Panel: Pro league will raise women's game

TORONTO -- On Wednesday night, a friend of Peter Elander's joked that he could sleep in because there was nothing important on the World Hockey Summit agenda Thursday morning.

"He said it in a joking way to get me agonized," the head coach of Sweden's national women's hockey team said. "It's just the attitude to joke about it, that women's hockey isn't important."

His friend did show up, and heard Elander and others on a panel discussing the future of women's hockey.

But the exchange reinforces the issues that confront women's hockey.

There are two international behemoths -- Canada and the United States -- and everyone else. Some nations, like Finland, have made strides, but there is still too great a gap to see the sport sustained at the Olympic level over the long haul. That is why many who believe in the sport say a women's professional league is critical to raising the level of play around the world.

It may not happen before the 2014 Sochi Games, but Elander warned it better happen quickly.

"Sochi is short time away, but if we, after Sochi, don't have a best-of-the-best league in North America, the gap is getting bigger and bigger," said Elander, who is also an associate coach with the University of North Dakota women's team.

If there is going to be such a league, it would seem to be a natural fit that the NHL would have some sort of role, whether it's offering assistance on league infrastructure, financial support or some kind of connection to NHL teams.

The league has had some discussions with women's hockey officials in recent months. While it's too early to say what form the NHL's assistance in such an ambitious project might take, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was enthusiastic about it.

"We're all for it. We're big fans of women's hockey," Daly said Thursday. "We want to be helpful."

Still, it seems like a giant leap of faith to suggest that women's hockey could sustain its own professional league, regardless of how modest its goals may be; it has a nominal profile in North America except in Olympic years and next to no profile everywhere else at any time.

One of the issues is assessing the level of play itself. The Finnish women's national team, which won a bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games, will play a full slate of exhibition games against midget-aged boys (ages 16-18). Will a paying public in North America shell out even a modest amount to see that level of hockey?

"I don't think we need to go down that road. We have a product," said U.S. women's coach Mark Johnson, a member of the "Miracle on Ice" team in 1980.

The theory behind how a league of the world's best women players solves the competitive gap goes something like this. Canada and the United States are able to spend exponentially more to prepare for events and, as a result, dominate the field. Only Sweden has managed to knock off either of the world powers (it beat Team USA in a semifinal shootout at the 2006 Games) and play for an international tournament championship (it was pummeled by Canada in the gold-medal game).

Elander pointed out that Sweden's national program has a budget that is half that of his university team at North Dakota.

If, however, the world's best played together, prepared together and developed together in an elite league, they would be able to share those experiences with their national teams and the gap could diminish.

"I think we have to take baby steps. I think we have to do it the right way," said Canadian star Hayley Wickenheiser, who is expected to take part in her fourth Olympic tournament in 2014.

The lopsided scores of many games have displeased Olympic officials in recent years, and the International Olympic Committee has in the past removed sports (softball, for one) where there was a gross imbalance in the level of play between competing nations.

"It's a pure math thing," Elander said. "If you don't have the players in the same league, don't expect close tournaments."

Whether it's a women's pro league or somehow coaxing national federations to cough up more money for facilities and training (there are only six arenas available to women in Russia and China), something needs to happen or the women's game runs the risk of becoming even more marginalized.