The U.S.-Sweden Parity Myth

Time for some thoughts on the Four Nations Cup: First, congratulations to Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson for leading Team USA to a 7-0 win over Sweden on Friday (USA Hockey press release), as well as assistants Erin Whitten Hamlen of UNH and Hilary Witt of Yale. Also props go out to Wisconsin sophomore Erika Lawler, who scored two goals, and Minnesota’s Gigi Marvin, who found the net as well. The Globe and Mail talked to Lawler and U.S. captain Krissy Wendell after the game.

I hope Friday’s win puts an end to headlines like Growing parity on display at Four Nations Cup. There was a lot of spin after the Sweden with over the U.S. about how wonderful it was that Sweden had caught up to the U.S. and that the international game was finally seeing improved parity. I would agree with that statement if there was reasonable evidence Sweden’s win was more of a result of Sweden having made substantial progress, rather than the U.S. having played far below its potential. While Sweden was certainly improved, I think all the evidence supports the hypothesis the U.S. should have rolled over Sweden if it had the U.S. played anywhere near its potential, and I don’t think that’s an occasion for celebration. When any upset occurs, it’s always hard to assess whether the underdog was overwhelming or the favorite was underwhelming, but in general it’s a lot easier for a favorite to play extremely poorly than for an underdog to play extremely well — though in hockey, “hot goaltending” often gets a lot of credit for upsets when a good team fails consistently to generate quality shots. But given that the U.S. has beaten Sweden fairly comfortably in just about every meeting other Olympics, I find it hard to believe that the Olympic result was any sign of any long-run parity between Sweden and the U.S. in women’s hockey.

Certainly fresh blood has helped the U.S. both in terms of the coaching staff and the players on the roster (though the stat in the Globe and Mail article that 70% of the US roster had never played Sweden before is ridiculous.) I don’t say that to knock Ben Smith, the U.S. coach for the past three Olympics. I wouldn’t want the current coaching staff to be in place for the next three Olympics either, no matter how great they turn out to be. Having such centralization of power in one person at the national level is rarely a good idea. If the President of the United States can’t serve three terms, then no U.S. national team coach in any sport should be able to do the same. Canada has been very successful rotating its women’s national coaches every couple years. No national team coach in the 2006 FIFA World Cup led the same country in both the 2002 and 1998 World Cups. So i don’t think it’s any surprise that the U.S. is doing better under new leadership. Now, it’s time to hope for a good game between the U.S. and Canada this afternoon.

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