’t train full time, they don’t have the staff, they don’t have resources to develop stronger youth programs.

    If the sport is no longer at the Olympics, young women will never be exposed for it, never be inspired to take it up, and it will never have a chance to grow. Removing women’s hockey from the Olympics will certainly not improve parity. Given the popularity of men’s hockey in many European countries, it seems likely that a lack of funding, opportunity, and exposure is hurting women’s hockey (as well as the sexism and gendered expectations that always hurt women’s sports) rather than there being no potential for future growth.

    And it’s kind of horrible to just blithely suggest that we remove it from the Olympics, not only because of the ultimate damage it would do to the development of the sport in general, but also because that would leave top athletes in the US and Canada with no significant hockey goals for them to achieve after graduating from NCAA programs, not to mention far less NT funding. It’s even more sick to imply that these athletes shouldn’t be working to the best of their ability, that they should be trying to sabotage their own potential to maintain a more even field, instead of trying to be the best they can be – which is why you’re doing by framing this as “it’s the US and Canada’s problem for being too dominant” and not “It’s other countries’ problem for not funding team sports for women adequately.”

    You yourself discuss several other sports that lack parity, but don’t argue that they should be removed. Nor do you address how much politics and corruption goes into IOC decisions, instead presenting them as natural, even though there are many Olympic sports that lack parity. How much imbalance is too much? How much time is too much to give a sport a chance to develop? Apparently, as I said above, 60 years is about enough for a men’s event but 15 is too many for women. (Perhaps we should shut down men’s programs and focus all funding and attention on women’s programs to make up for the decades when the reverse was the case?)

    Is sport considered a positive pursuit? I have gotten the impression from people in sports that they consider participation in a team sport, in particular, to be a positive part of children’s lives. Is that all children, or only boys? It’s very upsetting that you can just glibly argue, “This is predictable and uneven, we should take it out of the games” when the lack of competitiveness is largely due to a lack of funding in potential hockey nations and when the impact of removing it would be significant for female athletes, as well as for the future of the game. It’s even more upsetting that you feel fine arguing that in the face of years of Canadian and American domination in men’s hockey.

    • Thank you for summing up exactly what I was thinking. Men’s sports are far more “appreciated” than women’s, and it results in disparities like this. No one should claim they have a top rated hockey program if the women’s side isn’t as strong as the men’s, especially these days.

      • Doesn’t change the fact that sports have been removed from the Olympics for this very problem, too much dominance from too few participants.

        • And loads of sports with too much dominance from too few participants have remained in the Olympics, for far longer than 4 games, so…

          • So in other words, it is not guaranteed to be removed, merely facing the increased prospect of it.

            The only other sports with the dominance issue I can think of are table tennis and badminton etc. Why they remain I cannot say but they likely face the same threat to their inclusion as women’s hockey does.

    • Thank you for voicing what I wanted to say, but was not articulate enough to.

      And to Doh: There is a difference between baseball not getting funded in Europe because they don’t care about the sport in general, and countries that are very good at men’s hockey not funding women’s because of gender expectations

      • This may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that without funding or improvement the sport’s Olympic future is in jeopardy. It may not be fair but it’s the truth of the matter.

        • Fair enough. The issue I have with this article is that its analysis was fairly superficial and the last line saying, “But if we’re going strictly by results, there’s little reason to keep such a top-heavy event in the regular rotation.”

          Also, this paragraph:
          “One has to wonder how much this niche sport (on a global level) will be something about which even the vast majority of its participants care; why devote resources to improving something like this if even taking a huge step forward still means you lose by six and don’t score? Is winning bronze — at the very best — every four years really worth the investment?”

          If countries like Sweden can win gold in men’s hockey, they clearly have adequate knowledge of player development. If they devoted resources to women’s hockey, there’s no reason that they couldn’t compete with Canada and the US in several years.

    • I want women’s hockey to remain in the Olympics, and removing it would really damage the sport. But the point remains that the score and medal disparities, fairly or not (I’d say unfairly, if you consider other sports similarly dominated by few countries), might lead to it being cut from the games.

      I guess it’s a problem without a solution, other than patience and hope that other countries somehow decide to invest more time and money in women’s hockey. You don’t want the US and Canada sandbagging against inferior competition, but this continuing disparity seems to put the event in danger and may well discourage other countries from investing in women’s hockey.

