Three years after the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) organized an unofficial worlds tournament, the IIHF hosted the 1990 Women’s World Championship in Ottawa. Eight teams — Canada, USA, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, West Germany, Norway, and Japan — competed in a furious, physical tournament that forced the rest of the hockey world to take notice. The women who battled on the ice in Ottawa put the women’s game on a collision course with a debut in the Winter Olympics in 1998.
It is, undoubtedly, one of the most significant events in the history of the sport.
Needless to say, there is much we can learn about the game by analyzing that first Worlds tournament. A single viewing of the IIHF’s 58 second highlight video of the gold medal game between USA and Canada reveals just how far skating, goaltending, and the overall skill of players have come in 30 years. Unfortunately, a full video of the game — or the other 19 games of the competition — has proven difficult to track down online. The Ice Garden has reached out to the IIHF for resources, including video and box scores, but has yet to hear back.
By scouring the internet, we were able to cobble together basic team, skater, and goalie stats from Ottawa, which were previously unavailable on EliteProspects.com and similar sites. This is a lot like having all of the edge pieces of a puzzle in place — it’s a start, but we’ve still got a look of work to do to get the full picture. Still, we can glean a great deal even from game summaries and some of the other fragmented data we were able to turn up.
Now, let’s dive into some history.
|France St. Louis||CAN||F||5||3||5||8||2||1.60|
|Christina Oswald (Fellner)||GER||F||5||3||0||3||10||0.60|
|Inger Lise Fagernes||NOR||F||5||6||2||8||8||1.60|
|Gine Marie Moe||NOR||F||5||5||1||6||0||1.20|
|May Olaug Ansnes||NOR||D||1||0||0||0||0||0.00|
|Anne Therese Petersen||NOR||D||5||0||0||0||6||0.00|
|Lisa Brown (Miller)||USA||F||5||2||7||9||0||1.80|
The 1990 Worlds tournament was the highest-scoring Worlds tournament in history. On average, 11.85 combined goals were scored per-game. That number is inflated by the highest-scoring game in Worlds’ competition, USA’s crushing 16-3 win over Switzerland, and the biggest blowout in Worlds’ history, Canada’s 18-0 rout of Japan. The lowest game of the entire tournament was a 4-1 victory for West Germany over Japan in the group play stage.
We can infer a great deal about the parity in skill by team scoring rates. Canada led the tournament with an astounding 12.2 G/GP; Japan was at the bottom of the table with an average of 2.2 G/GP. On average, Canada defeated its opponents in Ottawa by 10.6 goals. Oh, and we know that they were holding back early in the tournament. Canada’s head coach, Dave McMaster, discouraged his team from running up the score early in the tournament by passing the puck five times before shooting (On the Edge: Women Making Hockey History).
One of hockey’s greatest records emerged from this high-scoring tournament. Team USA’s Cindy Curley scored 23 points — 11 goals and 12 assists — in five games to lead all skaters. Tina Cardinale, also of Team USA, finished second in the tournament (and second all-time) behind Curley with 15 points of her own. It should be noted that Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James scored 11 goals of her own to share the tournament lead with Curley.
Through her first four games of the tournament, Curley averaged 10.0 SOG/GP and scored 10 goals. She scored the first goal of the gold medal game against Canada just 2:25 into the first period, but was kept out of the box score for the remainder of the game. Canada’s ability to shut Team USA’s offense down in the gold medal game is represented by both the 5-2 final score and a 40 to 15 shot-differential (unofficial).
Team Canada’s Vicky Sunohara recently shared some of her memories about Ottawa with the IIHF, including what it was like to play against Team USA and Curley. “Don McLeod, my coach at Northeastern, was the coach of the U.S. team,” said Sunohara. “I had played with and against a whole bunch of those girls on their team. I remember Cindy Curley and Tina Cardinale were very, very good. It was an amazing atmosphere in the final. I thought: ‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen the stands full at a women’s hockey game.’ It was electric in the building. You’re playing for a World Championship gold medal.”
No player has piled up 14 points in a single Worlds tournament since Monique Lamoureux-Morando’s seven-goal, seven-assist performance at the 2012 Worlds. The only other players to register at least 14 points in a single tournament are Cammi Granato, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Kim Urech — two of whom are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Urech, like James, never competed in another IIHF event despite the skill she displayed in Ottawa.
There’s a good chance that Curley’s record of 23 points — or 4.6 Pts/GP — may stand the test of time.
