Women's Hockey: Spaghetti Without the Sauce

Olympic Commentary

Ben Smith, the US women's ice hockey coach, says that there is "excitement that runs through the village and our team." And Cammi Granato, captain, says that she's "very excited to be here." Not to be caught with his excitement down, assistant coach Tom Mutch, reveals that "our team is very excited."

But, will all this excitement translate into a sport that the American people will find exciting?

Probably not, beyond a short-term Olympic rush.

Nobody wants to address this issue head-on in a maniacally politically correct society. But for you fact fans, the basic reason that women's ice hockey, at its current stage of infancy, is not going to excite any big numbers of folks is that the game is grossly inferior to the men's brand.

This truism exhibited itself Monday night when the US defeated Sweden, 7-1. That Sweden all but gave up in the face of a second period American four-goal onslaught within a 6-minute span didn't help. Sweden's coach Bengt Ohlson admitted afterward, "If we were to have a good game, every girl would have to play to her maximum."

Regardless, the skills of the players, no matter which team, are works in progress. The sport isn't ready for prime time analysis by millions of television watchers, which is perfectly understandable.

After all, there have only been four world championships contested, starting in 1990, and this is its first Olympics. In the world competitions, the results have been the same each time: Canada, the US, and Finland.

Interest in the sport around the world clearly hasn't developed yet; just six countries entered Olympic teams. The US plays Finland today and Canada Saturday. The finals are next week. A nervy prediction for order of finish: Canada, US, Finland.

Men's hockey is faster with stronger, quicker people playing it. Stickwork and footwork is far superior. The men's game is enormously more sophisticated. Because of all this, it is exciting and can legitimately put this quality on its rsum. Of course, in fairness, men have been playing it for eons and women have been playing it briefly. Plus, one of the great determinants in men's hockey is body checking, which routinely means taking an opponent hard into the boards. Body checking is not allowed in women's hockey.

Those who don't watch pro hockey may find this kinder, gentler version appealing. If repelled by the brutality of men's hockey, they may be drawn to this graceful side of the sport.

But the lack of physicality makes women's hockey spaghetti without the sauce, Bogie without Bacall. One problem is that women have a record of taking on men's sports and - by men's standards - playing them badly. What the sports world needs to emphasize are events in which women are setting the standard of excellence.

Gymnastics is a nice summer Olympics example. And there is no greater example than figure skating, one of the most popular of all sports on television. Why? It's because of the grace and elegance and beauty and athleticism brought to it by women. A few of you are saying, "Yes, but men skate, too." Right, and generally they pale in comparison. Who would you rather watch, Todd Eldredge or Tara Lipinski? Me, too.

This Olympics year in particular, with National Hockey League players performing for the first time on the teams of their countries, the comparisons truly are odorous. And talk about getting carried away, already there is chatter about starting up a women's professional league. Keep in mind that women's basketball, far, far more developed, has been a miserable failure until the last decade. Every attempt at a pro league has met with yawns. The jury is out on the current league, but it would not be around in these early stages if the NBA wasn't backing it financially.

Coach Smith concedes nothing, grousing only that "if people don't like it, there's not much we can do about it."

At this point, he's right. It's just that women's hockey is trying to strut its stuff and it does not yet have the stuff to strut. It's possible that it will in the future, if it doesn't end up humiliating itself in Nagano. One encouraging sign, according to USA Hockey, is that in 1990, only about 5,000 girls and women were playing the game; today the number is 20,000, it says.

Over at the Aqua Wing arena, a female ice-hockey fan waves a sign, "Chicks Rule." Not yet.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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