Monday, 12 November 2018

United States top guns in women’s hockey

4 Nations Cup shows Canada has some work to do

The U.S. team skates away with the 4 Nations Cup.
    At the moment, women’s hockey on the world stage belongs to the United States.
    If the 4 Nations Cup tournament that wrapped up last Saturday in Saskatoon did anything, it reinforced the U.S.A. is still great. The U.S. posted a perfect 4-0 record at the event held last Tuesday to Saturday at the SaskTel Centre that featured the senior national women’s teams from Canada, Finland and Sweden.
    In Saturday’s final, the States claimed a sound 5-2 victory over Canada. During the gold medal match, the U.S. transitioned up and down the ice better than Canada did and looked more polished on the power play and penalty kill units even with Canada scoring a power-play goal.
    The U.S. can play physical, but their finesse style of play was really something to behold. They have a really fine hockey team.
    The U.S. victory in the gold medal final doesn’t come as a surprise. They have taken the last four world championship tournaments and captured gold over Canada at the last Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, held this past February.
Brianna Decker is the veteran leader for the U.S.
    Canada’s last win at a major tournament championship game against the U.S. was at the 4 Nations Cup in 2014 held in Kamloops, B.C. The U.S. has won the last four consecutive 4 Nations Cup tournaments. 
    At the moment, it doesn’t appear the U.S. is going to fall off the mountaintop any time soon. Their team is stocked with a great group of veterans like captain Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Hannah Brandt, Amanda Kessel, Kacey Bellamy, Emily Pfalzer and netminder Alex Rigsby.
    Besides the veterans, the U.S. showcased an impressive crop of youngsters like Sydney Brodt, Melissa Samoskevich, Cayla Barnes, Mikaela Gardner and Maddie Rooney.
    While women’s hockey between U.S. and Canada is one of the greatest rivalries in sports, it is hard to place a villain card on any of the U.S. players, if you are a Canadian hockey fan that meets the U.S. players.
    The members of the U.S. team came off very genuine and gave a feeling of being good persons. They are quietly confident but not arrogant. They also play with heart.
    When you have those intangibles on top playing the sport soundly on a technical level, your hockey team becomes incredibly tough to beat.
Hannah Brandt is one of the U.S.’s veteran standouts.
    In another twist that Canadians might not realize, the U.S. players value having success in the head-to-head games with Canada just like the Canadian players do. Victories in those contests are meaningful and are the things dreams are made of.
    That realization was seen in the face of Brodt, who is a 20-year-old right-winger playing in her first games ever with the U.S. senior women’s team at the 4 Nations Cup.
    Last Wednesday in the preliminary round encounter with Canada, Brodt scored with winning goal with 1:48 remaining in the third period to break a 1-1 tie and give the U.S. a 2-1 victory. The winning goal came against legendary Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados, and Brodt lived through that moment in just her second game with the U.S. senior national women’s team.
    During a post-game interview after that contest, she had a huge smile and a warm glow was radiating from her face.
Sydney Brodt turned heads at the 4 Nations Cup.
    Brodt said she scored due to being in the right place at the right time.
    Still, you could almost sense she was still processing what happened and might have been in disbelief about what actually took place, because it was a dream moment that came in her second game with the U.S. senior women’s national team.
    The U.S. players likely have an even bigger bond after fighting for and successfully receiving better compensation from U.S.A. Hockey in late March of 2017. Actually, it appears that episode resulted in an even stronger U.S. women’s program overall with a larger “all in” buy in from everyone.
    At the moment, the U.S. has set an incredibly high bar for Canada to get up to. The roles were reversed for a lengthy time between the two rivals, when Canada held the upper hand through much of the 1990s and the 2000s.
    While it may sound strange, Canada might not be that far out in reaching that bar. Veteran bench boss Perry Pearn guides Canada’s senior national women’s team as head coach, and the 67-year-old has seen it all during his time in the game.
Hilary Knight is still at the top of her game with the U.S.
    Pearn seems to have a good handle on the technical side of things on what Canada needs to do to counter what the U.S. does in its game. Following the gold medal loss last Saturday, Pearn mentioned technical areas the Canadian side improved in from the preliminary round encounter. He said small breakdowns snowballed to result in the sound U.S. win.
    Pearn said he believed his side didn’t quit, and he was correct in all of his assessments.
Canadian fans saw what they expected to see from veterans like Marie-Philip Poulin, Natalie Spooner, Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston, Melodie Daoust, Laura Fortino and Szabados.
    What was most impressive was the effort Canada received from its youngsters, who were arguably the team’s best players at the 4 Nations Cup. 
U.S. women’s hockey victory celebrations are a common sight.
    Offensive defender Jaime Bourbonnais, who recently turned 20-years-old, played in her first week with Canada’s senior women’s national team, and she looked like a veteran already. Of course, everyone took notice of the rocket shot power-play goal she ripped past Rigsby in the gold medal final.
    Canada received sound performances from the likes of Sarah Fillier, Loren Gabel, Kristin O’Neill, Micah Zandee-Hart and Emerance Maschmeyer.
    The Canadian team does have the ingredients to turn the tables on the U.S. in the future.
    It also should be noted that, while women’s hockey on the world stage has been traditionally a two-horse race between Canada and the U.S., you still have to be aware that the Russian women’s team is starting to make some noise and could be poised for a rise.
    Women’s hockey on the world stage does have some interesting storylines developing. With that said, the United States are the top guns until someone finally beats them in a major tournament final.

