All around us there are examples of unlikely partnerships – partnerships that when we hear about them or see them in action we say “hmm that’s unexpected.” For example, the former Democratic adversaries Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who now run (or at least attempt to run) a nation together. Or the team of Rohan Bopanna, a tennis player from India, and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi from Pakistan who formed a successful doubles partnership and who, despite detractors at both ends, used their fame to promote teamwork rather than violence and hatred amongst their two nations. Similarly, during the peak of the Cold War, Russia and the USA decided to unite their respective space programs to build the first ever space station Mir (meaning “Peace” in Russian). There is that old saying: “common goals lead to unlikely partnerships.” In the case of women’s hockey there is perhaps no better quote to describe the process of what it will take to grow the sport internationally.
Borje Salming was part of the first wave of European hockey players to make the move over to North America to play in the NHL. The move was a historic one because it paved the way for more and more players from outside of Canada and the United States to bring their talents to the NHL and it changed the face of the league and hockey in general forever. It took time for the masses to warm to the idea of Europeans playing in the NHL (and if your name is Don Cherry you have still not warmed up to the idea). Salming made his NHL debut in the early 1970’s but it wasn’t until 1994 that Sergei Fedorov became the first European born and trained player to win the NHL Hart Trophy as league M.V.P. Since then, 7 out of 16 Hart Trophy winners have been European. Several teams are now captained by European players and, in general, Europeans have taken great strides in terms of establishing themselves as talented and capable NHL players. The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan were the first Games that allowed NHL players to participate and represent their respective countries. Between the 3 medal winning nations (Czech Republic, Russia, and Finland) in men’s hockey that year, there were 22 players who played for club teams in Europe and not in the NHL. Compare that to 2006 – the only other Games where neither Canada nor the USA won a medal – and there were a total of 14 non-NHL players on the 3 medal winning teams (Sweden, Finland, and Czech Republic.) But of those 15 players, 12 of them did go on to play in the NHL after the Olympics year.
These stats are proof that the partnership between pro hockey in Europe and North America is a mutually beneficial one. And it doesn’t just exist at the NHL level. European players are now open to playing in the Canadian Hockey League prior to being drafted because it keeps them on the radar of NHL scouts and prepares them for the game at the pro level much more than if they were in Europe. The exodus of European players into the NHL proves that there is a recognition of the fact that the hockey is better here and there is more to be gained in a pro career in North America over Europe or Asia. Women’s hockey is already attempting international partnerships of their own and this is good news for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the NCAA, and the sport in general. Ideally, all the elite women’s hockey players in the world need to be playing under the roof of a common hockey league where they can all grow, and develop, and improve together. Is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League our sport’s best chance for such a league? I would have to think so. The league is still in its infancy but they have already reached out and attracted players from Sweden and Finland to come play in the league. And while the CWHL may find it hard to attract international players at the moment, the NCAA has already had tremendous success in doing so. This is another encouraging sign for the sport and possibly something that could be of benefit to the CWHL as well. NCAA players are able to play the game at an elite and competitive level while they pursue their educations. It gives them the opportunity to graduate and pursue their respective careers as a means of providing financially for themselves while also continuing to play high level hockey in the CWHL. Several international players are currently playing for or are alumni of NCAA programs. While this list is, by no means, comprehensive it certainly does highlight the incredible successes the players have achieved:
The University of Minnesota-Duluth program alone has been home to 23 Olympians from 7 different countries. All the players who appear on these lists were not just participants at the Olympics. They were leaders on their respective teams. They learned from the best in the NCAA and they took that knowledge home and helped their national teams try to raise their game. If only a few players were able to be difference makers because of the skills and experiences they gained playing in North America, imagine what a Team Russia or a Team Switzerland would look like if every player was an NCAA or CIS or CWHL product. It’s a daunting task to recruit female players to come play in North America. It’s one thing to lure Alex Ovechkin away from Russia with the promise of a multi-million dollar contract and endorsements, and it’s quite another to lure a women’s hockey player for whom there isn’t a penny to be made. But the one thing I respect the most about women’s hockey players is that they train as hard as and make all the sacrifices that their male counterparts do simply because they want to be the best. This is where our Canadian and American players can take advantage – appeal to players on European and Asian teams, pitch to them the idea of playing in the NCAA or CWHL, encourage them to consider it, and make them feel at home if and when they decide to make the move.
Women’s hockey is like a family. At the end of the day the players have more in common than they do apart. The players, coaches, and governing bodies of elite nations like Canada and the US have a responsibility to share their resources and knowledge with the up-and-coming nations who are doing all they can to grow their programs. In the end, what European players learn from their North American counterparts they will take back to their national programs and they will apply it to help their teams improve. And much like how it happened in the NHL, there is a good chance that for every thing we teach them there will be something else that they teach us. Angela Ruggiero and Jennifer Botterill (speaking of unlikely partnerships) have already joined forces in their retirements to visit the Youth Olympics in Innsbruck to help inspire the next generation of women’s hockey players. The knowledge and experiences that players like them will share with other nations will be invaluable and critical to those nations as they then move forward and apply that knowledge towards their programs.
When the puck drops between two women’s hockey teams at international competitions each player should be playing for keeps; playing to bring victory to their respective nations. But when the final buzzer blows and the jerseys come off, the players, coaches, management, and fans alike need to put on a new jersey – a women’s hockey jersey. We all need to put on an identical jersey and work towards identical goals because that is the only way our sport will improve. Recruiting international players, teaching them the tools of our trade, and encouraging them to share these tools with their fellow country mates may someday lead to Canada and the US no longer being at the top of the podium in women’s hockey. But it’ll be our victory too, because for every gold medal being placed around a European or Asian player’s neck, there will be a story of what they did to win that medal and who helped them along the way. If we take cues from Ruggiero and Botterill and continue to share our knowledge, I guarantee that the gold medal winning players will have a story of a Canadian or American who helped them win that medal.
The efforts and sacrifices made by women’s hockey players, coaches, and officials all over the world are admirable. They are the reason the sport is where it is right now – growing at a rapid pace, improving every day, and inspiring young girls along the way. The results may not be evident on the world stage just yet but the sport is moving in the right direction and there is reason for optimism and continued dedication towards helping our counterparts in other countries improve their programs so that someday we can all unite under the banner of women’s hockey and do battle against each other at the highest level possible.
I’d like to dedicate this blog entry to the memory of Canadian skier Sarah Burke who passed away earlier this month. I said earlier that women’s hockey is like a family. In reality though, women’s sports in general are a family. We encounter the same challenges, fight the same fights, and all the athletes who compete at the highest level are heroes to many young girls and women who will someday follow in their footsteps. Sarah Burke was one of those heroes and what she did for her sport and for elite-level women’s sports in general won’t soon be forgotten.