BEIJING (Reuters) – As Canada and the United States battled it out in another high-quality Olympic women’s ice hockey final on Thursday at the Beijing Games, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) was busy defending the sport.
The IIHF held up the gold medal thriller as the pinnacle of women’s hockey, Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. another chapter in a great Olympic rivalry.
But as seen many times before, the celebration came with the well-worn criticism that the Olympic tournament is nothing more than a two-nation competition.
The Olympic tournament came to the conclusion everyone knew it would even before the first puck dropped — with Canada or the U.S. to skate away with the gold medal.
Beijing marked the seventh time women’s hockey has been played at the Winter Games, and all have been won by Canada or the United States, just as they have at every world championship.
The North American neighbours make no apologies for their global domination.
The fact remains that after 24 years and seven Olympics the gap between Canada and the United States and the rest of the ice hockey-playing world has not gotten smaller – instead it is growing.
For the Beijing Games the women’s tournament expanded from eight to 10 teams and below the top two, the matches were mostly competitive.
The IIHF tried to eliminate the ugly scenes of the Canadians and Americans beating up on overmatched opponents that had scarred past Olympics by bundling the top five teams in one group (all making the quarter-finals) and the five lower-ranked teams in another group.
Even then, Canada managed to run up double-digit scorelines on four occasions, including an 11-1 hammering of bronze medal winners and third-ranked Finland.
The criticism IIHF president Luc Tardif faced in his obligatory press briefing held hours before the women’s final was therefore familiar.
“It is difficult to see the results, but really there is big progress in women’s hockey,” Tardif said. “The USA will play the final, but they struggled against Czech Republic, they struggled against Finland.
“The ice hockey is coming up in Europe, the KHL invests and gets involved in the financial side for the professional (women’s) league in Russia, and I hope maybe it will be an example for the NHL and get them involved in the women’s hockey.
The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), founded in 2008, is made up mostly of teams based in Russia but includes a handful of others in countries from Finland all the way across to China.
“At the IIHF we want to push that idea.”
The IIHF rolled out a number of impressive numbers and statistics to make its point. Fans like what they are seeing.
According to IIHF data, 66% of social media posts in Beijing were focused exclusively on women’s hockey.
Japan had the highest level of engagement.
But it has not stopped the criticism, which now includes charges that the IIHF has a double standard after the women’s Under-18 championships were quickly cancelled over COVID-19 concerns while the money-spinning junior men’s was allowed to continue – before being halted a few days later after players and staff tested positive.
“I want to officially say that’s unfair to say the IIHF doesn’t care about equality,” said Tardif. “We had to cancel the tournament, that was a good decision because you saw with the juniors we had to stop the tournament.
“I am not the guy who does not believe in women’s hockey.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Beijing; Editing by Hugh Lawson)