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Sweden struggle to climb women's hockey ladder

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Sweden celebrates a goal in a 4-0 win over Germany at the Sochi Olympics. File photo: AP
09:03 CET+01:00
As the Swedish women's hockey team sets its sights on a bronze medal, the Sochi Olympics have shown that Sweden and other nations have yet to catch up to powerhouses Canada and the United States.

Women's hockey is evolving in countries like Switzerland and Japan but for others like Sweden it is a case of one step forward, two steps back.

Sweden won the silver medal in the 2006 Turin Games after eliminating the US but in the Olympics semi-finals on Monday they were clobbered 6-1 by the Americans who outshot them by a whopping 70-9.

The lopsided contest renewed questions about the legitimacy of women's hockey in the Olympics where blowouts have become common like Canada's 18-0 win over Slovakia in the 2010 Vancouver Games.

"It was too big a challenge for us to beat the US," said Swedish assistant coach Leif Boork. "They showed they are one of the best teams in the world."

Sweden only has three players back from that silver medal winning team.

"We started to work on that improvement after 2006 when our older generation finished playing. Since then we've had a generation shift," he said.

Boork said the problem is many women are forced to give up the game when they get older because unlike the players in the men's tournament they are not professionals.

The United States were heavily favoured to reach Thursday's women's final as they have 65,700 registered female players in the country compared to just over 3,000 for the Swedes.

Canada, the other finalist, has 87,000 players while Switzerland have just 908.

Canada and the US have been mainstays at the top of international women's hockey ladder ever since the sport was included in the Winter Games in 1998 in Nagano.

Canada has won the last three Olympic gold medals while the Americans have won four of the last five Women's World Championships, but they're hungry to end that Olympic drought.

"Of course it can be a problem for the rest of the world that they are so powerful. I think we should try to look up to them and try to improve our game," Boork said.

The International Ice Hockey Federation president, Rene Fasel, said Tuesday that women's hockey is not in danger of being dropped from the Winter Olympics.

"That will never happen," Fasel said. "I can guarantee that will never happen."

Canada's Carla MacLeod says Canada and the US have a responsibility to help those emerging nations get better by running hockey clinics and schools and loaning them coaches.

MacLeod is doing her part by working with the Japan women's team as an assistant coach.

Japan failed to qualify for the Vancouver Games so they went looking for a female coach to help them improve.

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"I was instantly excited. It took me half a second to say yes," MacLeod said.

Japan is not the only women's team that showed some progress in the Sochi tournament.

Switzerland lost by just two goals (3-1) to Canada in the other semi-final on Monday.

"They didn't think that little Switzerland can play hockey but we showed them," said Lara Stalder, who is one of the few non-North American players in the tournament to play for a US college women's team.

US coach Katey Stone said the growth of women's hockey in the US colleges is helping the game improve internationally.

"The best players on all these teams are playing in the US college programmes. We have done a heck of a job to not only develop American players but Canadians, Finnish kids and some Russians," she said.
 

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