SOCHI, RUSSIA – It was hard to see in the moment, and even on the day after. Yet some members of the U.S. women’s hockey team knew their Olympic silver medal held a silver lining.
Thursday’s gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada had generated tremendous buzz, bringing new attention to women’s hockey. The Canadians stole the show with a late rally for a 3-2 overtime victory, in a game that lived up to the hype and showcased the rising skill level of the world’s top two teams. Though the dominance of the North American heavyweights remains an issue, that memorable finale served as a global advertisement for a game still in its youth.
At the 2010 Vancouver Games, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge cautioned that the competitive imbalance in women’s hockey could threaten its Olympic status. In Sochi, a new format cut down on the number of routs, and hockey’s power brokers expressed their desire to strengthen the women’s game.
International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel, when asked about the possible ouster of women’s hockey from the Winter Games, said, “I can guarantee that will never happen.’’ The U.S. and Canada hope their play in Sochi will help raise the profile of their sport, which in turn can help it grow.
“We really helped put women’s hockey on the map, and I hope it continues,’’ U.S. forward Hilary Knight said. “It’s sort of this hidden gem that people are suddenly finding.’’
About 1.2 million users streamed the gold medal game live via NBC Sports Digital, making it the most streamed sports event in company history with the exception of the 2012 Super Bowl. The game also was a popular topic in social media and drew a sellout crowd of 10,639 to Bolshoy Ice Arena, the main hockey venue at the Sochi Games.
The new format for preliminary play, which grouped the top four teams in one pool and the bottom four teams in the other, did reduce the double-digit victories that raised concerns in Vancouver. The U.S. and Canada still administered some thrashings, but bronze medalist Switzerland kept its semifinal against Canada surprisingly close, falling 3-1. Switzerland’s goaltender, Florence Schelling, was voted the tournament’s most valuable player by the Olympic media; the tournament directorate named Schelling and two Finns as the top goalie, forward and defenseman in Sochi.
Hopes to expand field
Fasel said he hopes to expand the women’s tournament to 10 teams by 2022. His goal is to eventually enlarge the field to 12 teams, and he said the IIHF will continue its efforts to increase participation in European countries.
Fasel noted that his native Switzerland was losing Olympic men’s hockey games by double digits in the 1930s and did not beat Canada in the Winter Games until 2006. He pleaded for patience on the women’s side. IOC spokesman Mark Adams indicated his group does not have any immediate concerns about women’s hockey, suggesting that Rogge’s comments last year were overblown.
“It is becoming a more and more popular sport and has much more global interest,’’ Adams said. “I think we need to encourage it, and I think it is part of the Olympic spirit to try and spread these sports around the world and get people interested.’’
The Americans’ emotions still were raw Friday. Coach Katey Stone said her players were devastated, and Gophers forward Amanda Kessel said she still felt “completely numb.’’
“Right away when that [winning] goal went in, I just collapsed,’’ said Kessel, who was named to the Olympic all-star team with Knight and former Gophers defenseman Megan Bozek. “You’re never really ready for that moment. We felt like we had the gold in our hands, but I guess it just was not meant to be.’’
Other teams will leave Sochi filled with hope for what could be, in 2018 and beyond. “In the semifinals, we wanted to beat Canada,’’ Swiss forward Sara Benz said. “But maybe next Olympics. It’s our goal to achieve more and more every year.’’