    • I want to shake hands with this comment, it is so beautifully to the point

  7. Maybe other countries are smart enough to realize their women should have babies instead of playing a stupid sport where they are more likely to get injured.

  8. Thing is, this article (and many of the commenters agreeing with it) isn’t saying that women’s hockey should be removed from the game. It is saying that it is at risk of being removed. There is a big difference there.

    Right or wrong, many sports that face such dominance have been removed from the Games. Yes, there are others in the same situation which have remained for whatever reason but that just means there are no guarantees in either direction.

    • Lambert doesn’t seem to have done himself any favors; he went for nuance and ended up with a muddled argument. I don’t think that he really wants women’s ice hockey removed, and he says as much at the beginning. But statements like “When your closest goal differential through three games is plus-15, maybe you just don’t even bother any more.” I know he’s trying to present the point of view from people who favor removing it, but writing like that creates the impression that he is sympathetic to that viewpoint or even agrees with it.

      • Damnit, edited out the end of a sentence:

        But statements like “When your closest goal differential through three games is plus-15, maybe you just don’t even bother any more” make it seem like he’s trying to have it both ways.

      • Yeah, it was a bit confusing to read.

    • The thing is, it isn’t actually at that much risk of being removed at all. The IOC have put a big focus of allowing women to compete in the same events as men (like this year’s introduction of the women’s ski jump) and killing off women’s hockey would be a huge step backwards, both in real terms and political terms.

      I agree that women’s hockey doesn’t make for a particularly entertaining Olympic sport at this point, but there’s still a pretty negligible chance that they’ll actually drop it.

      • This makes sense given the fact that softball was dropped alongside baseball, not independently. The IOC removing the male equivalent in this case just isn’t going to happen and they will catch too much flak for only doing one side of the equation.

  9. the possible outlook of winning bronze every 4 year is not a good foundation for getting funds to improve you own national program. you dont bet against the harlem globetrotters and sadly thats the state of womens hockey right now.

  10. Good article, but I feel he is incorrect about the baseball portion. NA and Asia dominate baseball, but he forgets to mention the South American powerhouses as well.

    The claim that the U.S would wipe the floor in baseball if MLB players were allowed to play is questionable as well, as the Americans have never won a WBC title (Hint: JPN has 2, DR has 1).

    • The WBC is played at a terrible time, though – in the pre-season, when MLB pitchers are extremely limited. It’s not like hockey or basketball, when you can relatively easily get back into game shape. Admittedly, the DR’s win changes the calculus somewhat.

      That, combined with the fact that playing one-off baseball games is essentially completely random (Canada lost to f’n ITALY), and Japanese players being right at the prime of their season, and it’s no real shock that the US hasn’t won one to date.

  11. There are a number of other sports that should face similar criticism:

    -table tennis, where China has 24 of 28 golds, all but one since 1992
    -Luge, where 40 of 41 golds have gone to German speakers – either Germans, Austrians, or Germanic Italians
    -Basketball, where no existing country has more than 1 gold except the US, with 21 of 28
    -Badminton, where 28 of 29 golds have been won by China, South Korea, and Indonesia.

    Also worth looking at the incredible domination in these sports: Archery (South Korea), Athletics (US), Beach Volleyball (US and Brazil), Diving (US and China), and Swimming (US).

    I think the best argument is one of sexism. There should be no Olympic sport that doesn’t have both genders compete.

    • It’s not sexism. It’s marketing. The IOC isn’t going to do ANYTHING to piss China off, hence keeping table tennis and badminton around.

      But you’re cherry picking your examples. For instance, the US won two luge medals in 2002, and five different countries won medals in 2006. More importantly, those races were competitive between Germany / Austria and the field; there certainly weren’t the absurd Corsi numbers that these Canada / US v the rest descend into.

      Basketball was quite competitive until the Dream Team era started. However, we all know that it’s another IOC untouchable because of basketball’s popularity around the world.

      Aside from that… c’mon, to say that the US dominates swimming and track to the extent that Canada and the US do in women’s hockey is quite facetious. Remember, someone from TUNISIA won a gold medal in the pool in 2008 and 2012. TUNISIA!

      (Okay, that’s a tad unfair because it was the weird open-water event, but…)

      • To both Stephen and Chris:

        When I said sexism, I did not mean to suggest that the IOC was being sexist in trying to remove Women’s Ice Hockey. I meant that people who want it at the Olympics should use it. I think it is perfectly valid to say that no Olympic sport should be accessible to only one gender. There is simply no good reason for it.

