The chairman of the Women's World Hockey Championships is glad International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned women's hockey to get more competitive or lose its Olympic spot. He thinks Mr. Rogge will be pleased with the ongoing efforts to develop it.
At the end-of-tournament news conference on Saturday ahead of the medal games, chair Murray Costello expressed not only pride in the progress of the game worldwide, he also had stern words for "old boys networks" and nations who aren't providing female hockey players with proper opportunities, saying the skill is there and the game is not going away. And Switzerland's team followed up his words with its surprising bronze medal later in the day.
"It's good he gave us that warning, because it got people really thinking about it and there is a real effort going on," said Costello. "It would be nice to see a real difference in 2014. We may not see it by then, but I think by 2018 we will, competitive to where there are perhaps six or eight nations really contending."
Switzerland pulled a major upset in the bronze medal game Saturday afternoon with a 6-2 win over Finland. It was the first-ever World Championship medal for the Swiss women. Switzerland is currently ranked sixth in the world, and Finland is third, the bronze medal winner at the 2010 Olympics. It points to a closing of the gap within the second-tier nations behind the two North American powerhouses. Where Finland and Sweden used to always compete for bronze, now there are more challengers. Germany, the Swiss players noted actually beat Switzerland earlier in the tournament.
"We won bronze -- I still can't believe it," said Swiss goaltender Florence Schelling, after a lengthy Swiss on-ice celebration. "It's huge. The smaller nations can keep up with the bigger nations. This is a huge win for women's hockey."
Costello called out Russia, who was seeded No.4 coming into the tournament and placed in the top pool, yet did not win a single game. As host of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Russians have repeatedly said they intend to challenge for a medal at the Games.
"We often hear about an old boys network even in North America. Well you can quadruple that in Russia," said Costello. "The men who run the game there really control it. An awful lot of them still believe this isn't a game for women. But as they see more happening, they begin to realize the skill is there and the desire to play is there."
"They are under the gun now, and will respond unless they want to be totally embarrassed," he continued. "They're scouring the nation now for raw talent and trying to direct it toward our game as opposed to other sports. If Russia puts their governmental effort behind it, a lot can happen there very quickly. I'm not saying they'll be up there with North America, but they will be a lot better than they are not. They are just getting started. They are about one year into their dedicated efforts."
Costello said he has not been asked to provide formal reports on the scores of the tournament to Rogge, who said at the 2010 Olympics that women's hockey must become more competitive and balanced or lose its spot in Olympic competition. But he's sure the IIHF and IOC are keeping watch.
"They are noticing the effort in the emerging nations. We are trying to get the ones who can play to play better," said Costello. "Rogge will certainly notice."
A new tournament format was used at in Burlington, the same one that is to be used at the 2014 Olympics. It had the top four-seeded nations in the world in Pool A, and the next four in pool B. Then only the top two from Pool B made it into the playoff round. Switzerland came out of Pool B on its journey to bronze. The relegation was determined by a three-game series rather than a single game.
Promoting lower scores was key in the new format since goal differential wasn't so essential to advancing. Nine of the 19 games played before the medal round were decided by one goal or less. Costello called the scores "very gratifying".
"Some nations in Europe still don't think this is a game for women and aren't willing to give up the ice time to women. We're still trying to convince them to accept that," said Costello. "We [in North America]are about 20 years ahead of where they are. They are beginning to realize the women's game is not going away, so they better show some equality and opportunity developing it."