Neal: Gold medal battle makes me want more women’s hockey

BEIJING — Forward Marie Philip-Poulin scored in the second period in the women’s hockey gold medal game on Wednesday, and Canada led 3-0 and threatened to win in a blowout, just as it had in the almost every game in the Olympic tournament.

The American team would not allow that to happen. Hilary Knight scored a shorthanded goal before the second intermission, then Team USA threw all they had at Canada in the third period. You could say that the Americans should have played with this intensity from the start. But Team USA scored a second goal on a 6-on-4 power play in the final minute after pulling out their goalie.

That would be the whole score for Wednesday, as Team USA ran out of time. Canada won a well-deserved Olympic gold medal after the entertaining final game between the two best teams in the world. The United States had to watch Canada celebrate at the Wukesong Sports Center after losing to their northern neighbors in a gold medal match for the fourth time in six games.

We’ve learned a lot about these rivals in the weeks and months leading up to Wednesday’s showdown. The talent of each team. How fierce a competitor Knight is. How explosive the Canadian front line of Poulin, Brianne Jenner and Sarah Nurse is. How American Kendall Coyne Schofield is one of the fastest skaters around. How Canadian Sarah Fillier is a goal-scoring machine. How USA’s Abbey Murphy won’t back down from anyone.

It was passionate. And now it’s over.

The women’s Olympic tournament remains the flagship event of this sport. And it’s disturbing to type. Watching the pace, flair, grit and face-washing that unfold in these games, you wonder how and where these players stay sharp until they’re called up to the national team.

Like in a professional league?

A stable structure was difficult to establish. There are two rival groups in North America: the five-team Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and the six-team Premier Hockey Federation (formerly known as the National Women’s Hockey League). Coyne-Schofield, who is linked to the PWHPA, became emotional when asked if the last two weeks of the tournament could be used to develop the game.

“We have to keep pushing for visibility,” said Coyne-Schofield, who works with the PWHPA as it tries to establish a professional league where players can earn a living. “We have to keep fighting for women’s hockey because it’s not good enough. You can’t finish after the Olympics.”

What’s been eye-opening about this particular Olympic hockey tournament is the role that college hockey in the United States plays in providing opportunity. Over 100 former college players participated in the tournament. Each team had at least one college player. As in other sports, there is a pool of college talent to tap into, a good sign for women’s football.

Hilary Knight is a professional professional league – as long as the infrastructure reflects it.

“When you have the opportunity to earn a living wage and be able to do that day in and day out, without having a second job, without having to juggle, you know, where the programming is going to come from, where you are going to train, who is going to find work. ice time, who’s gonna be your physio, your massage, you know?” said Knight, who played in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, NWHL and PWHPA. “All these other things that you don’t necessarily see, just when you see us on TV, but when these things are taken care of, this game will be so much better for it.”

It takes a bankroll. The 25-year-old WNBA has transformed into a viable league with nationally televised games and its own galaxy of stars. The NBA helped fund the league, while suffering losses. But there is no indication that the WNBA is going away.

The NHL is open to discussing supporting a women’s pro league, but there’s a catch. He would listen if the PWHPA and the Premier Hockey Federation approach with a joint proposal. It is not known if the parties even meet on the subject.

So I’m not the only one wondering if there’s an outlet for female hockey players when there’s no Olympic tournament or world championship. USA-Canada is must-have television. More and more young women are crossing the pond to play in American colleges. Women’s Olympic team coaches agree that the game is growing. There seems to be an appetite. And the players believe it’s time.

We shouldn’t have to wait four years for this kind of spotlight on elite women’s hockey.

Catherine J. Martinez