US silver medalist hopeful women’s hockey will continue to grow

USA forward Kelli Stack (16) skates past Canada forward Rebecca Johnston (6) and defenseman Tara Watchorn (27) in a women's ice hockey preliminary round game during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Shayba Arena.

Richard Mackson

The 2014 Olympic games in Sochi have concluded, and, unfortunately, some of the most popular athletes who battled for glory are some you may never see again. Particularly when it comes to women’s hockey.

"I read our gold medal game was second most-viewed event behind the Super Bowl," said Team USA women’s hockey forward, and Ohio native, Kelli Stack.

The Feb. 20 women’s hockey gold medal game between Team Canada and Team USA displayed arguably some of the most exciting hockey in recent years. The U.S. women took a 2-0 lead into the third period before Team Canada tied the game with under a minute to go and sent the match into overtime. A Marie-Philip Poulin goal ultimately sealed the gold medal for the Canadians in front of a packed arena in Sochi.

According to NBC, its broadcast of the noon game averaged 4.9 million viewers to rank as the most-watched hockey game in the U.S., excluding Stanley Cup Finals, since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics men’s gold medal game.

"I never thought people around the world would be watching us play," Stack said.

The unfortunate reality is, they likely never will again. The Olympic games are the highlight of a female hockey player’s career. Unlike their male counterparts, female Olympic hockey players return to a life less ordinary. No NHL contracts, no paychecks, and no nationally televised games greet them when they return to home ice.

People will talk about that game for a long, long time — it was a great hockey game.

Kelli Stack on the gold medal game

For most female players, collegiate hockey marks the end of the road for their career. Some athletes may find a path internationally, or with a small league like the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) but even the latter only provides money to cover ice time, some gear and travel. It currently does not provide salaries to players.

"When we play, we’re doing it because we love it, not because were getting paid millions of dollars," Stack said. "It’s a special thing — we do everything that NHL players do but we don’t see the money."

Nate Handrahan is in his third year coaching the Ohio State Women’s hockey team and he compares the end of his players’ careers to a mourning process. According to Handrahan, many male hockey players can find some sort of opportunity to play the game after college, but the same chances just don’t exist for women.

"It’s never more evident and real than when we hit senior weekend," Handrahan said. "The reality is that there are players who, when they are done with their college career, have to stop doing something they’ve loved their whole lives."

Olympians with Ohio ties suffer heartbreaking finishes

Not only does the lack of professional hockey opportunities mean there aren’t ways for women athletes to pursue their passion, it can mean a lost opportunity for the development of the game itself.

"What troubles me is that we know on a development curve that players don’t reach their peak until they reach the 23-25 age range," Handrahan said. "So we’re talking about players in college that could be better than they are now but we’ll never know – who are we missing out on?"

The reasons why the women’s game doesn’t garner more attention elude both Stack and Handrahan.

"I think people have misconceptions because (hockey) is such a physical sport," Stack said. "People see it as ‘a man’s sport.’"

Handrahan acknowledges that the rule differences between the men and women’s game demand a slightly different strategy be employed, but he believes the women’s game exhibits more skill and that was obvious in the Olympic games. He ultimately sees development of the women’s game after college as a bit of a chicken and egg debate.

"Russia was a great example of how full the seats were. Talk about demand – it’s there," Handrahan said. "But unless there’s someone able to provide the money and the marketing, you can’t believe there will be professional outlets for women hockey players."

Kelli Stack’s shot toward an empty Canada net came this close to sealing the deal for a U.S. gold medal.

But while many women are being forced to hang up their skates, Stack is optimistic about growing the game and she has some ideas on how to keep up the buzz generated by the Olympics.

"Now is the time to keep growing our sport," Stack said. "I think it would be awesome if they could set something up prior to the Olympic year like a three-game series between the U.S. and Canada with one game in the U.S. and two in Canada."

Handrahan feels his responsibility as a college coach, and a father to three daughters, to grow the game. He looks for opportunities to develop young girls and help them get involved with the sport sooner. Like Stack, he credits USA Hockey with the programs they are putting in place and he is encouraged by talk that the NHL is looking at the women’s game.

"The female player population continues to grow," Handrahan said. "It’s moving so quickly that we need to think about structure and think about the things that will allow more little girls to play and develop at the younger levels to be college ready."

While Stack isn’t sure if perceptions of the women’s game will ever change, she’s showing the same determination off the ice as she does on it by doing her part.

"I plan on using my title to help grow the sport — to do camps and clinics," Stack said. "Maybe I don’t influence (girls) to play hockey, but maybe I can influence them to follow their passion."

She can certainly use her storied experience from the 2014 Olympic Games to craft a positive message. Now that a few weeks have passed, Stack is reflective on the impact and importance of the final game of the Olympic tournament. She continues to believe that the Americans were the better team.

"We outplayed them and we had the gold medal in our hands for 59 minutes," Stack said. "It’s heartbreaking to know we were so close."

While the loss still stings, Stack has found one silver lining in the outcome.

"Looking back now, had we won, the game might not have been remembered as it is now," Stack said. "People will talk about that game for a long, long time — it was a great hockey game."