Under clouds of concern for the viability of international women’s hockey due to the huge competitive disparity between North America and the rest of the world, Canadian star and featured speaker Hayley Wickenheiser described the frustrating challenges in growing women’s hockey outside North America while American star and panellist Angela Ruggiero was more hopeful about the future when they spoke this morning on Day 4 of the World Hockey Summit. Wickenheiser opened her presentation by asking a rhetorical question. “How many of you have women in your life? Mothers, sisters, daughters? How many of you, if they wanted to play the game of hockey, would want them to have that opportunity?” Wickenheiser proceeded to outline the challenges in giving girls outside North America that opportunity to play hockey as well as the economic problems of funding women’s hockey.
At a thinktank in Finland this summer that involved the top 14 nations in women’s hockey, the wide gap between Canada, the United States and the rest of the world was exposed. While Finland, one of the most improved women’s hockey nations in the world, has 62 clubs playing on 124 ice rinks, Russia and China only have 6 rinks in each country. She noted that the thinktank recommended having development camps for players from all nations in one place to learn and to bring best practices back to their country, coaching exchanges, a full-time person advocating for female hockey at the IIHF and coverage or waiving transfer fees (up to $2,000) for players who wish to change teams.
HAYLEY WICKENHEISER 6 mins 40 sec Hayley Wickenheiser discusses all aspects of the challenges facing the future of women’s hockey. (This writer’s question about the benefit of exchange programs occurs at 3:05).
Wickenheiser said that China has made a start to closing the gap, “playing 35 games with their national team. What China is doing is that they’ve invested a ton of money into 30 players in their country, centralizing them, “hot-housing them” and trying to really develop a national program. The problem with that is they’ve only got a few hundred players in their entire country and outside their national team, there’s nothing to support it. There is no development system. So I think we need more exhibition games for national teams and for the under-18.”
On the topic of funding, Wickenheiser lamented the paucity of dollars supporting women’s national teams, wistfully noting that her former elite club team in Calgary, now defunct, operated on a budget of $480,000. “I don’t see how you can run a national team on a budget of $480,000.” While Slovakia has increased their budget for women’s hockey, she expressed concern that Germany’s budget has actually decreased by 21%. She said she spoke with German men’s coach Uwe Krupp about the reason for this and he responded, “because they’ve had no success … that’s the way it is, that’s the battle we’re facing, if they had success, there would be more money.” Wickenheiser termed this “inverse thinking”.
Alarmingly, she noted that Russia is “spending zero on development, yet they’re hosting the next Olympics … so to me, on a federation and country level, it’s just not good enough and we have to raise the bar.” Furthermore, she pointed out that half of the top 14 women’s hockey countries don’t even have a national women’s committee. She exhorted other countries to mimic the model of Canada and the United States in terms of funding, recruitment, a balance of elite-level and grassroots hockey programs, leadership and education.
American star Angela Ruggiero, the all-time U.S. leader in games played, started by saying, “If I could send one message, it’s ‘give that opportunity to all the girls out there that want to play.” She described her own experience, having to persevere and trying to even find a league to play hockey in California, through getting cut from boy’s teams as a youngster simply because she was a girl. She described the explosive growth in American women’s hockey, from 5,000 girls playing at the time of the first U.S. national team in 1990 to 60,000 today.
ANGELA RUGGIERO 6 mins 17 sec U.S. star Angela Ruggiero answers questions about marketing and exposure of women’s hockey players and her role as advocate for womens’ sports. (This writer’s question on Ruggiero possibly becoming an IIHF board member occurs at 4:19).
“That’s improvement to me, that’s says that we’ve put some time, money and effort into it and we’ve seen some results. That was only 20 years ago and I think there is the same potential worldwide. I think it just takes the right people, believing that the girls deserve to play and that they can be amazing hockey players and just giving them the support to do it.”
Ruggiero was grateful for all the benefits that playing hockey has afforded her in her life. “I’ve been able to play in four Olympics, get a great degree from Harvard. I’m pursuing a master’s degree as well. I’ve had all these doors opened up to me because of the sport of hockey.” In turn, Ruggiero, involved in numerous girls’ sports advocacy groups and charitable foundations, wants to use hockey as a vehicle to open up those same doors to others. “I meet kids that can’t even talk, but they’re so excited to meet you and all they want to do is get your autograph, and they’re inspired, and to me you can change a generation by inspiring and I think that’s what women’s hockey has the potential to do.”
She enthusiastically talked about her visit to China with the New York Islanders when she attempted to introduce hockey amongst girls and boys, with the aid of a translator, teaching them simple skills like how to take a wrist shot.
Both Wickenheiser and Ruggiero were clearly moved when reminiscing about their childhoods and both stressed how much it meant to them that their respective families were involved in encouraging them to pursue hockey, when many at the time put up obstacles in their way.
Finnish women’s hockey director Arto Sieppi openly talked about how he had to overcome his ignorance and dismissiveness about women in sports in general, to become one of the strongest advocates for the women’s game in Europe. He likened women’s hockey to a corporation and called each of the delegates a potential shareholder, urging them to “invest” and “buy that stock”. He cited hopeful information about his nation: an increase in the number of proficient skaters from 2,300 to 4,700, “excellent cooperation with Hockey Canada” including a version of the Girl’s Hockey Day project, and heavy centralization of the national women’s team in advance of the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch