Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Retrospective on the 2014 Women's Ice Hockey Olympic Tournament

Congratulations to the teams that had the honour of participating in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games Ice Hockey Tournament. Long considered a cornerstone event in the games, the ice hockey tournament has vastly increased its profile since the arrival of professional hockey players in 1998 with the games in Nagano, Japan, and the introduction of the women's tournament the same year. Sixteen years later, the Sochi games provided a tournament more rich with storylines than a hockey fan could dream of. One almost laments that the journey must end as the closing ceremony ends and all athletes return to their counties across the planet, their lives forever changed.

Today I want to briefly recap the women's tournament. Each team had some great moments and this year's gold medal game was the most exciting hockey game of 2014 so far. Despite Canada defending its gold for the third time and capturing its fourth gold medal, the games showcased some new stars and demonstrated how the rest of the world is starting to find its footing in the otherwise North American dominated hockey tournaments.

Group A Teams

Canada: Of course, Canada defended its gold medal on the backs of elite veterans like Jayna Hefford, Caroline Oullette, and Hayley Wickenheiser. Arguably, goaltender Shannon Szabados was the top keeper of the tournament and MVP of the team, but it's hard to argue who among the well-oiled machine stood out the most. Marie-Phillip Poulin came through again with two goals in the gold medal game. Her legend continues to grow. Maybe Jordan Eberle is the Marie-Phillip Poulin of men's hockey, instead of thinking of it vice versa.

Finland: The Finns entered the tournament as the most likely to compete with the North American powerhouses, but just barely got past the Swiss in overtime in the round robin and were stunned by the Swedes in the qualification round. On the bright side, the Finns played well in the 5th to 8th place bracket, finishing in 5th place overall and seeing Michelle Karvinen emerge as a superstar with five goals in the tournament. From the sounds of it, star goalie Noora Raty wants to call it quits due to a lack of a women's professional league. Jenni Hiirikoski also won the tournament's top defensemen honour.

Switzerland: The big shock in this tournament was the emergence of Switzerland as a legitimate team as they captured the bronze medal in an outstanding comeback, stunning the Swedes 4-3. Swiss keeper Florence Schelling won both media keeper of the tournament as well as directorate and tournament MVP honours.Schelling kept them in the 3-1 loss to Canada that certainly bristled the favourites. The 2-0 shocker versus the Russians helped to build her resume as one of the world's top goaltenders among women, and it gives the Swiss a star to build on. 15 year old Alina Müller became a media darling, not only for scoring goals but showing how far along women's hockey has truly come in 16 years. She was born when women's hockey in the Olympics had just started. She will be a star in tournaments to come.

United States of America: Team USA were so, so close to ending Canada's streak of gold medals. Whether it be nerves, unfavorable penalties, losing to the better team, or whatever reasons anyone want to come up with, the team walks away with silver. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about with their performance as the difference between gold and silver was so slight that a missed empty netter could have sealed their fate as tournament winners. Amanda Kessel will almost surely replaced Hayley Wickenheiser as the world's greatest female hockey player; she might even be the better Kessel! With the right coach, I see the 2018 tournament as their time to topple their rivals.

Group B Teams

Russia: A lot was expected of the Russian ice hockey teams in Sochi, and both fell short of the medals. Even though the women went undefeated in the round robin portion of the tournament, they were ousted by the Swiss in the 2-0 game mentioned earlier in this post. In the meaningless 5th-8th place tournament, Russia stomped Japan 6-3 only to go down 4-0 to the Finns in the 5th place game. On the bright side, Russia proved that they are perhaps the mightiest of the non-Group A teams. The disappointment of Sochi will be a motivator in international tournaments to come.

Sweden: Sweden finished 4th at Sochi after blowing the bronze medal game to the Swiss, ending their Olympic medal streak at two (bronze in Salt Lake City, Silver in Torino). The women's team has been sliding slowly down the tournament brackets since Torino, and hasn't medaled at the IIHF tournaments since 2007. Pernilla Winberg remains the team's best star since her breakout performance in 2006. If they can find the means to protect their two goal leads, they have a chance to recapture the magic of better tournaments gone by and reclaim the title of Europe's best women's team.

Germany: Germany did not fare well in Sochi, winning only against Japan and losing to everyone else. Goaltender Viona Harrer was statistically the second best keeper in the tournament, posting a .935 save percentage in three games and grabbing a single shutout. The best moment of the tournament may have been the most bitter loss of 2-1 to the Finns in the 5th-8th place bracket. It showed they were close (somewhat) to the rest of the pack.

Japan: Undeniably the weakest team at the tournament, Japan was okie-doked by the referees and goal judges when this goal wasn't to be:

That's quite obviously a goal there at :38 seconds into the clip. I wonder why that goal against the host country Russia wasn't counted. They did pot one goal in the round robin tournament, which led to the greatest celebration ever seen on ice for a goal:

The Japanese can walk away from this tournament knowing they are as competitive as Germany, and while not exactly the best team in Asia (watch out Kazakhstan!) they should be consistently showing up at international tournaments and continuously improving. It took them sixteen years to get back to the women's tournament after hosting the '98 Olympics. If they can continue to play the way they did against Germany, they will eventually defeat them and seek out a new team they can strive to replace in the standings.


The real reason I wanted to write this post was immerse myself in the less-viewed women's tournament and look at how some of the non-usual suspects performed. Admittedly, I've only ever paid attention to the gold medal games because that's where Canada resides (and apparently dominates). I took in some more of the round robin games this time around and it's impressive to see how far along women's hockey has come. It's a farce to say it has only progressed as much as the North American teams have. The truth is that beyond the competitors of Team USA and Team Canada, there are some legitimate superstars rising out of the other countries. Are any of the teams as good as their North American counterparts? Hardly. But the point of having these tournaments isn't just to have the two powerhouse teams clobber the lesser teams for sport before their big showdown. The bigger story here is that across Europe and Asia we are seeing countries explore women's hockey and improve as each tournament plays. Arguably, Canada and the United States were four to five steps ahead of all other women's hockey teams from 1998 to 2006. Sweden took one massive leap forward shocking the Americans, but one equally massive step backwards in subsequent tournaments. In the meantime, other European countries like Finland and Switzerland have produced their own all-stars who outshine North American players individually:

Copied from Wikipedia.

I only see one Canadian on this entire list, and just three Americans. This is a step in the right direction for women's hockey. The rest of the world are slowly but surely catching up with North America.

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