SOCHI, RUSSIA -- It might seem downright un-American or un-Canadian, as the case may be, for Shannon Miller to root for Russia when the Olympic women's hockey tournament begins Saturday. But the Minnesota Duluth coach has a vested interest in the success of the home team at the Sochi Winter Games for reasons both personal and universal.
Miller has been mentoring the Russian women's hockey program for the past three years, as part of her sport's effort to bridge a chasm that threatened its Olympic survival. Either the United States or Canada has won the gold medal in every Olympic Games and world championships in women's hockey history, and they are heavy favorites to face off for another title in Sochi. But since the Vancouver Games, when the North American titans outscored their opponents 86-4, they have combined forces to give a helping hand to the nations struggling to catch up.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge issued a warning to women's hockey after the 2010 Olympics, saying "we cannot continue without improvement." The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) responded with a four-year, $2.1 million campaign to pursue that goal, including mentoring programs, coaching symposiums and annual camps in which North American players tutor women from other nations.
Since Miller began advising the Russians, they have increased funding for women's hockey, sent the team to train in Duluth for two weeks and won the bronze medal at last spring's world championships. Several other nations have taken similar steps forward, and Miller said she expects to see even more progress in the years leading toward the next Winter Games.
"This was critical even without Jacques Rogge's comment," said Miller, a Canadian who coached her home country to a silver medal in 1998 in the sport's first appearance at the Olympics. "Women's hockey is a small world. We have to help the game grow.
"In the next four years, I think we'll see the biggest growth since the very beginning. The pieces are in place, and we won't go backward. We'll only go forward."
Some of the advances will be on display in Sochi. The Olympic tournament adopted a new format in which the top four teams and bottom four teams play in separate pools in the preliminary rounds, which should reduce the number of early blowouts. Japan, which has made huge strides with North American help, qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 1998; Switzerland and Russia, which also have seen sharp improvement, are expected to contend with the U.S., Canada, Finland and Sweden for medals.
That is a relief to American and Canadian players who understand they must share the wealth to ensure the long-term health of their game.
"If our sport were taken out of the Olympics, I think it would absolutely kill our game," said four-time Olympian Caroline Ouellette, the captain of Team Canada and a former UMD player. "Being in the Olympic Games is what's going to make young girls want to try the sport. And we don't take that for granted."
A shortage of players
A few months after the 2010 Olympics, the IIHF examined the state of the women's game in 14 countries and began discussing ways to move forward. The U.S. and Canada enjoy several advantages, such as the number of women playing and the development opportunities offered through college programs. In 2013, there were 87,230 women players in Canada and 65,700 in the U.S.; the next nation on the list, Finland, had 4,787. Of the 56 nations playing women's hockey, only eight have 1,000 or more players.
Through a program begun in 2011, the IIHF paired coaching mentors and athlete ambassadors from the top four nations at the time (the United States, Canada, Finland and Sweden) with countries ranked fifth through 14th. Miller was assigned to Russia, which the IIHF hoped would become strong enough to make a good showing as the host nation in Sochi.
Via e-mail and Skype chats, she offered advice on nutrition and training methods, suggested hiring a skating coach and goaltending coach and wrote a report recommending a head coaching change. The Russians, she said, were astonished that all that assistance came at no cost.
"My job was to help Russia get on track," Miller said. "We give them direction and advice when they want it. They were surprised we would give up our time and the knowledge we worked for years to attain, but I considered it a huge honor."
The IIHF also started an annual summer camp, inviting countries to send young players to participate in dryland training, scrimmages and classroom sessions with American and Canadian players and coaches. The idea was to teach them what it takes to become the best in the world, then send them back home to share that knowledge with their teammates.
"In those countries, the resources for off-ice training are more limited, and they don't have knowledge about it," said four-time U.S. Olympian Julie Chu, who has taught at the camps. "If you already have a talent level that's a bit lower, that's a double whammy. Now these countries are committed to off-ice training, so they've closed that gap. And they've gotten people to help coach and develop their skills, so they're closing the on-ice part."
Chu noted that Japan's players benefited greatly from the strength training and gained more ground when the program hired former Olympian Carla MacLeod of Canada as a coach. Miller said that Russia, which has not finished higher than fifth at the Olympics, committed more money to its women's team and brought in former NHL star Alexei Yashin as its general manager.
Since the IIHF program began, three countries -- Finland, Switzerland and Russia -- have won bronze medals behind the U.S. and Canada at the world championships. U.S. coach Katey Stone said most of the other top nations now have a solid goaltender and better coaching, two components that can lead to quick improvements. And while several countries have increased funding for their women's programs, Stone said, players also have realized the importance of commitment and dedication, a culture change essential to moving up the ladder.
The Russians already have asked to return to Duluth, where Miller gave them full access to the rink, weight room and locker room and arranged exhibition games against college teams. She said she would welcome them, but she wants to extend the invitation to other nations, too.
Before the Olympics, Miller told Russia's coach, Mikhail Chekanov, that she hoped his team would win the bronze medal. He told her that perhaps they would be playing for something shinier, a response that delighted her.
"They're excited, and they're confident," she said. "We've started relationships that can only grow. And I think it will continue to gain momentum."
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