That’s not Team Canada in that photo, that’s Switzerland celebrating their win at the Olympics on Monday over Finland. With the win, Switzerland nailed down what was hinted at at the last Women’s World Championships — they have the potential to truly challenge the other teams in the A pool.

That Worlds was a real eye-opener for me. I follow the women’s game through the main events, not the minor. I watch the Olympics and Worlds when it’s possible, and I skip the friendlies, the preliminary tournaments and the tune up games. I knew the game was changing, but I wasn’t prepared for the synergy of the increase in skill and conditioning of the players with newly codified IIHF rules. Add in the changing structure of hockey, particularly offensive systems, and the game is fast, net-driving, skill-based play. From every team.

I think you know me by now. You know I’m not going to sling some “please like my sport” fantasy about how great the women’s game is, that it’s your moral duty to like it, that it’s exactly as good as men’s hockey, and it’s not fair to claim there’s two teams that dominate the game. I’m going to tell you what I believe to be truth. Fandom fantasy won’t set us free, only the truth can.

There are two teams that overwhelmingly dominate the women’s game.

At this Olympics, the probability that Canada and the USA would not finish in the top two spots in Group A was infinitesimally small. The first principle of hockey is that it’s a sport full of random chance, more so than most team sports. This leads to unexpected outcomes, and probability isn’t destiny. But in the case of women’s national competition, the chance that those two teams don’t get to the semifinals is almost as small as it gets in this sport.

There’s reasons for this that aren’t very interesting to list off as to why those two countries are so good: tradition, Title IX, population size, infrastructure, government money, and a whole host of other reasons. Reasons that largely hold true for women’s soccer as well.

Much more interesting is the way other countries around the world are choosing to grow their women’s hockey programs, and how we have arrived at the current state of the game where the B pool teams are rising, the bottom three A pool teams are in tough competition with each other, and hiding behind the one-two punch of the North American teams is a big, wide world of women’s hockey.

There’s another principle in hockey: The elite of the elite are not likely to get much better, but the teams (or players) below them have a lot of space to improve into. One of the ways countries grow their hockey programs is by working to increase participation at all levels either by building infrastructure, funding programs or developing leagues for players to strive for. All these methods drive their teams into the open space.

Every year, the IIHF conducts a survey of players for all their member nations. They collect the number of players registered, how many are women, how many are under 20 and also how many referees and rinks the country has, both indoor and outdoor. Canada has so many arenas, they just shoot off some round number for outdoor rinks, but they may actually count the indoor. Most other countries have less astonishing numbers.

In 2011, Denmark, a nation of 5.5 million people, had 4,405 registered players, 396 of whom were women.  They had five female referees, and 23 indoor rinks. Denmark is too warm for outdoor skating, generally.

In 2019-2020, the most recent year they’ve published data, Denmark, now with 5.8 million people and still smaller than the GTA by a considerable amount, had 5,147 registered players. The women accounted for 702 of them, an increase of 77% on an overall increase of 17%. The participation of men had topped out in a country where the elite players need to move to Finland or Sweden to play the sport at a young age. But the participation of women nearly doubled, and today, on the merits of their play in preliminary round tournaments, Denmark has made the Olympics, and has a win over Czechia to show for their participation.

Did they goalie the Czechs? You bet they did. Is goalie-ing the innocent how Denmark traditionally wins. It pretty much is. But the Danish women also now have opportunities afforded by their Swedosj neighbour’s investment in a women’s league to play in the SDHL and refine raw young talent into better and better players. This is the traditional path very small countries have taken to improve their overall standing in the sport.

Switzerland toppled the Finns, who were cemented into third place not so long ago, and unassailable by the teams below them. The Swiss have shown similar growth. Their 2011 numbers are: 26,166 registered players from a population of 7.6 million, with 1,172 women and 158 indoor rinks and 29 outdoor.

In 2019, with 8.4 million people, the players rose by 17% to 30,655, 2,011 were women for an increase of 71%, and the rinks had shrunk somehow to 48 with 111 outdoor. I’m starting to think the Swiss don’t count rinks carefully.

In Canada, the number of women rose from 85,827 to 101,879 or 19% on an increase in registered players of 6%. In the USA, it was 65,609 to 84,102 or 28% on an increase in registered players of 12%. The USA is only 40 thousand registered players behind Canada in this data, and has likely already overtaken Canada by now and become the biggest hockey-playing nation on earth.

The “rest of the crowd” at the top of the women’s game are at a different point in their lifecycle than Canada and the USA. Even when a North American professional league becomes a reality, the numbers of women playing the game will rise, but it can’t rise at the rate Denmark or Czechia or Switzerland can produce.

Dwarfing all of those efforts will be China, if they truly decide to put their full effort behind growing the sport after these Olympics are over. They have built the infrastructure in ways that no other nation likely could match, going from 41 rinks in 2011 to 537 now, and that’s just indoor spaces. But at the moment, they have as few women players as Australia. Other countries that can grow their games the most are Russia (well underway), Japan and Korea.

Numbers of people and numbers of dollars spent are only part of the story, though. Skills development has to be prioritized, particularly in goal — just ask Sweden what happens when your starter can’t play. But the numbers game is the big driving wave that will decide which teams rise, and which teams fall.

Canada and the USA might still be floating up their at the top of the pool uncontested, but the competition is rising en masse to meet them. It’s just a matter of time (and money).

The Men’s tournament begins on Wednesday, and the most anticipated game in the early rounds for Leafs fans will be USA playing Canada. They start out in the same pool with Germany and China. Their head-to-head is on Friday night at 11 p.m.

They played a scrimmage to help get ready so we have some early lines:

Yes, these are low quality AHL lineups, everyone knows that. Yes, they likely won’t contest for gold. But it’s a huge opportunity for the prospects on Team USA and for a player like Josh Ho-Sang on Team Canada.

Women’s quarterfinals:

  • Czechia vs USA on Thursday, Feb. 10 at 11 PM
  • Sweden vs Canada on Friday, Feb. 11 at 8 AM
  • Switzerland vs Russia on Friday, Feb. 11 at 11 PM
  • Japan vs Finland on Saturday, Feb. 12 at 3:30 AM/