Ben Smith skates in long, looping circles at the O’Maley Rink in Gloucester, Massachusetts, stick down, head up, eyes taking in the entire ice surface. O’Maley is Smith’s home ice, and the players he’s skating with on this late Tuesday night are older guys, a rag-tag, over-the-hill gang of rink rats. Not the type of player Smith is typically associated with. In the stands, there’s no one. Not a soul. Not the type of crowd Smith is accustomed to either.
On the job, Smith rubs elbows with world-class athletes - specifically, the members of the USA national women’s hockey team. He’s their coach. And the stands, particularly those at the Ice Palace in Salt Lake City last February’s Winter Olympics, are often teeming with fans, waving flags and shouting encouragement. However, it is exactly this setting, an empty old barn filled only with players drawn by the love of the game, that Smith hopes his players will always be able to enjoy.
“Women are going to be doing this 20 years from now,” says Smith, laughing. “When Cammi Granato gets to be 50, she’s likely to be in a rink some night, talking hockey after a good skate, and then heading out for a beer.”
At least that’s Smith’s dream. Women’s hockey has enjoyed a remarkable six-year run (which just so happens to coincide with Smith’s tenure behind the national team bench), highlighted by the United States women taking home gold at the 1998 Olympic Games in Japan and silver at the recent Salt Lake games. And although the 3-2 loss to Canada in the gold medal game still stings (“We missed capturing another moment that would have spearheaded growth even more,” says Smith), the silver lining is that the game put a prime-time spotlight on women’s hockey. The sport is witnessing almost geometric expansion – today, there are more than 40,000 girls playing in registered programs, compared to 6,000 in 1990.
“The speed of the game from a skating stand point has picked up, and the speed of the game in terms of puck movement has improved greatly,” he says. “The shooting skills of the players have dramatically changed. There are kids capable of shooting the puck much better – with a quicker release, better accuracy, more velocity. Off-ice strength and conditioning is part of the reason, but I think it’s a matter of access and repetition. There are more and more serious programs - even at the Division I level.”
The question now, of course, is where does the game go from here? Several obstacles threatened the continued growth of women’s hockey, ranging from the prevalence of rough play to imminent scheduling problems at the collegiate and international level to opportunities for older players.
Smith, who played for Gloucester High and Harvard University before embarking on a coaching career that spans the high school, college and national levels (both male and female), says women have a chance to showcase a better brand of hockey, with more emphasis on skill, and less on brutality. “People can watch our team play and get a sense for what the overall intent of the sport was originally,” he says. “It’s not for cracking guys in the head, or smashing them up against the glass.”
Though admitting that there are plenty of people who disagree with him, Smith advocates the no-check rule for women’s hockey. He points to Tara Mounsey, the rock solid defenseman who played boys’ high school hockey in New Hampshire, as an example of the ravages of the full-contact game. Mounsey, who has had multiple knee operations beginning in high school, admits she enjoys the physical game (“That’s just my style of play, and I refuse to change it. I stand my ground.”). Smith admires Mounsey’s warrior nature, but says it’s a shame to see her tremendous talent laid to waste by constant punishment.
Sadly, says Smith, hockey today favors body contact instead of skill, and he’s concerned that the women’s game could fall prey to the same mentality. “I’m not advocating dainty play,” he says. “I don’t want to sound chauvinistic, but there are physiological differences that people have to be aware of.” Noting that females in high school and college are far more susceptible to debilitating knee injuries, Smith says: “There are inherent problems. There’s going to be collisions, and physical contact. But I think within the parameters of the rules that are set for women’s hockey, skill should continue to be the determining factor of a player’s ability.”
“If you’re not good enough, it’s your fault. It’s not the ref’s fault. If the only way to stop Krissy Wendell on our team is to hook her or hold her, then go ahead and hook her and hold her. But it should be called, and now you’ve got to suffer the consequences.”
Smith says the NHL’s penchant for dump-and-chase hockey and over-emphasis on physical play has a trickle down effect that diminishes the game for younger players and coaches alike. He’d like to see rule changes (such as two-minute penalties where the player sits regardless of how many power play goals are scored, and 4-on-4 hockey for coincidental minors) that reward the more skillful teams. “But, remember, I’m in the minority here,” he says.
Another looming problem for older female players, and the national team specifically, says Smith, is a decision by the NCAA to piggyback the women’s Frozen Four hockey tournament with the men’s playoffs, starting in 2003. That decision, made without any input from the International Ice Hockey Federation, could put the women’s collegiate playoffs in direct conflict with the annual World Championships, and force players to choose between school and country, he says. Smith hopes a resolution is possible, but adds: “I don’t think the NCAA pays much attention to anyone but themselves. In fairness to them, I think they see this as an opportunity for collegiate women’s hockey. But, at some point, you’d think that the International Ice Hockey Federation would have gotten a call from the NCAA, saying ‘Hey, is there any way we could alleviate a conflict here.’ But that never happened.”
“The interesting thing is, this decision not only affects the United States, but there’s a tidal wave of international students,” says Smith. “You’ve got Canadian kids, Finnish kids, Swedish kids, Russian kids, German kids, who are getting attention. And now you’ve got the two major women’s events each year, outside of the Olympics, happening at the same time. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Finally, the biggest hurdle facing women who’ve completed their college eligibility is ice time. There are no established professional leagues on par with the basketball’s WNBA or soccer’s WUSA, and although girls’ hockey is growing, the numbers don’t come close to comparing with those sports. Canada has a “professional” league, the National Women’s Hockey League (www.nwhlhockey.com), that features a number of the Canadian national team players (“Cammi Granato may go play in Vancouver next year,” says Smith), but salaries are minimal. And while older players such as Granato, Katie King, Karyn Bye and Tricia Dunn came back to play for the opportunity to win gold again, on home ice, Smith doesn’t see the same attraction with the 2006 Winter Games in Italy.
“In a lot of cases, we’re almost turning the clock backwards to where the men were in 1952, ‘56, ‘60, ‘64, where the guys who were going to play on the Olympic team were going to be the guys who were coming out of college the spring before,” says Smith. “We seem to be heading in that direction.”
Smith acknowledges that his veteran players are familiar enough with the program to know how to train. “The only trouble they have is finding levels of competition where they can participate, he says. “In most cases, they have to play with a group of guys.” The Skate to Salt Lake Visa Victory Tour provided ample competition prior to the 2002 Games, but there’s no assurance of a similar tour spanning the 2005-2006 season. And there are financial concerns – while Smith believes that USA Hockey provides enough funding to support an international power, he's not forgetting the labor disputes of 2000.
“Our athletes work awfully hard, and they put a lot into their sport, and I think it’s difficult for them to see other athletes who don’t work any harder, playing in the WNBA or in women’s soccer,” he says.
In the meantime, Smith tries to keep momentum on his side. He continues to scout high school and college programs, evaluate talented newcomers, oversee training programs, and prepare his own teams for upcoming competitions, including the U-22 team set to play this August. And, when he can, he stills grabs the occasional pick-up skate.
“To me, hockey is one of those special games that you can play at almost any level, at any age. You can’t do that with too many other sports. I’m not looking for another football game to play in. I haven’t played since college, and I don’t want to get tackled. I don’t want to slide into second base. I’m in my late 50s. But I want to keep playing hockey until I can’t play anymore.”
The day has arrived, he says, when the same goes for women.