VANCOUVER – Eight women’s national teams from three continents are fighting for medals at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. For the players, however, the event has more meaning than for the men in some respects.
The two North American teams that dominate women’s hockey might be used to bigger crowds and intense media coverage, but for most of the other teams it means a completely different tournament lifestyle than at the World Women’s Championship.
Although women’s hockey is a fast growing sport, it is a sport with little public attention in Europe and Asia. Few editors – too few – send a journalist to another country for a women’s hockey tournament.
The Olympic women’s hockey tournament is another story. Media representatives from all over the world are already in Vancouver, because of men’s hockey and other winter sports played in the city. They just have to hop on a bus to watch a game. The TV cameras are also here and national broadcasters are showing women’s hockey as they would normally not do if it wasn’t Olympic time.
For the players it is their unique chance they have every four years to present their sport to the public, to present themselves and to draw attention to their skills. It is a unique opportunity for the sport as a whole that started off internationally with the IIHF World Women’s Championship in 1990 and the inclusion of women’s hockey as an Olympic sport for the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Compared to the rest of the world, women’s hockey is at a high level in Canada and the United States, the powerhouses of women’s hockey that usually play each other for gold.
But even for those nations the Olympics are not just another championship they want to win. For the Olympic season, the American and Canadian players focus on the national team instead of club hockey.
The players were centralized last fall and played games together all year long to compete in international tournaments, games between the North American teams, and games against college teams. Their home games were even marketed as sponsored-by tours.
The race for gold between the two odds-on favourites is extremely fierce. Hockey Canada and USA Hockey do whatever they can to keep one step ahead of their neighbours.
The nation that is closest to the North Americans when it comes to extensive preparation is not one of the usual medal suspects from Europe, but Olympic newcomer China.
Like their North American counterparts, the Chinese have been together under the umbrella of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association for months. Although the players have their club teams – they come all from the North of the country, from Harbin and Qiqihar, they played more games for the national team than usual.
Hannu Saintula, the new Finnish coach of the Chinese national team, talked with IIHF.com
about the new challenge some months ago.
The team had camps in Northern China and Beijing, but also travelled twice to Canada and once to Finland. They played against professional club teams, college teams and boys. There were no big marketing gigs involved; rather they tried to be on their own while having almost 40 games prior to their Olympic premiere on Sunday against Team USA.
Also the European teams are highly looking forward to their highlight of the last four years, but their approach doesn’t look much different than in a normal year with several tournaments during the international breaks and the World Women’s Championship in spring, but otherwise the players play mostly club hockey in the respective domestic leagues and the European Women’s Champions Cup.
Finland and Sweden, the two best European teams of the last few years, were most active as they did not only play tournaments against other European nations but two tournaments against Canada and USA with their full rosters, first at the Hockey Canada Cup in Vancouver in September and later at a Four Nations Tournament in Finland in November.
Apart from that, the Finns and Swedes organized themselves together with Germany and Russia in a women’s version of the Euro Hockey Tour.
The other European Olympians from Slovakia and Switzerland were seldom part of the bigger exhibition games tournaments, but joined events with second-tier nations like Germany, Kazakhstan, Austria and the Czech Republic.
The outcome of the different strategies and cultures will be seen soon as the tournament starts, but no matter where a player comes from or how she prepared for Vancouver, being part of the Olympic spirit in Canada will be a unique experience for any player.