There are two things I love about the start of spring for the purposes of being a hockey fan. The first is obvious; the slough of a regular season that's far too long gives way to a frantic chase for the final playoff spots and then the all-you-can-eat buffet for the eyes that is the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Being a Leaf fan who essentially threw in the towel long ago, watching NHL games down the stretch that have only involved teams in the playoff race has made for a much more palatable experience, as games have been played at a skill level and with an intensity completely foreign to Maple Leaf games for the last two years since the playoff series with Boston (Obligatory plea to fire Dave Nonis).
But the other thing that I love this year is that every other level of hockey is winding up their playoff campaigns as well, which leads to an even greater bounty of competitive hockey available for you to watch if you so desire. Junior hockey has had a prominent footprint on television since Christmas, with TSN's ever expanding coverage of the World Junior Hockey Championships leading into Sportsnet making a concerted effort to grow its CHL coverage with two games nearly every weekend since January (a Sunday afternoon broadcast accompanying their flagship Friday Night Hockey coverage). Locked out of McDavid Mania, TSN decided to try and capture the attention of those curious about consensus 2nd pick Jack Eichel by providing coverage of NCAA hockey through the season, which led into expanded coverage of conference playoffs and the opening rounds of the NCAA Hockey Tournament, and the Frozen Four later this week.
But while these two leagues certainly deserve an expanded platform, they represent the most prominent developmental leagues on the road to the NHL. The part of this time of year I love is the more obscure competitions that get coverage. Last month Sportsnet did a strong job covering the CWHL and the Clarkson Cup, and did their part to capitalize on "March Madness" by offering a Canadian alternative via the CIS men's and women's hockey and basketball tournaments.
But this past week TSN kicked its Hockey Canada coverage into high gear, as the IIHF Women's World Championships took place in Malmo, Sweden. With a minimal NHL footprint, the international competitions remain one of the crown jewels of TSN's hockey coverage, and they have taken full advantage. Over the eight days of the tournament, TSN broadcast 9 games from the tournament, including all of Canada's games and all quarterfinal, semi-final and medal round games.
And I watched all of them.
The tournament itself was quite entertaining, and while unfortunately for Canadians our women came up short in the gold medal game (a wild 7-5 game where Canada almost once again pulled off a crazy comeback, rallying from down 5-2 to tie the game before the US put the game away in the 3rd), the quality of play was very similar to that of the Olympics and a very entertaining product to watch (mostly).
With the CWHL done for the year, and the showpiece international tournament now complete, the women's game is for all intents and purposes in hibernation for the summer. So here is what I learned about the state of women's hockey, having watched the best in the world go toe-to-toe over the past week.
No Body Checking, No Problem
Maybe the single biggest difference between women's hockey and men's is the physical element. Women's hockey permits "contact" but not body checking, which seems like a pretty semantic difference (and the games occasionally back this viewpoint up) but in practice it means that the women are allowed to use body positioning to separate their check from the puck, but can't throw the sort of hits you would expect to see in a similar situation in a men's game. Again, though, sometimes the distinction is negligble and the tournament featured the occasional full on body check that only sometimes gets called for a penalty.
The end result is that the game finds a pretty interesting balance between skill and brawn. The skill level of international women's hockey is undeniable, and seems to be improving every year. The element of physicality that was purposely left in the game results in a brand of hockey that meshes a fast pace with tight checking and fierce puck battles, but without much of the pointless crash-and-bang sideshow that encompasses the worst the NHL (and the men's game) has to offer. As much as people have noticed that the NHL and really all levels of the men's hockey network requires players to be great skaters to keep up, women don't have the safety net of being able to make up for a lack of foot speed by simply hitting their check. If you can't skate with the girls, you aren't long for the game.
Last month, the GTHL, the largest minor hockey league in North America, voted to eliminate body checking from "A" hockey at all levels, a great sea change in the game that left a great divide between fans who see this as yet another stop on the tearing down of the game they remember in sepia tones, and fans who see this as a change that needed to be made for many different reasons. To the fans who believe that removing body checking will "ruin" the game, I would recommend watching women's hockey and re-evaluating your position. The style of play found at the women's hockey championship should be the gold standard that the GTHL is hoping to achieve with its new rule change; an emphasis on speed and skill, just enough physicality to create friction and virtually all of the brutality left at the door.
