Women’s ice hockey has already played an historic part in the development of the Olympic Games by enabling players from North and South Korea to compete side by side at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games.
Pictures of the unified Korea team’s Canadian head coach, Sarah Murray, shedding tears after the team’s final game and hugging North Korean coach Pak Chul-ho will stand as an indelible marker of the human gains made by this political sporting coup. If ever there was an image for the power of sport, this was surely it.
"The chemistry and the message our players were able to send – that sports transcends the barriers... they did a great job," said Murray,
Rene Fasel, President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), expressed hopes for a unified Korean team at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, referring to them as the bearers of "the message of peace".
Inevitably, political and diplomatic shifts since then have cast that hope into doubt, although who knows what further fluctuations lie ahead in the next three years?
In the meantime, the sport which became a vehicle to carry those high hopes back in February 2018 is preparing to take another historic step, albeit on a less cosmic scale, in the form of the expanded IIHF World Championship in Espoo, Finland, which starts on Thursday and runs to April 14.
The addition of two teams will mean these Championships involving 10 sides for the first time since they were first held in 1990. And the expansion will carry over to the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, following last summer’s decision by the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board.
Looking forward to the imminent Championships with particular intensity will be Emma Terho, Finland’s own five-times Olympian, who – under her maiden name of Laaksonen – won bronze in the inaugural women’s event in Nagano in 1998 and again in Vancouver 12 years later.
Terho, who holds two finance degrees and is a mother of two children, has maintained strong ties with sport since retiring after the Sochi 2014 Games – she is a Finnish Olympic Committee board member and was last year elected to the IOC Athletes Commission.
She is thus able to reflect upon the impact of her sport being the means of bringing Korean athletes together from the point of view of a competitor, and an administrator.
“Sport has power that few things have,” she told insidethegames. “With the unified Korean team those two nations had a way to start dialogue, which is a big thing.
“The coaching plan and locker room of course changed from what it would have been with just host country alone, but the team and staff did it well.
“It did bring the team, staff and sport in spotlight and caught attention from larger audience than it would have otherwise done and in occasions the women’s game would not otherwise have been mentioned, that is clear.
“But at the same time it also showed to large audience that the language of sport is universal. Of course, with South Korea being the host nation, it was a special case also.”
Terho is, as one might expect, enthusiastic about the latest manifestation of growth in a game she has served so well.
“As the game has spread out to many more countries and the competition is constantly increasing, it is very important there is a chance for more women to compete against the best in the world,” she told insidethegames.
"For little girls growing up in France or Japan, it is important to see their top-level countrywomen at the world stage. It has already given a boost for many countries.”
The significance of having 10 teams competing at the Women’s World Championships and 2022 Olympics was expressed last year at an IIHF Women’s Hockey Summit by members of a journalists’ panel.
Marisa Ingemi, who covers ice hockey for the Boston Herald, said: "Exposure around the world is so important, because that not only means more people will show an interest in the sport, but more girls will start playing hockey and continue the pipeline of talent globally.”
Canada’s Carol Schram, a regular contributor to SportsMoney at Forbes.com, added: “The more, the merrier. While Canada and the United States still dominate the medal standings, the skill gap is shrinking within the next tier of teams.
“Giving more teams the opportunity to participate in top-level competition should help increase the profile of women’s hockey in their respective nations and help build skill as more women get to test themselves against the world’s best.”
When Terho won bronze in the first women’s Olympic ice hockey competition in 1998, six teams were involved. Having been involved in four more Olympic tournaments, as well as many World Championships, she is hugely well placed to assess how the game has changed over the past 20 or so years.
“I remember walking in the Olympic Village in Nagano and thinking that every one of those early morning wake-ups for practice had been very much worth it,” she recalled.
“It was a team with a lot of older players that I very much looked up to and I learned from them after that. Later on, I tried to give the same support for the younger ones coming to the team as my role was very different later on when I was the team captain.
“An unforgettable moment is Vancouver 2010 when we won bronze medals after Karoliina Rantamäki scored an overtime goal. The Canadian crowd was amazing and we had gone through big disappointments in the previous two games.
“The game has become faster and there is a lot more competition worldwide now. We are still on the way but nowadays there are players who can concentrate solely on sport, which together with the development of national and pro-leagues is crucial in getting to the next level.
“Having female players showcase during the NHL Allstars weekend, for instance, shows a change of attitude towards the women’s game and also the impressive skill level and pace these players have.
“Sometimes, when looking from too close, it is hard to see the changes but looking back 20 years, the change is huge.”
One of the most influential factors in that growth is the development over the past four years of the National Women’s Hockey League, which was set up with four US teams in 2015 and was the first women’s hockey league to pay its players.
Established by American entrepreneur and former women’s ice hockey player Dani Rylan, the league began with Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and Newark’s Metropolitan Riveters, and gained Minnesota Whitecaps last year.
All except Connecticut Whale have active National Hockey League partners – Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild.
Terho, meanwhile, can reflect back 20 years to the last time the IIHF Women’s World Championship was held in Espoo – which co-hosted the event with Vantaa on that occasion.