Attendance 4 Nations Cup elephant

There were some empty seats at the SaskTel Centre at 4 Nations Cup.
    The biggest elephant in the room at the 4 Nations Cup was hard to ignore.
    When you caught games at the SaskTel Centre, it was hard to not see the empty seats, and only the rink’s lower bowl, which is believed to seat around 5,800, was open. No official attendance figures were released for the event.
    Crowds in games that didn’t involve Canada were sparse, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say those games might have reached 1,000 people. The lower bowl did fill up more, when Canada played especially for the preliminary round and gold medal game clashes with the United States.
Swedish supporters cheer on their team at 4 Nations Cup.
    Still, it was easy to navigate your way through the rink during the games between Canada and the U.S., and spots where groups of seats sat empty were noticeable. For the gold medal game, it would be safe to say the lower bowl was about 70 per cent full.
    To be fair, attendance at sporting events across Canada appears to be down unless you are an NHL team. Attendance at sporting events in Saskatoon has generally been down from past years except for those heading to University of Saskatchewan Huskies hockey games to see the brand new Merlis Belsher Place.
    The obvious is just being stated here, and there are no quick solution. It seemed like most of the people that are involved with female hockey in the province did turn out to see some part of the 4 Nations Cup. 
    With the four competing teams featuring players that played in the last Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, held this past February, it would have been great to see more casual type fans out at the games.

Lieffers aces tough call in bronze medal game

Referee Cianna Lieffers was in position call Finland’s bronze medal winner.
    Saskatoon area based referee Cianna Lieffers had a highlight moment nailing a critical call during the 4 Nations Cup.
    In the third period of the bronze medal game last Saturday, Finland and Sweden were locked in a 2-2 tie. Finland went ahead 3-2 at the 8:36 mark of the frame during a frantic moment of action.
    During the scoring play, Finnish centre Tanja Niskanen drove hard to the Sweden’s net and was hacked down by a Swedish defender and slid into netminder Maria Omberg.
    Omberg managed to keep the puck out of the goal with her glove hand, but it sat loose in the crease of the net.
Cianna Lieffers worked a number of games at 4 Nations Cup.
    Finnish left-winger Annina Rajahuhta pounced on the loose puck knocking it into the goal to put Finland in front.
    There was a short protest by Sweden due to the fact Omberg couldn’t react to the rebound, because she had Niskanen sitting on top of her, but the winning tally stood up.
    Lieffers, who is originally from Cudworth, Sask., was the referee nearest to the play, and the 24-year-old got the call right. The goal had to stand, because had Niskanen not been knocked down by a Swedish defender, she wouldn’t have crashed into Omberg.
    Besides getting that part of the call right, Lieffers was in perfect position behind the net to see Rajahunta score. Lieffers called the goal immediately.
    That marker ultimately stood up as the winner in a 4-2 victory for Finland.
    Lieffers skated away with the satisfaction of getting a tough call correct, when emotions were running high in a game where the winning side claimed a medal.

Injured Clark hit with the biggest untrue rumour

Emily Clark injured her left leg.
  It appears the highest level of women’s hockey can be hit by the rumour mill like the NHL and WHL.
    Arguably the biggest untrue rumour of the week involved Saskatoon product Emily Clark. Clark is a 22-year-old forward with Canada’s senior national women’s team and an alumna of the Saskatoon Stars female midget AAA team.
    She helped Canada win a silver medal at the Winter Olympics held last February in PyeongChang, South Korea.
    She missed the 4 Nations Cup having injured her left leg while playing for the University of Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Her injury occurred in the opening minutes of a Badgers 4-2 home win on Oct. 13 against the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.
    Apparently, there were a couple of fans at the event that didn’t believe the injury news. There was talk that Clark had become pregnant down in Madison, Wisconsin.
    It wasn’t the largest rumour out there, but it was something that was heard around the rink. Of course, it is not true.
    It also seem crazy that rumour got any traction at all. Clark made appearances at the Saskatoon Blades home game on Nov. 1 and the Stars home game on Nov. 3, and she had a walking boot visible on her left leg in both of those appearances.
    Players in the NHL and WHL are often dogged by various untrue rumours that are out there. By human nature, it is going to happen at the highest level of women’s hockey.
    Pretty much the best way for a player to deal with those rumours is to debunk them with teammates and have a chuckle over what you hear.

