Trying to Watch Women's Ice Hockey

Or, the frustrations of trying to follow the sport on the BBC

It's the Winter Olympics, and now is that brief window of time, once every four years, in which my favourite sport, women's ice hockey, makes an appearance on British television. You would think that, as technology advances, the provision of sport on BBC media, paid for by a hefty licence fee, would get better and better. Unfortunately, that isn't the case, and this morning has been a perfect case in point.

Right - From the IIHF web site, one of the very few pictures of the game which feature any Finnish players at all. They love the Canadians. Well, so do I, to be fair, but you can see that it's not only the BBC which treats everyone apart from the US and Canada as bit-part players.

No niin (as the Finns say). I love women's ice hockey, and going to see some has been a central preoccupation of visits to Finland for some years. I go to Finnish Saturday School and study the language, and naturally I would want to visit the country every now and then. This isn't only about ice hockey, but checking the fixture list and organising my movements around tasty-looking games does provide a structure to my time. I enjoy discovering new towns in Finland, and finding ice hockey games to watch each time is an amusing challenge. I decided to follow Espoo Blues, because when I first saw the Finns play on the telly, during the 2006 Torino Olympics, several of the players I liked turned out to be Blues players. But by now, I've seen most of the 8 top level women's teams play several times, I'm familiar with who all the players are, and I'm invested in how the Finnish game is progressing.

And it really has progressed. I could say an awful lot about that, but for the purposes of this, let's explain that the big question regarding the place of women's hockey in world sport is, will it remain being all about Canada and the US? Well, success against the Big Two is rare, by any of the other hockey playing nations, but Finland has been getting closest. Finland beat Canada for the first time ever in last year's World Championships. IMHO, Finland are proving that they deserve to be on the same ice as the top two, so you may imagine how lip-smacking is the prospect of the game this morning, the second group game for both teams.

I got up early, checked the BBC coverage, and also went online. I was reassured to see that it was coming up, and settled down to watch. Now, the thing is, that a few Olympics ago, the BBC began their 'Red Button' feature, which effectively provided extra channels which during a big multisports event, could show other ongoing events of less interest to the prime time channels. This was brilliant, and during the 2010 Vancouver Games I was able to see loads of women's ice hockey, even quite obscure match-ups. But then technology progressed. On the one hand, more channels started filling up the Free View space, HDTV included, so most of those extra Red Button channels disappeared. Now, this might not have mattered, because broadband came along, and like other major websites the BBC Sports web site could do more than ever before. In other words, the technology is better than ever, so things should be brillliant, and I should be a happy bunny, shouldn't I?

As it happens, no.

Technology isn't the problem. What seems to have gone backwards is in the editorial area. Instead of the old public service ethos, by which you try and cover as much as you can, nowadays your agenda becomes all powerful, and you decide what you think the audience wants. Furthermore, you don't just show sport. Your presenters and pundits are as important as the sport, apparently, so you spend much more airtime talking about stuff. Even when there's sport going on which you've already started to broadcast, but now sideline with nary a mention of how it ended up. Like the Finland-Canada game.

Ice hockey is very easy to wreck unfortunately, because of the 3 periods and the long intervals, offering plenty of opportunity to cut away and forget it. Which they did. After an exciting first period, they chatted about other stuff, replayed earlier events from elsewhere - exactly, there was nothing new being shown - and then only came back to the game half way through. Look, I well understand that they were by now starting the big lead up to the first appearance of speed skater Elise Christie, who is legitimately GB's big hope for medals at this Olympics. I wouldn't have complained if on the BBC television coverage, they were concentrating on that.
But having started showing a game, I think they had an obligation to follow it through, somehow. It would have been simple to provide a feed online. But there was nothing after they cut away at the end of the second period. By then, the score was 4-0 to Canada. If you weren't bothered... well, I suppose you don't care how it went on. It does seem rude, at the very least, to not even refer to the game. Even on the website.

However, Finland were playing well, despite being up against some of the best players who have ever played the game. And if you look right at this Finnish match sheet (click on it to enlarge), you might understand why the vanishing of the game is so aggravating for me. From what I can tell, Finland played out of their skins in the 3rd period ("3.erä") You can see they got one goal back. Look at "Torjunnat", down below - that's telling you that Finland got 12 shots on goal to Canada's 8. I'd have very much liked to see that action.

Sigh. This is supposed to be the better time to catch some women's ice hockey, before men's hockey appears and pushes the women's games back in broadcast priorities. Uh. I don't feel as energised about it as I might have once. Like most sports, especially team sports, the live experience is very much to be preferred to the tv screen version. And I've been managing to see a nice amount of that, thanks to hopping over to Finland once or twice a year. Every time, I come away with memories of great goals, great skills etc. But right now, I'm thinking I really should investigate getting a VPN and seeing some Finnish tv coverage. 

But no excuses, BBC!!

Update, somewhat after the event

I neglected to say how the problem was resolved, or indeed comment on the event itself. As regards viewing the matches, I bought a Eurosport subscription. The thing now is to remember before the year is out, because they take a renewal fee off you automatically. And I'm afraid although I have checked in now and again, I haven't yet seen anything I wanted to watch. Maybe I will during the tennis season. But the fact is, Sky has most of the best sport sewn up. I don't mind spending the money, it was worth it to me, and I saw some matches in full I'd never have seen otherwise. Compare that with even the cheapest women's matches live, and it was reasonable value. Though live is always much better. Well, it's a very different experience isn't it?

As to the sport itself, I had mixed feelings. Of course I was delighted about the Finnish women winning their bronze medal, it was absolutely deserved and reflected their proper ranking. Dare I say, though, they might have performed a little better. One example is to do with potentially their most talented forward, Susanna Tapani. Agewise, this should have been her peak Olympics, but her performance was a little patchy, maybe as I feared she just hasn't played enough hockey leading up to the Olympics, and when she has, it's been with one of the weakest teams in the league. Another aspect was the number of young players they took. Doing this is admirable, but the US and Canada don't do it to the same degree, Canada especially. Experience counts in hockey, despite it being the highly athletic sport it is. Just from the games I saw before Christmas, I'd have wanted to take Nina Mäkinen and perhaps also Saija Tarkki (from new champions Oulun Kärpät), both skilled players with good heads on their shoulders.

Mustn't be negative. The only disappointment I'm really left with, is that although the Finns proved themselves ahead of the rest of the pack in international hockey, these Olympics also showed that the gap between the top two, the US and Canada, and the rest, is still there, and it's hard to see the Finns or anyone else catching up. Perhaps the best thing to take away from the Korean Games, is that some of the best players in the world are emphatically not North American at all. The US has Kendall Coyne and Hilary Knight, and Canada has Marie-Philip Poulin and Melodie Daoust, but Finland has Jenni Hiirikoski and Noora Räty, while Switzerland has Florence Schelling and one of the most gifted players to be seen on any team, Alina Müller. ...Uh. I'm suddenly conscious of the long empty months ahead before there's any more women's hockey!


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