2010 Vancouver Olympic Hockey: US vs Canada for the gold (women's)

A version of this post was first published at Cycle Like the Sedins on 22 February 2010.

There’s been a lot of discussion about women’s ice hockey lately. The United States will meet Canada to play for the gold medal – again – tonight at 6:30 Eastern, and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that they’d be playing each other for the gold from the beginning. For both teams, their opponents appeared to be nothing more than speed bumps on the way to this game.

Scores like 18-0, 13-0, 12-1 were common for those two national teams. Because of this, many people have been questioning whether women’s ice hockey should be an Olympic event because of the lack of suitable competition. So let me explain about women’s hockey. I used to play, so I know how this goes.

First off, there’s a very good reason why the US and Canada have easily out-played their competition. Canada has had a women’s hockey program in place since least the 1980s. The US has had a women’s hockey program for probably just as long as Canada has. And both countries have has girls playing on boys teams for a lot longer than that.

The very first international women’s hockey tournament was held in 1990. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1992 made women’s ice hockey a gold medal event at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Only six countries participated in that first Olympics for the sport in 1998: The US (gold), Canada (silver), Finland (bronze), China, Sweden, and the host country, Japan. So women’s hockey is a relatively young sport.

The real problem with women’s hockey is that the women’s programs for most of the other nations that participate are at least a good ten years behind the US and Canada. I would guess that most countries got their programs going right after the IOC’s official announcement in 1992. Sweden and Finland, despite being blown out by the US and Canada in this Olympics, have become pretty competitive. The rest of the field is still catching up, however. Give it another ten years and you’ll probably see the level of international competition jump up significantly.

Women’s hockey is different than the men’s. There’s no getting around that. The rules are pretty much the same with two significant exceptions.

The first is that women’s hockey players are required to wear full face protection, while the men are required to wear only half-shields. Most women wear metal wire cages, but some wear the clear plastic shields. It used to be that neck guards were required as well, but I believe that that’s optional at the senior level now.

The biggest difference, and the one that makes most people not even want to watch the game, between men’s and women’s hockey is that body checking is a penalty for the women. It can be a minor or a major penalty, depending on the check and how the on-ice officials want to call it. Now don’t get that wrong – the woman’s game is still very physical. But lining someone up and checking them into the boards and obvious open ice hits are penalties.

Women do know how to body check, and they would very much like to be able to. But at this time, it’s against the rules. The reason for it, from what I was told when I played, is that a woman could get a stick end in the lower abdomen and be injured to the point where she may not be able to have children because of that. The same thing goes with the men, of course, but it’s the women that actually have the babies – that’s the difference. There is additional padding that is required for women to wear to cover their lower abdomens, but that apparently doesn’t make any difference to the rule makers.

See, this is what happens when old men make the rules for a women’s sport, and it drives us women nuts. We’d very much like to play hockey as the men do, and we all consider that to be "real" hockey, but we’re not allowed simply because we are able to bear children. Why that should matter, we don’t really understand. We understand the risks when we step on to the ice, so it’s not as if we’re ignorant of the possibilities.

Sadly, hockey isn’t the only sport infected with this wrong-headed kind of thinking, either.

The reason that women know how to body check is because women’s teams play boys teams when there aren’t any other women’s teams around – and because it’s a different type of competition. While in women’s hockey checking isn’t allowed, in mixed games it is – or it can be. Women’s teams will play high school aged boys teams for competition. Before the game, each team will vote on whether to include checking or not. Then the coaches and officials meet, and they give the team’s decisions. Almost always checking is decided to be allowed. Women will take any chance they can to play "real" hockey, and teenage boys won’t pass up the opportunity to body check women if it’s legal.

In the younger age brackets, girls will play on the same teams as boys. And, if there aren’t enough girls to form a team in an area, then they’ll make allowances for girls to play with the boys into the teen years. Very occasionally, a girl will play with high school aged boys, especially if she’s good enough. As the girl gets older, however, the ones that are able to play with the boys the longest are the goaltenders.

Girls who play as defensemen and forwards aren’t usually able to keep up with the boys after a while. And there’s a good read for that: it’s called biology. It has little to do with height and weight – though that does become a consideration for many – so much as speed.

The women’s game is a little slower than the men’s game. It’s about on pace with high school boys hockey, so it’s not as if it’s really slow. Most of the women who play in the Olympics for the US are college hockey players or former college hockey players, and female collegiate athletes are typically very good and pretty fast no matter what the sport.

The speed problem comes from physiology. Men’s legs are right underneath them; their knees usually line up with their hip sockets when they stand with their feet shoulder’s width apart. So their thighbones go from hip to knee in a fairly straight line, and that gives them a very efficient skating stride.

Women, because we bear children, aren’t built like that. When we stand with our feet shoulder’s length apart, our knees line up inside our hip sockets. Our thigh bones come into our knees at an angle – not straight above like the men’s thighbones do. This is why women have far more knee problems than men do, as a general rule, but it also makes our skating strides less efficient and therefore makes us not as quick as the men.

It really is the same sport, however, despite its differences. And, in actuality, the differences aren’t that great. Some people enjoy the women’s game more because there isn’t any checking, because that’s seen as creating a better flow to the game. But until there is more competition for the US and Canada – and there will be, you just have to be patient – watching these blowouts is just not entertaining.

However, before you make any judgment about women’s ice hockey, watch the gold medal game between the US and Canada tonight. That will be as competitive and as physical game as you could possibly ask for. And, you might be surprised by how much you like it.

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