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Promises of Action Highlight Women's Hockey Session at World Hockey Summit

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Throughout the week, confrontation has been the method most commonly used to initiate serious discussion about issues surrounding the game.  On Thursday morning, no such confrontation was necessary, as plans of action were proposed, and some of those plans were tentatively put into action.  The reason there was no confrontation on the issue of the future of women's hockey is that the hockey world had already had that moment six months earlier.  When International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge threatened to pull women's hockey from future Olympics if the tournament didn't become more competitive, all sorts of alarm bells were sounded.  Nevermind the fact that the idea of pulling women's hockey simply because the same four nations win all the medals is ridiculous, since it's happened in other Olympic events for decades.  But as a hockey community, we're always looking at ways to improve, and clearly the women's game is one in which several federations need a leg up, or failing that, a swift kick in the crotch.  

Growing the women's game is really about growing the game, period.  Sure, there are legitimate societal barriers to having women play the sport throughout the world, but the easiest way to fix that is to simply not give any time of day to the people who subscribe to those viewpoints.  A strong push from above, from the IIHF and it's member nations (meaning the national federations), can start to overcome some of those barriers.  There will be countries that won't follow along (although one day hopefully we will see a women's Emirati hockey team), but surely there is no excuse for long standing European nations to accept staggeringly low participation rates from women.  So, what must be done to grow the game amongst women?  In some cases, it's not as simple as shortening some men's practice times to provide for women's teams.

2009 IIHF Survey of Players
Country Female Players Total Players Rinks

Players Per Rink

Women's WR Men's WR
Canada 85309 499695 13451* 37.15 1 2
USA 59506 465975 2050 227.30 2 6
Sweden 3612 60374 463 130.40 4 3
Finland 3527 61684 247 249.73 3 4
Germany 2494 28967 219 132.27 11 9
Czech Republic 1992 97102 180 539.46 13 5
Japan 1741 21027 239 87.98 9 21
France 1520 17133 154 111.25 14 15
North Korea 850 3270 18 181.67 21 43
Switzerland 735 24705 188 131.41 5 7
Austria 638 10378 131 79.22 16 14
Great Britain 583 5627 44 127.89 18 23
Norway 458 6385 40 159.63 12 11
Italy 393 6454 63 102.44 17 16
Denmark 301 4059 22 184.5 22 13
Slovakia 288 8671 66 131.38 10 8
Russia 278 84720 260 325.85 6 1
Poland 228 2923 28 104.39 NR 22
Australia 215 2836 20 141.8 25 34
The Netherlands 175 3059 24 127.46 23 25
China 166 448 76 5.89 7 37
Turkey 160 790 2 395 34 35
92 (28th)
5251 42 125.02 8 17
Latvia 91 (29th) 4539 23 197.35 15 12


According to figures from the IIHF's 2009 Survey of Players, there were 167,287 registered female hockey players in the IIHF's member nations.  144,815 of those players were from Canada or the USA, a whopping 86.6% of all female players in the world.  To put those numbers in perspective, the total number of registered hockey players in those nations accounts for 66.3% of the total.  Canada and the USA account for 63.7% of registered male hockey players worldwide, so clearly Canada and the USA are the true leaders of the women's game.

But in terms of actually growing participation rates in countries like Russia or the Czech Republic, the federations have to simply build more rinks.  It's a staggeringly low figure in Russia of 260 rinks, and we don't even know what condition those rinks are in.  Clearly, a new construction boom is long overdue.  The Czech Republic's well noted drop in participation rates across the board probably has something to do with the lack of ice available. 

From the numbers, you can see that access to a rink is pretty vital to increasing participation.  Finland is probably peaked out at their current rate, while the United States could certainly use some more rinks as well.  Canada's rink totals are drastically inflated by approximately 11,000 outdoor rinks, which are helpful for participation but are largely unused for competition (the USA's total includes 250 outdoor rinks, Sweden 136).  A healthy number looks to be around 200 players per rink, although practice time at a rink certainly varies. 

Another unmentioned aspect is coaching.  There's a reason the Russians, despite having only 278 players and scarce rink time, have still achieved a #6 ranking in the world, ahead of Germany, France, and Japan who have much greater numbers and ice time.  However, without more participation, it's unlikely that Russia's women will challenge Canada or the USA in the sport like they do in men's hockey.  The gap right now is enormous, and will only get wider without investment.  The IIHF's commitment of $2m towards the cause is helpful, but without the response of individual federations it could just be money wasted.  I'm not sure what exactly $2m from the IIHF can accomplish, but they aren't known to make grand investment announcements so I suppose there's got to be some significance to it. 

Starting up the CWHL is a positive for the growth of the sport, as is the Clarkson Cup tournament, but established a viable long term professional circuit is still nothing but a dream.  Perhaps this past year's public shaming will set in motion a series of actions that will eventually lead to that outcome.  But we aren't there quite yet.