Can anyone beat the North American women’s hockey powers?

Originally published on in 2002

By Lucas Aykroyd

In international men’s hockey, there’s an ongoing debate about where the balance of power lies between North America and Europe. But on the women’s side, there’s no question. The economic equivalent would be something like General Motors and Ford versus the Bicyclemaker’s Guild of San Marino.

Canada and the USA have clashed in the finals of every Olympic tournament and IIHF Women’s World Championship since 1990. The USA won the inaugural Olympics in 1998, and their northern rivals took their revenge in 2002. Canada has captured eight of a possible nine World Championships, but the Americans triumphed in 2005 with a shootout victory and also dealt Canada a 3-1 loss during the 2004 Qualifying Round. The combined athleticism, size, strength, and skills of these North American neighbors gives them a clear edge over the rest of the competition.

Among the second-tier teams, Finland and Sweden have almost made the bronze medal their exclusive property. Finland’s resume includes third-place finishes in Nagano and seven World Championships, while Sweden claimed that position in Salt Lake City and at the 2005 World Championship. Russia, whose status historically hovers around being the fifth-best team in the world (despite having a small pool of available players and slumping to eighth place at last year’s Worlds), broke the pattern once with a 2-1 win over Finland in the 2001 World Championship bronze game. The Germans and Swiss are slowly improving but are unlikely to get near the medal podium within the next ten years.

Historically, it’s true that Canada and Finland have both fared best in terms of winning their final games of the tournament. But only the most rabid patriots or incautious gamblers would claim an overwhelming advantage for either of those teams in a format where a single game determines your final finish. Canada had lost eight straight games versus the USA heading into the gold medal showdown, but won when it mattered most with heroic performances by legends like Hayley Wickenheiser and Kim St-Pierre. Similarly this season, Canada won eight out of 10 pre-tournament matches against the USA between August 20 and January 1, but the Americans, bolstered by hot young talents like Sarah Parsons and Natalie Darwitz, are certainly capable of beating Canada on any given day.

In these early days of international women’s hockey history, the European teams are mostly hindered by a lack of funding and a lack of respect for their sport. The Swedish Hockey Federation actually considered not fielding a women’s team at all in Salt Lake City, which, in retrospect, would have been a big mistake.

At some point, Finland or Sweden will beat Canada or the USA in Olympic competition. But when? The gap seemed narrower in 1998 but had widened by 2002, as these scores from Nagano and Salt Lake City demonstrate:

February 9, 1998: USA 7, Sweden 1
February 11, 1998: Canada 5, Sweden 3
February 11, 1998: USA 4, Finland 2
February 12, 1998: Canada 4, Finland 2

February 16, 2002: USA 5, Finland 0
February 16, 2002: Canada 11, Sweden 0

It’s rare that the Scandinavians can muster more than a goal or two when facing the Big Two. Therefore, a good day for them is something like Canada 3, Sweden 2 at the 2004 Four Nations Cup. A bad day is USA 6, Finland 1 at the same tournament a year later.

Developing greater self-belief is also a big key for all the “other teams.” Before the Torino Olympics got underway, German forward Michaela Lanzl told the Associated Press: “It’s sad that everybody knows at the beginning that the final game will be between the USA and Canada.”

For the pecking order in women’s hockey to change even slightly at these Games, the Swedes have to believe that with a bit of luck, great goaltending, and solid defense, they can beat Canada in Preliminary Round action on February 14. The Finns have to believe the same thing about the USA. At least it would be a start.

If one (but not both) of those unlikely (but not impossible) scenarios unfolded, it would guarantee (provided that none of the teams seeded fifth and below pull an upset) that for the first time in international women’s hockey history, the USA and Canada would not play for the gold medal. That’s because it’s A1 versus B2 and B1 versus A2 in the semi-finals on February 17. The pre-tournament favorites would be playing each other in the semi-finals and one of them would be doomed to the bronze medal game.

Is it just a waste of time to speculate like this? Well, remember the quarter-finals of the 2002 men’s tournament? Yes, the one pitting Sweden versus Belarus, where Vladimir Kopat’s late goal gave the underdogs a 4-3 victory. Those Belarusians had come seventh in Nagano 1998 and had never placed higher than eighth at an IIHF World Championship. In terms of their athleticism, size, strength, and skills, the gap between them and the Swedes was perhaps not as big as the public might have perceived, and the impression of the upset that occurred was accentuated by the fame of Swedish NHLers like Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Markus Naslund. The timing was huge too: if Sweden had lost to Belarus in the Preliminary Round at an IIHF World Championship, nobody would have cared if Tre Kronor went on to medal.

But still, going in, it was deemed unthinkable in Salt Lake City that Sweden could fall to Belarus, which had lost its three preceding Preliminary Round Games by a combined score of 22-6.

Yet it happened.

Who will be the Vladimir Kopat of international women’s hockey?

Who will lead the Bicyclemaker’s Guild of San Marino past General Motors and Ford? Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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