“1999 was right after the first Olympic appearance and the Arena was brand new so there were many new things for the audience,” she said.
“Of course the world has changed in 20 years. TV and different screen and social media elements play a different role and that gives more opportunities.
“There is also a second rink built attached to the Arena which enables the 10-team tournament to be organised. Also, there is a metro that can now be used to the Arena, so it is easy to get there with public transportation.
“The sport itself and the players are more known and there are more little girls playing that can watch their idols.
“Also, the junior boys can enjoy fast-paced hockey. There is, for instance, a junior tournament with more than 300 girls under the age of 10 participating in a tournament organised as a side event at the neighbouring rinks. And the tournament schedule is planned so that they can also watch the World Championship tournament games.”
Last year’s Women’s Hockey Summit also saw the IIHF Women’s Committee chair, Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, reflecting upon developments since 2010, when the IOC challenged the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament over the lack of parity between its teams.
“After the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there were serious measures taken and different actions put in place,” said Terho. “Especially important was the support from the IIHF and top-level nations to the development of programmes and players from smaller countries and countries with less history in the women’s game.
“There was a large think-tank session organized in 2010 and a Women’s Hockey Summit in 2011. Since then, there has been a yearly high-performance camp focused on under-18 players.
More than 90 participants from those camps went on to compete for their country at either the Sochi 2014 or Pyeongchang 2018 Games.
“Also developed in 2011 was a larger under-16 competition calendar, regular coaching symposiums and other forms of coach development.
“What Zsuzsanna was examining was the fact that these measures have led to increased parity.
“In the last World Championship tournament in 2017, for instance, 22 games were played. Sixteen of the 22 were with a one to two goal difference, four were a three to five goal difference and only two were over a five-goal difference.
“In the 1A tournament, which is the tournament for countries ranked between eight and 16 in the world, 10 of 15 games had a one to two goals difference, three had a three to five goal difference and two had over a five-goal difference.
“Counting together all championship-level games in 2017 and 2018, 73 of 115 – 63.5 per cent – were a one to two goals difference.
"In the under-18 tournaments, too, the competition has been very tight. The numbers show there has been a lot of exciting and close games between a wider number of nations.”
Of the 18 IIHF Women’s World Championships to have been held, Canada has won 10 and the United States eight, and no other team has reached the final. In six Olympic tournaments, Canada has won gold four times and the United States twice. On one occasion – the 2006 final in Turin – another team reached the final, with Sweden losing 4-1 to Canada.
So how long will it be before gold at the worlds or Olympics goes to a women’s team other than the United States or Canada?
“I am hoping sooner rather than later,” Terho responded. "But it is true that the two North Americans are not laying back. So while all others are working hard to catch up, the two are also constantly improving. In a single game it is more likely to happen, like Finland beating Canada in the last World Championship tournament, but that was a round-robin game, not the semi-final.”
And what are the home team’s chances in Espoo, given they were third at the last World Championships in Plymouth, United States two years ago to bring their total of bronzes in this competition to 12?
“Finland has a strong team and I believe in their chances,” Terho said. “A medal is a minimum goal but the team sets their final one. Goalie Noora Räty is playing practically on her childhood backyard and she is considered one of the best in the world. Finland is counting on her.
“Michelle Karvinen, on the offense, has a strong will to win and a lot of skill. In defence, we have captain Jenni Hiirikoski. Then there is Minttu Tuominen, who just captained the Espoo team to a national title, and Ronja Savolainen, who has huge potential.
“Nelli Laitinen was the captain of the Finland under-18 team and has been taking strides to make her breakthrough. On offense, we have the 17-year old newcomer Elisa Holopainen and the 18-year old Petra Nieminen. And of course, Riikka Sallinen, who played in the first Women’s World Championships organised in Finland, at Tampere in 1992!”
Looking at the wider picture of a Championship that will begin in the 6,982-capacity Espoo Metro Areena on Thursday night with a Group B match between Germany and Sweden, Terho identified a number of players likely to make a big impact over the 10-day period of competition.
Inevitably the focus is on the pre-eminent powers of Canada and the United States, with the latter defending the title they won with a 3-2 victory on home ice two years ago.
“Canadians Natalie Spooner and Marie-Philip Poulin will be important for their team as well as goalie Shannon Szabados,” she said.
“For the United States it will be interesting to watch Kendall Coyne’s speed. Others on the American team to look for are Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight.
“Russian’s captain Olga Sosina is very important for her team and the same goes for Alina Muller of Switzerland. For Team Sweden, the key players will be forwards Emma Nordin and Erika Grahm, on defence Johanna Fällman and of course goalie Sara Grahn.
In competing for quarter-final spots, Japan’s goalie Nana Fujimoto and the Czech forward Denisa Krizova, German forward Andrea Lanzl, goalie Jennifer Harss and French goalie Caroline Baldin will be among the key players.”
The scene is set. Rehearsals for the opening ceremony are under way. And women’s ice hockey is ready to glide onwards.