Women’s hockey deserves recognition

Until it became an Olympic sport at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the rest of the sports world gave women’s hockey about as much attention and respect as cricket.

But after the world watched the United States upset Canada for the gold medal in a terrific display of hockey, attitudes began change. The number of girls playing in youth leagues grew exponentially, women’s hockey slowly received more and more media attention and there was a growing consensus that women could, in fact, play hockey.

12 years and three Olympics Games later, the participation in girls’ youth hockey leagues is still growing, and women’s hockey has become one of the most prominent sports at the winter games, with 5.8 million people watching as Team Canada won their third-straight gold medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

However, women’s hockey still doesn’t get nearly as much respect as it deserves. While the general attitude towards the sport has improved in recent years, too many people still believe the stereotype that women are incapable of playing competitive, entertaining hockey.

One only needs to look as far as the weekend’s Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championship series between Laurier and Guelph to see that this stereotype simply isn’t true.

Both games of the best of three series were fast-paced, hard-fought battles, with all the elements of exciting hockey – from spectacular goaltending to well-crafted goals. And although body contact is supposed to be a penalty in women’s hockey, the physicality of the games matched the intensity of standard playoff hockey.

But based on the small crowds at most of Laurier’s games and the general expression of shock I receive when I tell people that I’m excited to cover a game of women’s hockey, there’s no denying that the aforementioned stereotype is still widely believed.

To make matters worse, now there is discussion about removing women’s hockey from the Olympics, based primarily on the argument that Canada and the United States are too far ahead the rest of the world.

While there’s no doubt that something needs to change in the make-up of the Olympic women’s hockey tournament – because losing 18-0 to Canada is not going to make many little girls in Slovakia want to pick up a hockey stick – removing it completely would do nothing but hurt the sport.

Having the Olympics as something to strive for has played a huge role in the development of the latest generation of talented female hockey players; if that is taken away, the sport will be right back where it was 15 years ago.

Women’s hockey has come so far since 1998, both in popularity and quality. And while many people outside the sport are finally beginning to take notice, widespread popularity is still a work in progress. Taking away the Olympics –women’s hockey’s biggest stage– will kill the progress that has been achieved by the hard work of female hockey players in Canada and around the world.

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