Is Women’s International Hockey Competitive?

So, the Women’s World Hockey Championships have been running for the past couple of weeks, and ended on Sunday with the finals.  I’m not going to talk about the final because I was barely paying attention to it (I had Canada’s semi-final on while eating because nothing else was on and I didn’t feel like putting a movie on), except to note that as per usual it ends up being Canada vs USA in the final.  In women’s international hockey, it’s pretty much always Canada vs USA, but the hope was that the other countries would catch up.  For the longest time, Finland and Sweden were the second tier, which meant that in general they could topple one of these teams if they didn’t pay attention but that that rarely happened, so they pretty much always played for third and fourth place.  With Czechia and Switzerland in the bronze medal match, you might think that things are getting more competitive, even though Canada and the USA are still the class of field.

Or, at least, you might think that until you look at the semi-final scores, where Canada won 8 – 1 and the USA won 10 -1.  Canada outshot Switzerland 56 – 6 and the USA outshot Czechia 39 – 10.  Even given that there are more teams with a shot at playing for bronze, it doesn’t look like there’s more parity.  The teams still can’t touch Canada and the US, and so no other team has anything like a reasonable shot at winning any international competition.  Heck, given these scores, even getting back to a final seems like a pipe dream.

Now, this has been the case for a long time, and there have been a lot of arguments saying that women’s hockey should not be in the Olympics because it is simply not competitive, and so all it does is provide an extra medal for those two countries.  It can be countered that it’s worth having there anyway to encourage women’s sports, but the issue for the Olympics is that it’s difficult to dedicate time and resources to an event where the only really quality, competitive games are the two that you get between Canada and the US.  Even if the games between the “also-rans” are competitive in the sense that the teams are at the same level, they won’t be high quality games compared to the games between Canada and the US … and anyone following the games is going to be able to see that quite easily.  So the argument that has been made for the past several years is that keeping these events going is the only way to make things competitive, as having these sorts of events and having Olympic medals up for grabs will encourage other countries to invest in the sport in the hopes of getting them.  The fact that there is such a distance between the top teams and the third place teams actually helps with this because it means that there’s a decent chance of getting a bronze medal, which can be used to request funding.  Given that the bronze medal game features newish teams to the bronze medal game, it can be argued that it’s working and the sport is getting more competitive.

This would only be true, of course, if the reason this is happening is primarily because the lower teams are getting better instead of primarily because Finland and Sweden are regressing.  Obviously, the lower teams are improving as they build formal teams and get more international exposure and games, but it doesn’t look like Finland and Sweden are getting better given where they finished.  Finland is now a perennial threat and contender in men’s hockey, but here they had to play against Japan for position.  Sweden made it to the quarters and had to play Canada which meant that they weren’t going any further, but Canada was disappointing that they only won 4 – 1, especially given that they also badly outshot them.  It doesn’t seem, then, like Finland and Sweden are improving to be in the same tier as Canada and the US, but are instead collapsing their tier by falling back to the same level as the up-and-coming teams.  If this is true, then it doesn’t look like the teams are going to catch up to Canada and the US any time soon.

Now, in my opinion, I think that these sorts of international competitions might, in fact, be responsible for this, at least in part.  The first thing to note is that one of the arguments is that this builds a fan base in these countries and so gets more girls interested in playing the game, and so increases the talent base that can be recruited, which increases competition and so improves the overall quality of the team.  However, the problem here is that the fans can be energized when the sport starts up and can be energized when the team has notable successes — like a bronze medal or a shocking win over the established teams — but fans don’t like watching sports where their teams get slaughtered every time they play and when they have no chance of winning.  In short, if fans feel that their team is nothing more than an also-ran then their interest will fall off a bit and so it won’t get the prestige that it needs to spawn that recruitment drive.  Losing close games where the teams are underdogs but feel that on a really good day they might win is tolerable, but getting slaughtered every game is not at all fun to watch or cheer for.

Second, I also think that it’s bad for the players and for those potential players that they’re trying to recruit.  If fans don’t like it when the teams get slaughtered, just think of how the players feel.  Players that are already on the team aren’t going to quit over it — especially if they might get bronze medals out of it — and players that find and love the sport itself are going to join, but you aren’t going to get those really competitive players who are good and the game and desperately want to win.  If they have a choice between a sport where they get slaughtered and might have a shot at third or a sport where they might be able to win, or at least be competitive.  So it’s going to hurt recruitment for the sport as well.

And it arguably hurts the sport overall.  Sure, Canada and the US find it fun to watch their teams blow away the other teams and then fight it out for gold, but any neutral observer is going to find everything except the gold medal game boring and uninteresting.  It would make the sport look, well, like a joke, with only two good teams with the rest, well, being teams that I guess play the game.  If everyone was at the same level — and people will argue that compared to the men’s game the women’s game is indeed that inferior — then at least we’d get the competitive mix to work with, as everyone is roughly at the same level.  But when two teams are so far ahead of everyone else you get a tournament of a couple of good teams and a bunch of also-rans, and that isn’t something that fans of the sport itself find fun or credible.  So keeping events like this that aren’t credible obviously doesn’t help the sport.

Now, one issue that follows on from this is that because it’s women’s sport and there are a lot of issues with women’s hockey itself at the moment, it’s getting a lot of attention.  You can justify giving these sorts of things that much attention if they are at least competitive (women’s soccer is more competitive, as even though the US dominates there are a lot closer teams and closer games and it really is the case that there are a number of teams that can beat the US on any given day, and not just a really good day), but if the sport isn’t competitive it doesn’t work.  We don’t see any reason why we should take women’s hockey seriously on the international level when there are only two good teams, which is only made worse by constant reminders that women’s sports, in general, aren’t close in terms of overall skill level and quality to the men’s teams (basically, the idea that if you took those dominant women’s teams and had them play against men’s teams the outcome would be as lopsided as it is when the dominant women’s teams play the weaker teams).  So it’s not the highest quality version of the sport and it’s not even a very competitive version of the sport, which means that the tournaments themselves aren’t very credible.  And since those are supposed to be the top examples of the sport, that means that women’s hockey itself isn’t very credible.  And then we wonder why, other than the fact that it’s women’s hockey, it’s getting so much attention and is seen as being that important.

The thing is, we’ve seen sports actually rise from relatively being non-competitive where a couple of countries dominate to ones where a lot more teams are at the same level without degrading the performance of the top countries, partly inspired by Olympic participation.  Curling, for example, was dominated by a couple of countries — including Canada — but when it got Olympic participation a number of countries started to ramp up their programs and have become teams that you have to watch out for, but the teams from the other countries and particularly from Canada have not dropped in quality.  Some of the best teams on the Grand Slam of Curling are the teams that Canada sends to the Olympics and the other international tournaments and they are still in tough and still have a difficult time winning, even against non-standard teams like China and Japan.  I think the fact that curling never had one team or country that was that dominant and quite quickly ended up with a competitive field is what helped it move to being a credible international sport.  Women’s hockey isn’t there yet, but with the morale crushing Canada and US in the field I wonder if it will, indeed, ever get there.

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