Olympic Hockey Recap: US Women Beat Sweden, 6-1

Kelli Stack playing in the CWHL, which according to NBC doesn't exist. (via Boston_CWHL on flickr)
Kelli Stack playing in the CWHL, which according to NBC doesn’t exist. (via Boston_CWHL on flickr)

Today USA whaled on Sweden, and if you follow any hockey writers on Twitter, you probably saw people talking about how uncompetitive and boring it is. Yes: Sweden got beat. After about 6 minutes of being clogged in the neutral zone, USA’s offense broke out and was rarely stifled after that. USA drew the Swedish defenders in, Sweden left passing lanes wide open, and the score ended 6-1. If Kelli Stack hadn’t lost a faceoff, it could’ve been a shutout for Vetter.

As always with women’s hockey (for me), the commentary for this game was somewhat maddening. Yo, did you know the Blackhawks are good at hockey? This apparently warrants discussion during one of a handful of Team USA games that will receive professional commentary in the course of 4 years. What doesn’t warrant professional commentary, apparently, is the fact that there is a North American women’s league – the CWHL – and they are hoping to pay their players within five years.

Why is this relevant? Because the broadcast briefly covered Noora Räty’s retirement, and while they didn’t really quote Räty at all, the coverage went something like: Räty, very good. Lots of medals. Shame about her retiring at the age of 24. There’s an atmosphere of almost ambivalence; ah, what can you do? Once women leave college, there are no prospects.

Now, no: there are no well-paying prospects for female hockey players at this time. But if a national broadcast covering women’s hockey isn’t even well-informed enough to mention the CWHL, that vicious cycle will undoubtedly continue. The CWHL is relevant; it’s where tons of North American Olympic players go in between training with their respective national teams. If it was a paying league, then the 2 or 3 outstanding players on European teams – players like Wallner and Rundqvist – could train with the best North American athletes. That in turn leads to giving those countries players to root for and reasons to invest in the women’s game, which leads to parity. This isn’t rocket science, and if you know anything about women’s soccer, you’ll recognize the pattern I’m projecting. But the attitude on a national broadcast  is not to mention the CWHL and their hope to pay players. And to not mention the fact that Schelling, the outstanding Swiss goaltender, is drafted to play in the CWHL. It’s to say – what can you do? Pity about Noora Räty.

And while I’m on the topic of Noora Räty – yes. It is tragic that she might be retiring (it’s still up in the air if she’s trying out for men’s teams or not, as far as I know). But it’s not just tragic because she’s 24 and has won a bunch of stuff. Yeah, if you don’t make a habit of watching women’s hockey, you’re probably gonna look at her Wikipedia page and whistle at her stats, but I think it’s much more important that she is fun to watch. Even when Finland, as a team, isn’t really hanging with the elite teams they’re playing, she’s entertaining. She’s incredibly energetic in the net, she’s talented, she makes amazing saves – she’s fun. And she keeps her team in the game through incredible athleticism and skill.

That’s what I think is missing from this debate. I don’t watch CWHL games and women’s Olympic games, I didn’t help start a blog about women’s hockey, because I find it boring but morally necessary to support. Was today’s game the most interesting in the world? Nope! USA’s goals were fun to watch, but they were interspersed by incredibly lackluster play by the Swedes, and when they got it together a bit more in the 3rd, it was already too late. But Wallner made some amazing saves, Kelli Stack’s speed was remarkable, Bellamy and Bozek were powerful from the point, and Monique Lamoureux’s penalty shot was fun, even though the US was up by 4. Other games have been interesting and competitive – Sweden-Japan and Canada-Finland were both close in scoring for the vast majority of their games, and they were tense and fun.

I know what predictable games look like. I’m a Blackhawks fan and was last year, when they won for literally half the season. But I still watched a lot of the games, because they were fun. The women’s game is no different. Yes, USA and Canada by far outstrip everyone else right now. But the games have been much closer this year, in no small part due to outstanding goaltending from the Swiss, Swedes, Finns, and  Japan. If this sport gets tangible support – time and money – that will, hopefully, continue to build.

So, USA’s going to the gold medal game, and is likely to face Canada (unless the Swiss somehow upset them – go, Switzerland!) The worst part of this game for Team USA is that, with the exception of the first few minutes, Sweden didn’t offer much competition. Shots were terribly lopsided. Sweden took some dumb penalties but didn’t play a particularly physical game (certainly not moreso than Canada does), so players like Stack and Kessel had plenty of room. Hilary Knight was, worryingly, targeted by the Swedes and effectively shut down. That was, to me, one of the more interesting parts of the game; she was swarmed at all times, knocked around, and neutralized. The Swedes definitely noticed how well Knight and Stack have been playing together, and for all that the game wasn’t remotely close, it speaks well of them that they managed to execute that single goal so well.

Team USA’s road to this game was fairly predictable, right down to the close USA-CAN game that they lost. But will I be watching on Thursday with bated breath anyway? Of course. It’ll be fun.