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Hayley Wickenheiser , left, and Shannon Szabados celebrate Canada's 2-0 victory over the U.S. in the gold medal game at the Vancouver Olympics. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Hayley Wickenheiser , left, and Shannon Szabados celebrate Canada's 2-0 victory over the U.S. in the gold medal game at the Vancouver Olympics. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Eric Duhatschek

Wickenheiser fires a slapshot at Tretiak's ears Add to ...

Women's hockey received its turn in the spotlight during Thursday morning's session at the World Hockey Summit, but Hayley Wickenheiser hopes a chance meeting with former Russian hockey great Vladislav Tretiak in the hotel bar a couple of nights before can have a more lasting impact on the state of the game.

The conundrum facing coaches and administrators in women's hockey is this: The sport has never been healthier in North America. The player pool is deeper, the skill level is higher and growth continues unabated.

In sport, where everybody at the professional level loves a dynasty, the primary problem in the women's game is how badly the sport lags behind elsewhere in the world, particularly Russia, where Tretiak is the president of the national ice hockey federation and devotes little time and attention to advancing the women's game.

It matters only because, in the aftermath of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge sounded alarm bells about the future participation of women's hockey in the Olympics if the rest of the world doesn't catch up soon.

Russia, as the host in 2014, would be well-served by pouring more resources into the game, but when former sports minister Slava Fetisov was asked why that hadn't happened, he said it fell into Tretiak's jurisdiction - that the federation had the money to spend, but not the will to do so.

According to Wickenheiser, who was one of yesterday's panelists and is the consensus top player in the world, Tretiak approached her the other night in a bar to discuss a conversation they had at the Olympics in February.

"I asked him the same question and his comment was: 'You know, women don't want to play hockey in Russia.' And I said, 'but yes they do.' And he said, 'yeah, but we only have 300 players.' And I said, 'it's more than nothing.'

"I said, 'you have to do something' and he said: 'I know, I know, we have a lot of work to do.'

"So I think, passing the buck might be a good way of putting it. I also think they've never paid attention to it and almost don't know where to start with it. I heard Fetisov had a conversation about maybe sending the top Russian players to play in the CWHL.

"But I think they're going to be forced to do something and I hope that out of this summit, even though that was just a five-minute conversation, maybe it was an effective five minutes."

Thankfully for the state of the women's game, the Olympics usually changes everything, particularly in a host country, where resources are often poured into the quest for gold medals in what might otherwise be under-funded sports. Women's hockey was introduced into the Olympics in 1998 and thus far, it has been mostly a two-horse race, with Canada winning three gold medals and the United States the other. Sweden and Finland have been on the podium as well - Sweden unexpectedly won silver in 2006 - but after that, the falloff in the rest of the world is precipitous.

"I told Mr. Tretiak, 'just do what you did with the Red Army, create a Red Army women's team,'" Wickenheiser said. "It seemed to work pretty well - and he laughed.

"But I honestly think that in Russia, they can do anything they want to. You see what's being done with the KHL. The money's there. The influence is there. If Mr. Medvedev [KHL president Alexander]took it on and had a personal interest in it, you could have a professional women's league in Russia long before it could happen in North America."

And that step - getting a North American professional league on a solid financial footing - would be an important next step because it would provide a playing option beyond the successful college programs in the United States and Canada.

"At the elite level, we need to create some sort of semi-pro league," said four-time U.S. Olympian Angela Ruggiero. "It's not going to make money, it just needs to survive. And get international players to play in that league. That, I think, is imperative.

"For many years, there was an import rule in Canada. I couldn't come and play there. They were trying to protect their national team. Well, that isn't working anymore. Now, I think everybody's trying to see the big picture - and get everyone into that."

Ruggiero recalled how when she was nine, she was cut from a team because she was a girl.

"At the grassroots level, if I were living in another country and everyone around me said, 'girls don't play hockey, why would I want to play hockey?' I wouldn't.

"These young girls [overseas] they don't have support from federations, from families, from government. Societal change is really the biggest thing that needs to happen there. How long will that take? That's the big issue."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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