CHICAGO -- Kicking women's hockey out of the Olympics would be a "huge mistake," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday.
Twenty years after the first world championships, women's hockey is still a developing sport throughout much of the world. The best way to inspire future players and encourage national federations to devote resources to the women's game is through major events like the Olympics, Bettman said.
"My own view is it's very important to support women's hockey, to maintain its presence at the Olympics. The way women's hockey will get bigger and better around the world is if there's an inspiration of excellence that people can strive for," Bettman said at the Beyond Sport Summit, designed to promote the use of sports to create social change.
"I think it would be a huge mistake for the IOC or the [International Ice Hockey Federation] to consider doing anything that diminishes the role of women's hockey," he said.
No other country comes close to Canada and the United States in the women's game. That disparity was glaring at the Vancouver Olympics, where the North American powerhouses outscored their opponents 86-4 on their way to the gold medal game. Canada beat the Americans to win its third straight gold medal; the two teams have also played in every final at the world championships.
A lack of competitive balance was one of the reasons cited when softball was eliminated as an Olympic sport, and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned in Vancouver that the rest of the world has eight years to catch up or women's hockey could face a similar fate.
"If you look at Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, they have done an excellent job at the grassroots level of being inclusive of children of all genders, from all areas, making sure that there's officiating and coaches and clinics and all the things necessary to do it," Bettman said. "It can be replicated."
But it takes time -- and commitment, former U.S. women's soccer star Julie Foudy said.
Players from other countries often tell Foudy it was the 1999 women's World Cup that convinced their federations to spend the money necessary to develop a competitive team. The 1999 World Cup in the United States drew huge crowds, including 90,185 for the final at the Rose Bowl, a record for a women's sporting event.
"That was the catalyst. They saw this event and said, 'Wow, why aren't we doing something with our women?' That's not a one-off story, that happened all the time," Foudy said. "The Olympics have this incredible opportunity to provide a window of exposure to these sports. Sure, maybe they don't have hundreds and hundreds of countries playing. But when a little girl is watching that and they pick up a hockey stick because of it? You have to say, let's keep these."
Bettman also said the NHL is in no rush to make a decision on the use of professional players at the Sochi Olympics.
The NHL has concerns about the benefits to the league of releasing its players for the Olympic tournament, particularly when the Games are not in a North American time zone. During an Olympic year, the league has to go on hiatus at the peak of its season, when there is no baseball or football to compete with. Players often return from the Games tired, and some have picked up injuries.
While there was huge interest in the Vancouver tournament -- the men's gold medal game between Canada and the United States was the most-watched hockey game in the U.S. in 30 years -- Sochi is eight hours ahead of the East Coast. That means North American fans will have to get up before dawn to watch some games.
"That doesn't mean we're not going to do it," Bettman said. "And maybe I make the mistake of being too candid, trying to give people a sense of the issues, that these are some of the negatives. It doesn't mean we're not going. But if you're going to make this decision, you've got to at least understand what you're getting into."
The NHL is also exploring allowing games to be streamed live to in-market mobile devices, allowing fans to watch their home team's games live on handheld devices like an iPhone or BlackBerry. The regional sports networks that own the broadcast rights to the individual teams need to be protected, but Bettman said he is hopeful the NHL can find a way to make it work.
"Ultimately, content is going to be available everywhere on every platform," Bettman said. "All sports leagues are going to have to figure out what the best policies are going to be in terms of balancing local and national rights. That's something we're looking at."