February 21, 2014 4:30 pm

Is women’s hockey an endangered Olympic event?

Watch:  Women’s hockey had no equivalent to the 1972 Summit Series with Russia, until the Sochi Olympics. Paul Johnson reports.

TORONTO – Canadians who spent the afternoon with bated breath as the women’s hockey team claimed the gold medal in overtime against Team U.S.A. probably aren’t on board with eliminating the event from future Olympics.

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After NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday he would be “distressed” if the event was eliminated, International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel replied women’s hockey will “never” be removed from the Olympic schedule.

The International Olympic Committee backed him up in a statement Friday: “There is absolutely no plan to question the presence of women’s ice hockey within the programme of the winter Games.”

So why worry?

Well, it happened to softball. The International Olympic Committee voted it out after the 2008 Beijing Olympics because the U.S. was dominating. U.S. women won all three gold medals since softball joined the Summer Olympics (1996, 2000 and 2004).

But Toronto Star writer Damien Cox argues there are many countries who dominate specific sports. He points to the Netherlands and speedskating, Germany and luge, Russia and pair skaters.

Germany’s gold medal winner Natalie Geisenberger (L) welcomes teammate Felix Loch to the finish line at the Luge Team Relay at the Sliding Center Sanki during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 13, 2014. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Cox writes that countries “tend to assign much of their Olympic funds to the sports in which they do well and are well appreciated by their people” which makes women’s hockey “actually more like most Winter Olympic sports than unlike them.”

Not to mention the numbers: CBC said more than 5.6 million Canadians watched the U.S. versus Canada women’s preliminary game (insignificant compared to Thursday’s gold medal match). Cox compared that to November’s Grey Cup game with an average of 4.5 million tuning in.

Even more striking was that the women’s gold medal hockey game on Feb. 20 appeared to outdo the men’s hockey game between Canada and Latvia when it came to preliminary average online audience numbers. According to Adobe Site Catalyst data from CBC, the women’s Feb. 20 game had a (preliminary) average audience of more than 325,000, desktop and mobile combined. The men’s game had 280,000.

But international participation has room for improvement. Fasel said there are 80,000 girls playing hockey in Canada compared to lower numbers elsewhere, according to The Associated Press.

“And we have maybe 4,000 or 4,500 playing in Finland, maybe 2,000 in Sweden and in Switzerland and Russia, if we have 2,000 girls playing that would be a lot,” he said.

“It’s much better, but we are not there and we can see the result.”

The IOC agrees competitiveness is a work in progress.

Despite reiterating women’s hockey will remain in the schedule, IOC spokesperson Emmanuelle Moreau wrote, “There might be, however, discussions on how the Games can further help increase the popularity of the sport so that we see a wider spread of strong teams and less disparity between the men and women’s tournaments.”

One suggestion put forth by The Hockey News writer Ken Campbell is to better use the training potential of the five teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

“How about reserving four or five roster spots per team for import players? The ones who are displaced could then go to Europe and play in their leagues to raise the level of competition,” he wrote, adding that North America could import more coaches to work there permanently.

A question put to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League on whether this is under consideration was not answered by publication time.

Convincing U.S. colleges to take more foreign players—since those teams approach the game with a “professional attitude”—was another option Campbell suggested.

Hockey Canada didn’t respond Thursday (a spokesperson said they were busy with the gold-medal game).

What do you think Canada’s hockey leagues could do to help improve international competitiveness in the sport? Tell us in the comments section below.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published Feb. 20 but has been updated with comment from the IOC and CBC’s preliminary online audience data.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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