“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.