Monday, September 15, 2008

Laughing at women's hockey

There's something genuinely disturbing about the coverage on the Bulgaria national women's team embarrassing tournament result at an Olympic Qualification tournament in Latvia a week ago. What has particularly drawn international attention on blog sites is the 82-0 loss to Slovakia, and recently video has been made available on YouTube of the carnage. There is no way to sugarcoat it, it was an embarrassing moment for not only Bulgaria, but for women's hockey. It should be noted that this tournament is considered two levels below the Olympic competition itself, and even 17th ranked Slovakia, who still managed to look sloppy in the videos, is a long shot to qualify for the 8 team Olympic tournament.

But perhaps the biggest question is this: Why were Bulgaria even invited to this tournament? The easy (or assumed) answer to this question is that there is great disparity in women's hockey, and the reach of the women's game is still not great enough to avoid results like this. But that answer would be false.

A quick glance at the Olympic Qualification format and a comparison to the women's world ranking provides more questions than answers. Here's a quick breakdown:

6 teams have automatically qualified for the 2010 Olympics based on world ranking. They've been split into 2 pools for the round robin portion of the tournament. They are:

Group A: Canada (1), Sweden (4), Switzerland (5)
Group B: Unites States (2), Finland (3), Russia (6)

To qualify for the final 2 spots, there is a two-tiered qualification system, composed of four round robin tournaments. Like the Olympic tournament, 3 teams are already automatically given a bye into one of the two Olympic Qualification Finals to take place in November:

Group C: Germany (7), Khazakstan (10), France (11)
Group D: China (8), Japan (9), Czech Republic (12)

A fourth spot at each tournament was left open for the winner of one of the two Pre-Qualification Tournaments. Which is where the Slovakia-Bulgaria matchup comes in.

Group A (ironic title?): Latvia (13), Slovakia (17), Italy (15), Croatia (30), Bulgaria (unranked)
Group B: Slovenia (16), Norway (14), Great Britain (23), Austria (19)

Notice something? Group A had 5 teams at their tournament, while Group B only had 4. That in and of itself is a little weird, but what's more perplexing is that Bulgaria was the only unranked team to be in the Olympic qualification pool to begin with. I can appreciate that severe underfunding might keep some nations away from even attempting a long shot at Olympic qualification (hello #20 ranked North Korea), but there is no reason why #18 ranked Denmark couldn't have made a short flight to Latvia instead of Bulgaria, is there?

Even if all of the nations that were ranked that didn't participate declined invites, there is still no reason to have admitted Bulgaria to this tournament. With only 37 registered female hockey players, the 17 player roster didn't have a lot to choose from. What possessed the IIHF, or the host Latvians, to allow Bulgaria to participate at a level well above what they can compete at? The result is an unfortunate (and inaccurate) picture of women's hockey, one which opens the game up to ridicule and seems to promote ignorance towards the sport.

Postscript: Or for that matter, why Croatia? The 30th ranked Croats may have beat Bulgaria 30-1, but they lost 18-1 to Slovakia, 9-0 to Latvia, and 8-0 to Italy. So despite the token Bulgarian slaughter, they were still outscored in the tournament 36-31. Maybe it was the Croats who lobbied for Bulgaria's inclusion?