With such high-scoring games, it should come as little surprise that goaltending stats from Ottawa 1990 look lackluster compared to the modern game. The combined save percentage of all goaltenders in Ottawa was .818. However, that number means very little without context. It’s crucial to remember just how far goaltending training, coaching, techniques, and even equipment have all come since the early 1990s. It’s also important to keep in mind that we’re working with small sample sizes when we look at data from major international tournaments.
Canada’s Cathy Phillips led all netminders with a .906 Sv% and a 1.15 GAA while facing a light workload of 12.31 SA60 (shots against per hour). That pales in comparison to how many pucks Japan’s Tamae Satsu saw and stopped in Ottawa. She played 151 minutes in the tournament, finishing with a 56.82 SA60 and an outstanding .881 Sv%. As a result of her valiant performance, Satsu earned the nod for the tournament’s All-Star team over Phillips and Team USA’s Kelly Dyer (.855 Sv%).
Canada’s +53 goal differential in five games (61-8) indicates just how dynamic the team was compared to the rest of the field at the time. Three years prior, Team Ontario defeated Team USA by a score of 5-4 in the semifinals of the OWHA’s unofficial world championship. The rest of Canada defeated Team Ontario 4-0 in the gold medal game.
Stats and final scores can tell us a lot, but the story of the 1990 Worlds could also be told by x-rays and the combined surface area of the countless bruises sustained by its competitors.
Ottawa 1990 remains the only IIHF Women’s Worlds where hitting was legal. The history of hitting in the women’s game deserves a deep dive of its own, but we’ll offer a condensed version here to set the scene.
The eternal debate about hitting and the women’s game started the moment women began playing organized hockey. In the 1980s, some European national teams, like Germany, relied on physical play to make up for a lack of skating ability. The U.S. also fielded a big, physical team in Ottawa in part because hitting was allowed. However, some of the teams had very limited experience with hitting. As a result, there were a ton of penalties and injuries in Ottawa.
While it’s true that the 1990 and 1992 Worlds had identical penalty minute totals (483), eleven different players finished the Ottawa tournament with 10 or more PIM. In the most recent Worlds competition, the 2019 Worlds in Espoo, just three players finished with 10 or more PIM. Also, Canada, USA, Finland, and Russia each played seven games in Espoo compared to the five games played by all teams in Ottawa in 1990. So, the game was definitely a lot rougher — and sloppier — than it is today.
With full game videos and/or box scores unavailable to track events like shot attempts and shots on goal, it’s hard to quantify just how much of an impact hitting had on possession. Even if we did have those resources, we’d still need to take into consideration how “new” women’s hockey was to many of the programs competing in Ottawa. Still, we could learn a lot about hitting and much more by watching the four games that TSN broadcast of the 1990 Worlds even if the overall skill of the athletes is vastly different than it is today.
For the time being, it’s just one more piece of women’s hockey history that remains frustratingly out of our reach.
The Gold Medal Game
Fittingly enough, the most riveting game of the tournament was the gold medal game between Team Canada and Team USA. More than 9,000 fans watched the game in the Ottawa Civic Centre and over a million more Canadians watched on TSN.
After cruising through the group stage with a roster consisting of two current Hockey Hall of Famers, Canada hit a snag in the semifinal against Finland. Canada had a 6-3 lead heading into the third period, but Finland rallied with two consecutive goals. The host country eventually prevailed by a score of 6-5, that close call only amplified the emotion of the gold medal game.
Like Canada, Team USA outclassed the opposition in the group stage, earning a bye into the semifinal. There, they dismantled Sweden in a 10-3 victory to punch their ticket to a much-anticipated meeting with their neighbors north of the border.
Perhaps still reeling from the semifinal, Canada found itself down a goal to Team USA as a result of a soft backhand shot by Cindy Curley just 2:25 into the gold medal game. The U.S. scored again with 4:40 left on the clock in the first period to go up 2-0. But that unlikely 2-0 lead stood for just 18 seconds. France St. Louis, Canada’s captain, got her team on the board and back on track. Later, with 1:26 left in the period and only two seconds remaining on a Cammi Granato elbowing penalty, Canada tied the game on the power play.
Canada went on to score the only goal of the second (Geraldine Heaney) and scored again in the third period (Sunohara) before St. Louis buried an empty-net goal with 30 seconds left in regulation. Team USA’s Kelly Dyer stopped 35 shots, but wasn’t able to slow the onslaught tide of Canada’s offense enough to keep her team ahead. Canada, decked out in infamous pink jerseys, won the game by a score of 5-3. It was the first of eight consecutive golds for Canada in Worlds competition.
Because this is an atypical piece, we thought it would be beneficial to readers who are inspired to do some digging of their own to see an itemized list of some of the sources used for this article.