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The issue of bodychecking in women's hockey

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The Canadian Press
9/6/2009 9:06:29 PM
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VANCOUVER - The women's hockey community generally agrees, with a few exceptions, that their sport isn't ready for bodychecking.

Even players who would like to try it feel that way.

Anyone who watches international women's hockey sees plenty of body contact along the boards as players battle for the puck. But bodychecking in open ice isn't allowed and incurs a minor penalty.

The countries who play women's hockey have never asked the International Ice Hockey Federation to institute bodychecking because they've never felt strongly enough about it.

But players don't mind kicking the tires on the idea. Many were in bodychecking leagues with boys growing up. They've often thought about how it would work in the women's game.

"Would I love to check? Sure, oh yeah that would be great," U.S. defenceman Angela Ruggiero said. "I'd love to line up a forward coming down with her head down any day.

"I'm also one of the biggest players on our roster. It's better for the game that there's no checking. There's more flow to the game, there's more skill involved."

Introducing bodychecking opens up a myriad of issues: limiting the size of players who can participate, fear of injury scaring parents from enrolling their daughters, rising insurance costs and completely changing the face of the women's game as it is trying to gain a foothold with sports fans.

Next to a goal, a big hit elicits the biggest response at games. The physical aspect of hockey is part of its entertainment. The Canadian and Swedish women threw a few punches at each other in Saturday's semifinal of the Hockey Canada Cup and that drew appreciation from GM Place.

Women's hockey struggles to get bottoms in seats. There is the argument that the spectacle of women playing a more physical brand of hockey would sell more tickets.

"You're going to have that portion of the spectators that would definitely love to see women going out there and killing each other," Ruggiero said.

"If you're looking to sell tickets, maybe you'd want to increase bodychecking. If you're looking to grow the sport in general, you might want to keep it out."

There's a huge grey area between body contact and bodychecking, which makes the women's game difficult to call for officials. Some hits go uncalled and then a larger player will go to the penalty box because a smaller player ran into her.

Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser says bodychecking deserves consideration because rules would be more defined.

"It would be interesting to see if it would make the game easier to officiate and if it would cut down on the amount of so-so penalties that would happen in a game because a bigger player knocked a smaller player down," she said.

"At the same time, you'd have to re-educate the entire faculty of women's hockey on how to give a hit and take a hit because I think there would be quite a few injuries with it."

The women market their game as distinct from men's with more emphasis on skating, passing and playmaking than on brute force. If bodychecking was allowed, what makes the women's game unique?

"If it was allowed, the women's game would be like the men's game, but with a slower pace," Finland captain Emma Laaksonen said. "When bodychecking is not allowed, there is more skill that players can use, so that's why I think it's good to keep the rules the way they are."

But Swedish coach Peter Elander is an advocate of bodychecking in women's hockey.

"In soccer, there is one rule book for men and women," Elander said. "I'd like to see two teams try it in an experiment."

Players in this week's Hockey Canada Cup ranged in size from five feet to six foot one and 130 pounds to 187 pounds. Physical size is less of a factor in women's hockey than in men's, but bodychecking would change that

"Any time you put the physicality in, then size starts to become a factor," U.S. coach Mark Johnson said. "There's contact out there, but if you give someone the right to come and knock you over and take the puck, I just think it takes some of the beauty of what we have (out)."

Added Ruggiero: "That's the beauty of our game right now. You're not limited by size or shape. Mothers aren't afraid to sign up their little girl fearing that she's going to get taken out."

Once you get past the top four countries in the world in women's hockey - the U.S., Canada, Finland and Sweden - enrolment of female players drops to less than 500 in most countries.

Hockey Canada director of female hockey Julie Healy says the sport can't afford to give young girls reasons not to play.

"Numbers will drop in countries where they're struggling to go up," she said. "Lower numbers in countries means less countries playing and that puts the game on the international stage at risk."

There's mixed opinion among coaches and players as to whether bodychecking was allowed in the first women's world championship in Ottawa in 1990 and then taken out for subsequent tournaments.

Some believe there was, but IIHF vice-president Murray Costello, who was head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association at the time, says there wasn't bodychecking. The decision to keep it out of the women's game was deliberate, he added.

"We felt the worst possible happening in the first serious competition of the world's best female players would be to have a female player carried off the ice on a stretcher," Costello told The Canadian Press in an e-mail.

"My opinion . . . is that the women's game is a skill game coming much, much closer to the game that is written in our IIHF rule book, than any of the men's efforts, and we should not change it."

Healy says the Canadian women have long-term disability insurance coverage through Hockey Canada this winter while they are living and training together in Calgary in preparation for the Olympics.

The addition of bodychecking makes insuring them more difficult. NHL players have million-dollar contracts providing benchmarks for what their careers are worth. The women don't.

"When hockey is over for these ladies, they've got to live a life," Canadian head coach Melody Davidson said. "If you're going to have bodychecking at this level you have to provide some type of compensation in case they can't live a full life afterwards and I don't know that we can based on the fact there's no pro leagues for women."

 

Hockey (Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
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