How Good is Women’s Hockey?

Posted on February 26, 2010

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Pretty good, that’s how good. The gold-medal game, like all of the games I can remember between the only two consistently-elite women’s teams — Canada and the USA — was certainly a thrill from start to finish.

But when we ask, “how good is it?” we usually mean, “how does it compare to men’s hockey?” This is a hard question to answer; but not impossible.

It is always difficult to compare the quality of play of teams that do not get to play each other, or even to play any teams in common. We couldn’t judge how good Soviet men’s hockey was until we watched them battle the best in the NHL to a virtual draw in the famous 8-game “Summit” series in 1972.

It is always something of a mug’s game to compare great teams from two different eras. The strategic elements of the sport evolve, and so do the skills and conditioning levels of players. But this is essentially what we have to do, in part, to compare women’s hockey to men’s.

I submit that by-and-large, the quality of play of the two teams in the gold-medal game on Thursday night was better than what one would find in a typical NHL game in, say, the 1960s. Or to put it another way, if there was a way to teletransport the Canadian women’s team back to, say, 1960, or perhaps even 1970, then I think it would not be a crazy to bet on them to beat an NHL team (let’s assume the game is played with the women’s rules prohibiting punishing body checks… and fighting). Moreover, if someone wanted to put in the effort, I think we could actually bring hard evidence to bear on this question. Here is what we might find:

  • on average the women now have better shots, and on average they have much better slap shots, than men did 40 or 50 years ago. As late as the early 70s most men did not have an effective slap shot, and those who did tended to need a wind up that makes Tim Tebow’s throwing motion look like a model of efficiency.
  • I suspect every one of the women is in much better shape than anyone on a typical NHL team in the 1960s, when they did virtually no conditioning off season or off the ice (and many players actually smoked a pack a day or more). They would be measurably better in many agility drills, and I suspect many could bench-press more than the weaker of the men back in the day.
  • I suspect the average woman on the top teams is both a better skater, and a faster skater, than the average NHL player 40 years ago. Speed could be easily measured by analyzing game films…
  • The best women goalies today may well be better than any male goalie who played before 1970. Goaltending has become a science, where it used to be a mixture of reflex, courage, and stupidity (especially in the era, which lasted into the 1970s, when wearing a mask was considered unmanly). The best women today can and do play goalie in men’s leagues at the junior, college, and minor-league levels. Manon Rhéaume played for the farm team of the Tampa Bay Lightening and started in one pre-season game for the NHL team.
  • And yet, despite the high quality of goaltending (which was very much on display in the gold-medal game), the skaters are able to score. So they must be pretty good too. Certainly capable of scoring bountifully on goalies of their father’s or grandfather’s generation.
  • The strategic aspect of hockey is vastly superior these days, and the women have largely mastered these formations and plays. They would dazzle a 1960s men’s team that had never imagined such possibilities.

(My “evidence” for some of these claims comes from watching the DVDs of the aforementioned 8-game Canada-USSR series from 1972. One cannot but be struck by how slow the players skated, how weak most of their shots were, and how much they relied on unsophisticated and now thoroughly beatable strategies. An unobstructed backhand from 20 feet out was considered a viable scoring option!)

Here are a few other things we know. In addition to the goalies playing on equal terms with men in leagues that feed the NHL and other elite leagues, at least one forward, Hayley Wickenheiser, has played successfully in 2nd- and 3rd-division minor-league teams in Europe.

We also know that the US women’s team has played a number of games against elite men’s (boys’?) high school teams, winning some and losing some. That’s probably as good an indication as any of where women’s hockey ranks overall in skill level. Of course, most of the above comparisons with NHL hockey in the 1960s should hold for elite male teenage players as well.

So it is not a total mug’s game to compare the quality of women’s and men’s hockey. Nor is it outrageous to think there should be substantial overlap in quality levels over time. After all, in sports measured by distance and time, this is uncontroversial. We know that Paula Radcliffe’s women’s marathon record of 2:15.25, set in 2003, was not surpassed by men until 1958. Flo-Jo’s 100m sprint record or 10.49, set in 1988, would have been the men’s record as late as 1921.

And we are now fully aware that there is very little difference between the on-ice celebrations of boys and girls when they win the big one.

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Posted in: Olympics, ranking