    • Table tennis, badminton and basketball are all sports with huge numbers of participants around the world. This is a fundamental point that lies around criticisms of women’s hockey.

      I do agree that arguments could be made about luge being on par with women’s hockey. And luge has also been subject to persistent questions due to German/Italian dominance and the safety issues associated with the sport.

      Luge is a niche sport that could see its place in the Olympics challenged in the near future. The lack of track access for most countries (Germany has 4, while Canada and the Unites States are the only other countries with as many as 2 tracks) has made it difficult to train athletes in the sport.

      Women’s hockey does not suffer from a lack of facilities, as women use the same rinks as men. What it does suffer from is the fact that women simply do not participate in the sport outside of Canada and the United States. The IIHF reported ~87,000 female players in Canada, and 65,700 female players in the United States. Contrast that with the next biggest “powers” in women’s hockey: 4787 in Finland, 3186 in Sweden, 3114 in Germany, 2510 in the Czech Republic and 2108 in Japan. Those numbers make it virtually impossible for those countries to have any hope of competing with Canada or the US, and the situation has not been improving. There simply is not a lot of interest in ice hockey in most European countries, where there are seemingly more “amateur” sports for women to pursue.

      Sports like cross-country skiing, speed skating, biathlon, and alpine skiing all see good participation rates for women in most European countries. If it were simply sexism, then you should see the same lack of participation across the board for female sports. The sexism card is an easy one to play, but I think it is lazy thinking.

  12. I think folks have made a good argument that Women’s Hockey should survive, and that the disparity in competition wouldn’t be out of place.

    It makes me wonder, “what was different about baseball?”

    Is it simple enough that MLB wouldn’t shut down for the IOC?

    • That, and Europeans don’t care about baseball, but run the IOC.

      Remembers, those motherfuckers kicked out WRESTLING, which was, along with track, the foundation of the Olympics. Why? Because a bunch of North Americans / Eastern Europeans / Middle Eastern athletes dominated.

  13. This is the reason why Hockey isn’t going anywhere, there are 3 to 4 times as many sports in the summer Olympics versus the winter Olympics.

  14. If those of you at Bshelf are so concerned about the survival of the women’s game, how about a bit more coverage of the women’s game? You did an individual breakdown of every Men’s team in the Olympics, but I must have missed where you did that for the women.

    Yes they changed the seeding, but some of the games have actually been fun, if you’ve been watching them instead of just moaning about disparity.

    • I’m pretty sure the opposing fans and players don’t find games with 55-15 shot disparities ‘fun’…

      • Have you only been watching the US/Canada games? Because the other games are the ones I’m talking about, they’ve been tighter and interesting to watch. I am neither American or Canadian and do not have a team in the Olympics, however I have been enjoying watching the hockey.

        • But that is the problem. Those other half-dozen teams are all on similar footing and leagues below the top two.

          It’s like dropping a couple NHL teams down to the juniors or NCAA. Can still have good hockey when the NHL giants aren’t involved but its a disaster when they are.

          I am sure baseball and softball had the same issue… the second tiers were competitive with each other and made for exciting games. Still didn’t save their sport.

          • Y’know I don’t really know what the point of all this is. The IOC might decide to prevent women’s participation in hockey at the Olympic level, yes they could do that. Perhaps instead of concern-mongering by asking stupid, hypothetical questions, we could work to improve the game by actual media coverage (online as well as TV) to increase interest and participation.

            Unless you are arguing that it SHOULD be removed – in which case, these women have worked hard to get to where they are and performing at the olympics is an achievement in it’s own right, which should not be taken away from them. If they weren’t prepared to lose as well as win, they would not be there.

          • Media coverage follows fan interest and it simply isn’t there. At least not in the US. One just need to look at top collegiate programs for proof of the disinterest.

            The Beanpot was held just last week in Boston, an annual tournament featuring four local college hockey teams (Harvard, Northeastern, BC and BU). Attendance for the men’s games was capacity at TD Garden (17000+) while the first round of the woman’s tournament held at BC’s Conte Forum was in the 500 range.

            Another example is Minnesota… their male and female programs are both at the top of the national polls. The mens team pulls in a capacity 10000 attendance. The women? Around 1500.

            No mainstream media outlet is going to dedicate resources to such a low-interest sport. It’s like expecting ESPN to start airing American jai-alai or rugby games in primetime to help grow the sports.

