Women's ice hockey is a relative latecomer among the female sports to achieve internationally sanctioned status. Played informally in Canada since the latter part of the nineteenth century, and in various other northern cold weather nations as early as 1920, women's ice hockey did not attract a significant following outside of North America until the 1980s.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) is the governing body for ice hockey played on an international level, including the women's game. The first sanctioned women's IIHF championships were held in 1990 in Ottawa, Canada. From 1990 to 2005 the dominance of the United States and Canada was so profound that either the Canadian or American team won the gold medal, with the other taking the silver, at each championship event. During these years, no other team ever mounted a significant challenge in any single game to either program, despite the competition including the same countries that traditionally have very strong mens' international and Olympic championship entries, including Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic. The respective women's teams from these nations were never competitive at the world championships.
A similar competitive imbalance has been evident in the shorter history of women's Olympic ice hockey, introduced at the Nagano Games of 1998. Going into the 2006 Winter Games, Canada and the United States had only one another country as rival for the gold medal. In a 2006 semi-medal game, Sweden beat the United States in what was the greatest upset in the history of women's ice hockey.
It is difficult to determine what the future of international competition will hold in women's ice hockey. Canada has both a definitive hockey culture (where ice hockey is the national winter sport) as well as established women's elite-level leagues within which to develop a pool of national talent that is both broad and deep. The United States does not have women's leagues that rival the Canadian examples, but National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) women's ice hockey continues to expand, especially as athletic scholarships are offered by many hockey-playing institutions. The Swedish upset in 2006 notwithstanding, the prospect of the competitive level of women's ice hockey rivaling that of the men's game, where at least eight nations can enter an international championship with a reasonable chance of success, is likely remote in the years to come. Other than Canada, the United States, Sweden, and Finland, no other nation has any system of organized national training camps or coaching hierarchy for the women's game.
The reasons as to why women's ice hockey has lagged in apparent popularity, even in countries with a strong hockey tradition, are difficult to ascertain. The speed of the women's game does not compare to that generated by larger and stronger male athletes, but in relative terms to virtually every other team sport, women's ice hockey is a very fast and dynamic game. Like men's ice hockey, passing, the ability to move up and down the ice in transition from offense to defense, and strong goalkeeping are essential to success. The premium on hand-eye coordination generally, and shooting and playmaking ability specifically, are also consistent in both versions of the sport.
The only significant rule difference between men's and women's ice hockey is one regarding body checking. In men's ice hockey, a body check is defined as the general physical contact permitted by a defensive player against an offensive player who has control of the puck, or who has, immediately prior to the contact, lost control of the puck. A body check may be delivered with the hip or shoulder, and it is a devastating defensive tactic. In women's ice hockey, body checking is prohibited; a defensive player is permitted to angle an offensive player off the puck through the body position and skating motion, which leads to incidental contact between the players. For this reason, the women's game does not include the physical features that often excite hockey spectators. Conversely, the deemphasizing of physical contact in the women's game would theoretically make the game open to players of more disparate sizes, provided they possessed strong skating and playmaking skills.
Two female ice hockey players made history when each secured a place on a competitive men's teams. Goaltender Manon Rheaume earned a well-publicized tryout with the National Hockey League Tampa Bay Lightening in 2001; Hayley Wickenheiser, a forward regarded as the finest female ice hockey player ever produced in Canada, played for a season in the second tier of the Finnish men's professional league in 2003. Neither player was able to sustain a career with either male team, and the criticism of both Rheaume and Wickenheiser was that their efforts to participate in men's hockey served to detract from the perceived strengths of the women's game.