An Individual Team Game
Anytime you watch a large amount of a sport in a relatively short period of time, you start noticing patterns. Sometimes those patterns are good, and sometimes not. But hockey is a pretty simple game to understand at its core, and the means by which teams go about the offensive and defensive aspects of the game don't generally branch too far from the conventional wisdom.
Once you notice the significantly reduced element of physicality in the women's game, the next thing you can't help but notice is that there is a fair bit more individual play compared to the top levels of the men's game. The very best players will go for long stretches controlling the puck and weaving through their opponents trying to create chances.
After watching from the preliminary round through to the gold medal game, I think I arrived at two different reasons for this. The first is more true for the nations that aren't USA and Canada; specific individual players may be head and shoulders above their compatriots in terms of skill level, which leads to a natural reliance on their own abilities to try and create chances for their team, especially when they find themselves against a much more well-rounded and superior skilled opponent.
The second reason was more universal; without the ability to simply impede progress through a body check without taking a penalty, female defenders rely on essentially trapping tactics to separate the puck carrier from the puck. Now when I say trap here I'm not referring to the old New Jersey Devils style of trap, but similar elements are at play; the neutral zone is heavily defended, but used as a central point to then direct the puck carrier to a specific point on the ice (usually angling them towards the boards) and often attempting to use strength in numbers to create a space a puck carrier cannot retreat from.
This can be viewed as both a positive and negative, as supremely skilled puck carriers like Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker (and Finnish defender Jenni Hiirikoski, an Erik Karlsson-esque defender who looked to go on an end-to-end rush at any point) can use this to their advantage to create opportunities for their teammates by drawing defenders to them and creating space in more dangerous spots. However, there is the potential for less skilled players (more notable on lower-ranked teams) to pass up an opportunity to bring their teammates into the play in favour of an individual approach, resulting in lost chances when the defence forces mistakes.
Stylistically, the North American superpowers play a brand of hockey that more closely resembles that of their male pro hockey counterparts, with an emphasis on a north-south game through the neutral zone and heavy cycling of the puck in the offensive zone to wear down defences. Many of the European countries, possibly by virtue of being less skilled, tried to rely on a more patient defensive approach to minimize exposure to Canada & USA's high octane attack, and also because they simply don't have the depth of the top two countries in the world. Russia in particular played a particularly ugly style through the tournament, reminiscent of the worst realities of Randy Carlyle hockey. This was on display at its worst in their semifinal when they stunned the Americans with a first minute goal, then proceeded to retreat into a shell and hold on for 59 minutes. The result was an already overmatched Russian squad turned the game into an American target practice that ended 13-1.
The Middle Class Is Alive And Well
Thanks to North American sports desire to condition us to believe parity is the most important factor for the overall success of a sport, the women's game comes under fire in international competitions because there are ONLY two countries with a realistic opportunity to win (This same line of reasoning never seems to come up when discussing USA's dominance of mens' basketball thanks to the NBA because.... reasons). And while it's certainly true that since the tournament originated Canada and the United States have met for the gold medal in every single tournament (Canada holding an overall 10-6 lead, however the USA has won 5 of the last 6), for the other countries in the tournament the bronze medal is the true prize.
The tournament does not take place during Olympic years, in effect replaced by the Olympic tournament. So taking that into account, the top women's tournament has crowned 3 different countries as bronze medalist in the last three years (Finland won bronze this year, Switzerland were bronze medalists at the Sochi Olympics, and Russia won their first ever bronze medal in 2013). Four different countries competed for the bronze medal in the last two years (Finland defeated Russia for bronze this year, and the Swiss beat Sweden at Sochi).
The revamped preliminary system that places the top four teams in one pool and the next four teams in a second pool was implemented to create more competitive results through the tournament, and allow teams from the bottom pool a chance to gain confidence and win their way into the medal round through the quarterfinals (the Swedes came close before falling to Russia while the Swiss were outmatched by Finland). But this year almost had a Cinderella story thanks to Japan, with their most successful campaign ever. The Japanese women stunned Sweden with a shootout victory in the first game and also defeated Germany. A loss to Switzerland in their final game left them narrowly missing the quarterfinals, but 7th place matched the nation's best ever result at the world championships.