Media hit and miss at 4 Nations Cup

U.S. team members pose for media pictures with the 4 Nations Cup.
    During the 4 Nations Cup, it was easy to see the effects of the budget cut era of the Canadian media industry.
    A decade ago, an event like the 4 Nations Cup would have attracted a sizable medial gathering. In the current budget cut era of the Canadian media industry, the media presence was hit and miss at the 4 Nations Cup.
    During the first day of games, most of the outlets from Saskatoon cycled through to make an appearance. After the first day, there was an average of one or two media people at the early game that didn’t feature Canada.
    Canada’s clash with Finland last Friday night drew maybe only four media members. All the Saskatoon outlets were represented in the two encounters that featured Canada playing the United States.
    The only out of town members covering the event appeared to be one representative from The Canadian Press and one from the International Ice Hockey Federation outside of the crew that was involved with TSN.
    Still, it was good TSN showed the Friday night clash between Canada and Finland and Saturday’s two medal games on television.
    In 2016, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity released a study regarding the connection between women and sport in Canada. A couple of the facts revolved around media coverage.
    An analysis was done on Canada’s primary national sports networks in English and French in 2014. The study said only four per cent of the coverage on those networks was dedicated to women’s sports and over half of that number was dedicated to coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Media members work to get pictures of the U.S. team celebrations.
    A study was done on the Saturday sports section front pages in two of Canada’s highest circulated national newspapers from June 2008 to May 2010 and June 2013 to May 2015. Over those time frames, 5.1 per cent of the coverage was dedicated to women’s sports.
    Of course, that study only considered a small sampling size of the print industry.
    With that noted, TSN’s coverage of the 4 Nations Cup goes towards the time the media in Canada spends covering women’s sports.
    I covered all eight games at the 4 Nations Cup for my blog, because I wanted to. With the 4 Nations Cup being a toured in event, I didn’t expect to get many page views, because with being based in Saskatoon, I spent a very small amount of time covering international women’s hockey.
    That coverage is usually limited to local area athletes heading off to play for national teams or attend national team hockey camps.
    My only post that did well was a feature on Team Canada offensive-defender Jaime Bourbonnais. The page views for the rest of my 4 Nations Cup posts were some of the lowest page view totals I have had since starting this blog in late August of 2014.
    During the overall history of my blog, the majority of my top viewed posts involve women’s sports and female athletes, so the audience is there.
    Unfortunately, female sports still face an uphill battle with regards to media coverage. Female sports teams and athletes have to run with and make miles with seemly any coverage that comes their way, and if the coverage is deemed good, you have to really get the most out of it.
    It is almost like when the rock band Bon Jovi started out. If there was a ladder hanging over the crowd, someone in the band climbed it.

Personally, 4 Nations Cup was a great time

Team Canada celebrates Jaime Bourbonnais’s power-play goal.
    On a personal side, I have to say I enjoyed covering the 4 Nations Cup in Saskatoon.
    It marked the first time I have covered an international women’s hockey tournament featuring senior national teams. The players from Canada, the United States, Finland and Sweden were super to deal with. They all came off and genuine and likeable.
    The staffs from all the competing teams were great to deal with. The communications staff at Hockey Canada were super to work with.
    During the tournament, it was cool to see so many people attend games who are involved with female hockey in Saskatchewan. I enjoyed seeing a number of faces from all over the province during games at the SaskTel Centre.
    Most of the rink staffers from games involving the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades were out reprising their identical roles at 4 Nations Cup. They allowed the game day experience to go on seamlessly.
Shannon Szabados makes a save in goal for Canada.
    Covering the tournament’s eight games over a five day period will be something I always remember, because it was unique to anything else that I have done. Now two days after the gold medal final has been played, I do have a bit of that natural down feeling, because the 4 Nations Cup is over.
    It might sound weird, but you should have that feeling if you had fun working an event. I had a great time covering the 4 Nations Cup.

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