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Women's hockey looks to seize opportunity

by Shawn P. Roarke
TORONTO -- In the aftermath of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge put women's hockey on notice.

Dismayed by several of the lopsided scores in the tournament, including an 18-1 thrashing of Slovakia by Canada on the opening day of the Vancouver tournament, Rogge threatened the expulsion of women's hockey from the Games if the gap between the have- and have-not countries in women's hockey was not closed quickly.

"There is a discrepancy there, everyone agrees with that. This is maybe the investment period in women's ice hockey," Rogge said in February. "I would personally give them more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement. We cannot continue without improvement."

Thursday, at the World Hockey Summit, it became crystal clear that the stakeholders in the women's game took Rogge's words not as a threat, but as motivation.

"Women's hockey is here to stay, but we are all shareholders in its future and must take action to ensure its growth."
-- Haley Wickenheiser, Team Canada captain at Vancouver 2010

"I wouldn't say we're at a critical point, I'd say (it's) an opportunity," said Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian with Team USA. "I think (Rogge) would like to see, like everyone in the IOC, every sport to progress and get better.

"Women's hockey has done that on certain levels since we were introduced in '98, but has not in others. Countries like Russia and the Czech Republic that have these great men's programs don't have it on women's side. So, I think that is where those comments can create some really positive opportunities."

Ruggiero was a panelist in Thursday morning's Summit session: Women's Hockey after 2010. Team USA coach Mark Johnson, Team Canada coach Mel Davidson, Team Sweden coach Peter Elander and Team Finland's women's program director Arto Sieppi were also on the panel. Haley Wickenheiser, captain of gold medal-winning Team Canada at Vancouver 2010, was the keynote speaker.

A blue-ribbon panel, as moderator John Shannon pointed out, it featured some of the biggest names and most eloquent voices on the woman's side of the hockey equation. Not surprisingly, they spoke passionately and convincingly about the major steps the women's game has taken since being introduced to the Olympics in 1998, but also acknowledged the long road that lies ahead to make the sport as competitive as it should be.

"Women's hockey is here to stay, but we are all shareholders in its future and must take action to ensure its growth," Wickenheiser said in her speech.

The call to action involved pleas for better funding of the women's game, a full-time women's hockey representative on the IIHF board, the creation and support of an elite-level women's league that would feature the best players from both North America and Europe and an emphasis on grass-roots development.

After dedicating a good portion of their lives to the women's game, each of the speakers argues that the sport can grow and prosper if only given the necessary opportunities and exposure. None, however, argued the point quite as effectively as Sieppi, the director of female hockey for the Finnish ice hockey federation. Sieppi used his own journey into the world of women's hockey to illustrate how the growth must happen.

Before the 1998 Olympics, Sieppi was offered a job by a close friend to serve as an assistant coach for the women's national team that would play in the Olympics. He immediately said no. When asked why he refused, he told his friend, the coach of the team, "women could not skate" and "were not athletes."

Sieppi turned down the job several more times before his wife convinced him to reconsider and give the sport a chance. Today, he is one of the most powerful advocates for women's hockey in the entire world. This February he served as the general manager for Team Finland, which won the bronze medal for the country's first women's hockey medal.

"I've been on (the women's hockey) road for 12 years now and I don't have a single regret," Sieppi said. "There is no difference in hockey -- girls or boys -- it's hockey; the greatest game."

Davidson, the Canadian coach, called the growth of the women's game "an investment in tomorrow's society. Everybody deserves to live their dream and we can lead there."

Once the two-plus hours of presentations and high-minded ideas were over, the women's hockey community knew it was time to get back to the battle of turning Rogge's threat into the opportunity the game needs to take the next step toward closing the competitive disparity. But they also understood that their time on the Molson World Hockey Summit stage, was as important a step as they will take this year as they get their message out to the hockey community.

"It was just getting exposure and getting a lot of the issues that may not have previously been spoken about," Ruggiero said. "It's just great for our game. Hopefully, the people are serious about it, take some of our suggestions to heart and do something about it."
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