Many of these countries have individual women that are on the level of those of the Canadian and American women, but these countries simply lack the depth and lack the resources to seriously compete with the top two. The more countries are capable of competing with each other, maybe not necessarily Canada or the USA, will lead to pronounced growth in the women's game, and maybe long-term a challenger to the throne will emerge.
Female Announcers: Just as Good (and Bad) as the Guys
The scarcity of women in the sphere of professional sports broadcasting has been raised by many people over the past year, especially in light of Sportsnet's amalgamation of Rogers and CBC talent to create a massive roster of analysts and broadcasters, almost all of which were men. The idea that women are somehow unfit to discuss mens' professional sports because they haven't played at that level is frankly absurd when somebody like Glenn Healy is such a prominent analyst, considering (a) what he did at the NHL level could be charitably called "playing" and (b) he's truly an awful broadcaster that detracts from the product.
So it was refreshing to see that TSN relied on a heavily female team for its world championship coverage. Host Laura Diakun and former Canadian international Tessa Bonhomme handled the studio roles before the game and during intermissions, while the lone male on the broadcast team Rod Black did play-by-play alongside another former Canadian international Cheryl Pounder, who provided colour commentary.
Overall, they did a fine job. I do wonder if there are women out there that could potentially have handled the play-by-play duties, but Black calls a good game and treated the women's game with the utmost respect. His partner Cheryl Pounder was more hit-and-miss for my liking; she used her background as a former player well to help sell the emotion and intensity of the game, and was extremely knowledgeable and informative about the players on all teams and the development plans in those nations. However, for me, she relied too much on the character and intangibles aspects of the game (making her totally indistinguishable from most former players turned analysts), and I noticed a bit of a speech tic where she'd constantly refer to players for their "[insert height] frame", which didn't ruin the broadcast or anything but listening to her nine times in about a week made it more noticeable.
The studio hosts were also good. Diakun was a fine host, though she had a few moments of nerves where she seemed to trip over her lines, but Bonhomme was the star. Tessa's bright personality and knowledge of the game made her a perfect choice to break down the details in between periods, and the camaraderie of a former Team Canada player speaking to fellow Team Canada representative made for a number of very entertaining pre-taped interviews with women from Team Canada. Hopefully Bonhomme has earned herself an increased role with TSN going forward.
Women can do just as good or bad a job on a broadcast as the men. Let them stand on their merits and compete with the guys for a job. Hockey's better with more women like Tessa Bonhomme and Cassie Campbell-Pascal in it and less men like Glenn Healy and PJ Stock.
Women's Hockey Will Only Continue To Grow
In the last month, the CWHL championships were broadcast nationally on Sportsnet and garnered significant attention and support that should carry into next season (with numerous SBNation blogs jumping on the bandwagon to support their local clubs with expanded coverage). A second women's league (the NWHL) was announced that will operate in the United States and intends to ensure all its women are paid to play. The womens' world championship was a tremendous success despite missing many of the womens' games most recognizable stars, including Amanda Kessel, Hayley Wickenheiser, Meghan Agosta, and Shannon Szabados, to name just a few.
In fact, both Canada and the United States teams were stocked with a number of first-time competitors having graduated from their countries' development programs, an Under-22 program that helps bridge the gap between the under-18 competition and the senior level. Other countries and the IIHF are taking the necessary steps to continue to produce the highest level athletes they can. Grassroots programs are rapidly expanding across North America, from minor hockey to competitive programs to college. Hockey Canada will showcase the Esso Cup, a national tournament featuring the best midget girls hockey programs later this month (the final will be broadcast on TSN). Just like with the boys, girls hockey has reached a saturation point where if you know where to look you can find high-level girls hockey being played almost anywhere.
Editor's Note: Do you have an interest in writing about women's hockey for PPP? We are looking for passionate and engaged individuals to report on the CWHL's Toronto Furies or Brampton Thunder organizations and women's hockey in general. Email email@example.com if you're interested.