          • It’s not “media coverage follows fan interest,” it’s “fan interest follows media coverage.” The state of men’s and women’s sports is not a natural, inevitable, and unchangeable state of being. Women and girls are playing sports in larger and larger numbers. There is an audience, but women’s sports and female athletes don’t have the glamor, production values, training resources, and media coverage that creates storylines that get the public invested in the athletes and in particular competitions.

            When you combine that with sexist attitudes that like to see men as heroes and women as sex objects, yes – it means there’s less interest in women’s sports. But that can change, because there is money to be made in women’s sports. And it will change, as expectations about women’s behavior and women’s attitudes towards sports evolve from generation to generation. But these changes can be hastened enormously with proper support – it takes a push, from the media and from investors. Men’s sports have had these pushes, women’s sports have not.

          • Yea, fan interest follows the media attention. That’s why attendance figures for the WNBA and MLS are growing so steadily and consistently…

            I’ll save you the hassle of looking up WNBA attendance and just let you know that it has steadily fallen since 1998 (its second season), doing from 10,900 per game down to 7,500

      • Ohh, well. Right. Since there’s soooo much coverage of those sports, I guess my argument has been completely torn to shreds.

        Do you even hear yourself?

        • Media coverage is actually fairly good in Canada theres 3-4 tournaments a year broadcast on TSN which is more than a lot of sports. The difficulty is getting the rest of the world who don’t win in the events and where women playing hockey isn’t that common to provide media coverage. For example Russia ranked 4th in womens hockey has 562 female players based on that extremely low level of engagement you can’t expect Russian media to provide large coverage.

  15. I think that, as time passes, that Swedish win over the US in 2006 becomes more and more remarkable. That’s probably a bigger upset than the Miracle on Ice was.

  16. It’s something of a catch-22.

    Women’s team sports in general often lack depth of talent. As a result they suffer from more gross mismatches, and are usually less interesting to watch. That nets them fewer resources. That, in turn, hinders the sort of widespread development that would improve the talent pool and skill base and result in more competitive teams capable of holding their own at the highest levels.

    If you wanted to use those resources anyway, you’d have to put up with a long wait before seeing any sort of return in the form of a stronger program, to say nothing of possibly recouping the costs involved. And you would soon run into another challenge that no amount of legislation can overcome: participation. What if women generally have less interest in playing a sport at an internationally-competitive level? I agree that the way should not be closed, so that anyone with that interest can pursue it as far as possible; but there might not be a lot of company on the way, perhaps not enough to field six or eight national teams equally-capable of winning a best-on-best tournament.

    • “What if women generally have less interest in playing a sport at an internationally-competitive level?”

      Until women have the same exposure to female athletes doing sports at the highest level and making significant sums of money for it, I don’t think it’s quite fair to ask that question, and don’t consider it relevant to the discussion.

      I didn’t play a sport growing up, I wasn’t interested in it – a trait I share with lots of men and women. But exercise, outdoor activity, team atmosphere, friends, a way to work off energy and feed a competitive spirit – there are a lot of benefits to doing sports, and clearly there are large numbers of girls and women who enjoy those benefits. And women have gone so long without any real encouragement to pursue sports, or to be serious about it, at this point I think it’s important to give them a very real chance to succeed and to take sports seriously and to be able to pursue sports beyond a collegiate level.

      And maybe not everyone’s going to buy season tickets to an NWSL match or go see their university’s women’s hockey team, but the VERY LEAST we can do is not cast doubt on the idea that women want to pursue sports, that women are serious about sports, and that women would like to be spectators of sports in which women are competing at a high level. Because all the evidence to the contrary is based on a history (and present) of massive inequality.

  17. Yay for obscure Bugs Bunny references!

  18. One thing working to ensure women’s hockey stays at the Olympics is the level of acceptance of men’s hockey. After the lawsuits and ongoing controversy to get women’s ski jump into the games, they do not want to revisit the situation where they again have a men’s sport but no women’s version (and the optics of actually removing women’s hockey is worse than just not adding yet). When the bat and ball sports were removed, at least men’s and women’s went at the same time. Also, I’d have to think removing women’s hockey would be highly opposed by the media rights-buyers in both Canada (small change) and USA (I assume the biggest dollar contract).
    Of course if the NHL stays out of 2018 and beyond, the men’s game might not be safe either.

    • I don’t think the media rights in the US would care too much about losing woman’s hockey. The men’s would be a major issue but not the woman’s… just not that popular in the states.

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