The GM Place crowd of nearly 7,000 roared with approval when Canadian players Gillian Apps and Becky Kellar slammed opponents into the boards in the first period of their game against the United States on Wednesday. But the cheers turned suddenly to jeers after the referee's whistle, as the Canadians sulked to the penalty box.
The Norwegian referee made the proper call in both instances, yet, to the crowd and to a small but growing number of critics inside the women's game, the penalties appeared to contravene the spirit of hockey. With the sport struggling to build a fan base, some insiders are beginning to ask whether the time has come for women's hockey to amend its rules and allow bodychecking.
Leading the charge, Swedish national coach Peter Elander thinks women should and would play under the same rules as men. In addition to believing that a ban on bodychecking restricts the sport from increasing its fan base, he says the rules against hitting amount to sexism.
"I just think it's so old-fashioned to say 'Girls can do this, but they can't do that,' " says Elander, whose team plays Canada tonight in a Hockey Canada Cup semi-final. "Women are doing the full Ironman [triathlon] So what's this about women not being able to do what men can?"
Bring it on, says U.S. defenceman Angela Ruggiero.
"I'd freaking love to hit," says the 29-year-old Harvard graduate. "You don't know how frustrating it is. Players' heads are down all the time and all I can do is poke-check."
But they are in the minority, on the basis of interviews conducted at the Hockey Canada Cup tournament this week. Canada coach Melody Davidson, U.S. coach Mark Johnson and Arto Sieppi, Finland's director of women's hockey, are opposed to introducing bodychecking.
"Peter is a good friend of mine, but I totally disagree," Sieppi says. "First of all, it's a women's sport and if bodychecking would be allowed, the number of young girls entering the game would decrease rapidly."
While Elander jokes that his opinion makes him sound like the Don Cherry of the women's game, he advocates bodychecking as the means of making it more physical and less reliant on speed. Told of Sieppi's position, Elander said bodychecking may come to women's hockey only "when all the dinosaur men die out."
Mixed martial arts and boxing have female combatants, and soccer's rules are common to women and men. Sport, Elander says, has evolved beyond the days of dainty female athletes requiring protection from mostly male rule-makers.
"I think women would take a big step into the whole hockey world if you didn't have two rule books," he said. "Women's hockey is going to be a fast growing sport in Europe, and I think there will be a discussion [about bodychecking] Wise people should sit down and ask, 'What does our audience want?' "
Many believe that allowing bodychecking would address the inconsistent officiating that plagues the women's game, and reduce the number of penalties. Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser, who has played in a men's professional league in Finland, says she "would love" to experiment with bodychecking, particularly in a game against the rival Americans.
Otherwise, "I don't really see it coming any time soon," she says. "In the women's game, we want to try and develop the speed and the skill of the game more than the hitting. We want kids to grow up learning how to handle the puck and make plays because that's the beauty of the game."
Bodychecking would have to be introduced to players at a young age before being adopted at the international level, she says.
"I think people would enjoy watching that for sure," Wickenheiser says. "If some day there is professional women's hockey, we would look to add it in on some level. But I don't think we're quite there yet."
If the International Ice Hockey Federation changes the bodychecking rule next year, it would be implemented after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, IIHF spokesman Szymon Szemberg said.
Ruggiero, the heaviest athlete in the Hockey Canada Cup at 187 pounds, once played a game in the Central Hockey League against men and thrilled the crowd by flattening an opponent with a check.
"I like it when they let us play," she says. "Nobody wants to see a game of power plays and penalties."
But several players noted the wide divergences of age, size and skill level, and argued against bodychecking. Certain players at the tournament, mostly from the Scandinavian countries, are teenagers receiving their first taste of Olympic level hockey. Others are as short as five feet, compared to some who stand six feet, and some players are 50 pounds lighter than their opponents.
The lack of bodychecking also influences the strategy and character of the women's game. Finland forward Saara Tuominen explains that a fast winger can dump the puck in the corner and almost certainly regain possession to create a scoring chance, as the slower defenceman cannot physically impede her progress. The interference rule also applies in the NHL, but in the men's game the defenceman can regain possession by checking the forward in the corner.
In the corner, Ruggiero says, all she can do is try to contain the forward and use a poke check. In other words, a female defenceman has a smaller toolbox than her male counterpart. Without bodychecking, it is more difficult to separate the forward from the puck.
Davidson, Canada's coach, argues there's plenty of contact already.
"The only thing that isn't there is a big old open-ice bodycheck," she says. "Everything else is there. When we play the midget boys [in pre-Olympic exhibition games] that's how we describe it to them. We just say 'no open-ice bodychecking.' "
Sieppi says that even if speed is the primary skill in women's hockey, there's nothing wrong with that. He said that Finns are fascinated by the speed of the women's game, even though it remains warp speeds slower than the men's game.
"Hockey is the fastest game on Earth, so if you're a fast skater, you should be allowed to enjoy that," he says. "To scare somebody with physical madness or power, when you take that away, you go back to hockey's roots. You go back to pond hockey and where it all started. Let's say one of the bigger girls like Angela Ruggiero just starts hammering everybody. What's the benefit?"
Elander says the sport is failing to take advantage of different body types and skill sets.
"I'm afraid of it turning into a speed competition," he says. "Hockey is a game with a variety of elements. You're going to see just speed, speed, speed and it will turn into a pond hockey game. We have to be faster, but I think the variety of players that could have an impact on the game would be much bigger if we played by the full rule book.
"The rules now limit the number of players. If you look at the NHL, there's Detroit's [skillful]style but there are other styles as well. For me, the most interesting [men's]game at the Torino Olympics was Canada against Russia. You had the Russian speed against the Canadian big bodies."