Saturday, April 14, 2012

2005 China National Team Sun Rui Jersey

Today is the Gold Medal Final of the 2012 World Women's Championships, which will pit the host United States against their rival Canada for the 13th consecutive time since the tournament's inception in 1990.

While the Canadians won the first eight gold medals, the United States have turned the tables, having won four out of the last five, including three in a row heading into today's game in Burlington, Vermont at 7 PM eastern. Based on their 9-2 win in their previous meeting in the Preliminary Round, the United States enters the game as the favorite.

USA 2011 gold, USA 2011 gold
The 2011 World Champion United States

Women's hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with the number of participants increasing 350% in the last 10 years, with Canada's 86,000 registered players and the United States 66,000 leading the way.

Following the dominance of Canada (9 gold medals) and the United States (4), Finland with 10 bronze medals ranks as the third strongest nation in women's hockey and they will face off against Switzerland at 3 PM eastern for the bronze medal.

The two other nations to have won medals in women's hockey are Sweden, with two bronze medals and Russia with one, with those three medals all coming at the expense of Finland.

China has finished fourth in the World Championships twice, in 1994 and 1997, but a recent run of bad form has seen them relegated twice in a row, now finding themselves down in Division I Group B.

Currently the IIHF World Women's Rankings have the United States on top, followed by Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Slovakia and China, with Germany rounding out the Top 10. There are actually 37 nations listed in the complete World Rankings, which include many European nations, but also Japan (#11), Australia (#24), New Zealand (#27), South Korea (#28), Iceland (#29) South Africa (#31) and North Korea (#32).

Women's hockey has also been played at the Olympics since 1998 in Nagano, Japan, and featured six teams, Canada, China, Finland, Japan, Sweden and the United States. The United States won the first women's gold medal, which was an upset of form, considering Canada had defeated the Americans during each of the four World Championships up to that point.

2002 saw Canada turn the tables and take home the gold, while 2006 saw the Canadians repeat after defeating Sweden, who stunned the United States in a semifinal upset, which drew comparisons to the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

Canada won their third Olympic gold medal in 2010 on home ice, defeating the United States 2-0.

Canada 2010 gold, Canada 2010 gold
Canada celebrates their gold medal in 2010

Women's hockey has drawn criticism for it's lack of competitiveness in the face of not only the dominance of the gold and silver medals by the United States and Canada, but also the large gap to even the rest of the top eight teams, as scores in games with either the US or Canada
often involving large margins of victory, such as the US winning games by scores of 9-0, 11-0 and 10-0 in this year's tournament.

Other instances of large margins of victory, such as Slovakia's notorious 82-0 win over Bulgaria in a European Olympic pre-qualifying tournament in 2008 don't do the perception of the women's game any favors, but the IIHF continues to support the women's game and encourage member nations to work to improve the level of their play.

Thanks to the rise in the women's international game, women's college hockey in the United States has grown at a rapid pace. Starting in 1997-98 with the American Women's College Hockey Alliance, first won by New Hampshire, followed by Harvard and Minnesota, the championship became a full-fledged NCAA National Championship in 2000-01. Minnesota-Duluth has since won 5 titles, Wisconsin 4 and Minnesota 3. There are now 34 schools in four Division I conferences in the NCAA with more on the way, while in Canada there is the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which consists of six teams and has been active since 2007.

Today's featured jersey is a 2005 China National Team Sun Rui jersey. The Chinese women's team has until recently been in the Top Division of the World Women's Championships, faring much better than the Chinese men's team.

The Chinese women joined the World Championships in 1992 and posted a pair of fourth place finishes as their best results in both 1994 and 1997. They have also finished 5th twice and 6th four times, but a 9th place finish in 2009 saw them relegated for the first time to Division I in 2011, where a last place finish saw them relegated once again, this time down to Division I Group B for 2012, a tournament which also concludes this weekend in Hull, Great Britain.

As of this writing with two games left to play, Denmark and China are tied at 3-0 and will meet today in a game that will have great bearing on which team will be promoted up to Division I Group A.

In the Olympics, China finished 4th in 1998. losing the bronze medal game to Finland 4-1. Since then have finished 7th in both 2002 and 2010 while failing to qualify for the 2006 games in Italy.

China Qualifies, China Qualifies
The Chinese players celebrate qualifying for the 2010 Olympics

Closer to home, they have won gold at the Asian Games in 1996 and 1999 and won the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in 2010.

The most notable player for China has been goaltender Guo Hong, their retired goaltender who had the brilliant nickname of "The Great Wall of China" after frequently facing over 50 shots a game while posting a 89% save percentage at the 2002 Olympics. In over ten years of competition, her finest game came in a 38 save performance in a 1-0 loss to Canada in 1996.

Hong Guo China, Hong Guo China
Hong Guo at the 1998 Olympics

Other notable players for China are Sun Rui and Wang Linuo, who are tied for the most appearances with 46, and Liu Hongmei, who is their all-time leader with 27 goals and 44 points.

Sun Rui China, Sun Rui China
Sun Rui

Nearly all of China's players hail from the northeastern city of Harbin, known in China as the "Ice City" for it's northern location and long winters.

China 2005 jersey photo China 2005 F.jpg
China 2005 jersey photo China 2005 B.jpg

Today's video section are the highlights from the first meeting between the United States and Canada at the 2012 World Women's Championships, which will conclude today with a rematch between the same two teams.

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