Hockey Heartbreak and Friday Night Lights

Image via bleacherreport.com
Image: NBC, via bleacherreport.com

The United States women’s Olympic hockey team lost the gold medal game to Canada yesterday, giving up a two-goal lead with less than two minutes left in the third period, and the winning goal a little over halfway into overtime.

It was heartbreaking, even more so than today’s loss by the US men’s team to Canada in the semifinals. While I’m sure Patrick Kane and the rest of the American team isn’t happy, there is some consolation : They’ll be back on NHL ice in a few days, and in the hunt to win the Stanley Cup. For women’s captain Meghan Duggan and the rest of her teammates, however, there is no Stanley Cup equivalent for women’s hockey, at least in terms of audience and experience. Olympic gold is the biggest and most prestigious prize they can win.

In an interview before yesterday’s game on NBC, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked whether the NHL might start a women’s hockey league, as the National Basketball Association did with the WNBA. Bettman smiled at the question and said no, the league had hired consultants to look into it but hockey isn’t nearly as far along as basketball is in terms of supporting a professional women’s league.

Maybe. But I believe as with anything, you’re only as ready as you want to be, and based on the number of girls and women who play hockey at the elite levels, and the quality of play these athletes demonstrated at the Sochi Olympics (and before), it seems to me that an original six women’s professional team system wouldn’t be too hard to start. Here are some other options: a women’s stadium series, like the NHL is doing this winter. Maybe women’s exhibition games during NHL All Star weekend, or a women’s playoff before or during the Stanley Cup tournament. Possibly host a series of women’s all-star games to attract attention and interest in a new league.

As the mother of a boy and a girl, both of whom participate in sports, I realize that my baseball player has a longer potential career than my softball player, and certainly more opportunity down the road than his sister does in gymnastics. Given the limited number of college and professional opportunities for women, even with Title IX, it makes the work ethic these women have all the more admirable, especially given that many of them play well into their 30s, some of them after pregnancy and childbirth, without the promise of a big payday. What’s the payoff, other than pure love of the sport? Making it to the pros is a one-in-a-million shot in any sport, and there’s plenty of disappointment for 98 percent of the boys and young men who dream of a professional athletic career. But for women, there’s hardly anything to dream about other than they can try again at the next Olympics, see you in four years.

All of this Olympics talk brings to mind a book I picked up recently, which while it doesn’t deal with women’s sports, does talk about the all-or-nothing, against-all-odds world of high school athletics.

Friday_Nights_LightsFriday Night Lights is a book by H.G. Bissinger, a former editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer who quit his job and moved his family to Odessa, Texas for one year to follow the fortunes of the Permian Panthers, a top-ranked Texas high school football team. These high school players hardly face the likelihood of a post-high school football career, and sadly, the town doesn’t aspire to much else, either. It’s a fascinating story of the outsized pressure on athletes that hints at the broader win-at-all-costs mentality of sports at the elite level. It’s also a great read.