- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY For the members of the U.S. women's hockey team, it's gold or bust. For their rivals on Team Canada, nothing short of total victory will do.

And for the rest of the draw in the Olympic women's hockey tournament?

Hey, someone has to finish third.

"We feel we have a chance for a bronze medal," Swedish forward Lotta Almblad said. "That is what we are playing for."

Join the club. In the top-heavy realm of international women's hockey, there are two separate and decidedly unequal levels of competition: North Americans and everyone else.

As such, the only real drama at the Winter Games outside of the inevitable Canada vs. United States gold medal match is figuring out which nation will occupy the lowest tier on the medals podium.

"I think these other teams are improving," U.S. forward Karyn Bye said. "But there's definitely a gap."

More like a chasm. Consider the carnage from the preliminary round of the Olympic draw, in which the Zambonis have gotten tougher workouts than the U.S. and Canadian squads:

•In its opening match, Team USA defeated Germany 10-0. Olympic rookie Natalie Darwitz all of 18 years old scored twice.

•Canada, which faces Sweden today, thumped Kazakstan 7-0 in its first match, then crushed Russia by an identical score. Team Canada outshot the two squads by a combined mark of 126-17.

•Behind Cammi Granato's first Olympic hat trick, the United States blasted China 12-1; afterward, U.S. keeper Sarah Tueting was aghast at giving up the lone Chinese score, a dribbling shovel shot that slid right past her.

"It was kind of a lucky goal," Chinese forward Yang Xiuqing admitted.

If history is any guide, luck is about the only thing non-North American teams have going for them. The first international tournament in women's hockey, held in 1916, featured teams from the United States and Canada; 74 years later, the inaugural women's world championship matched the same two nations.

In the 14 major international tournaments since, the United States and Canada have battled for every title, with the Canadians winning all eight world championships and the Americans capturing the gold at the 1998 Nagano Games.

So what gives?

"It's a time thing," U.S. coach Ben Smith said. "North America seems to be a little bit ahead, and there are obvious reasons. What hockey means in Canada goes beyond sport. And what we have in the United States wrapped around Title IX has been the emergence of team sports for women."

Take national player pools: While the United States and Canada have almost 93,000 registered female hockey players to choose from, Russia has 500.

The result? At the 2001 worlds, Russia's Ekaterina Pachkevitch was the only non-North American ranked in the top 18 in scoring, finishing with six goals and four assists in five games.

"From a pure Darwinian sense, some of these nations are going to have a hard time," Smith said. "Branch Rickey, the old Brooklyn Dodgers [general] manager, used to just sign everybody to contracts, thinking sooner or later he'd get a good ballplayer. Quality out of quantity. In our sport, we don't have a lot of quantity yet."

The North Americans enjoy other advantages. Of the 20 players on Team USA's roster, 16 played college hockey, and the U.S. Olympic Committee runs a series of development programs for teen-age players.

The Americans also are the only national hockey squad men's or women's to train together for the last two years, something made possible by corporate and USOC sponsorship.

"The support from USA Hockey has allowed us to grow as a team," Granato said. "I would hope that other teams can find a way to improve like we have."

By contrast, there are few opportunities to play women's hockey in Kazakstan go figure save the occasional championship tournament held between former Soviet republics. While a few players on Team Kazakstan are on scholarships from the country's Olympic committee, most receive a minimal salary of $130 a month.

"Kazakstan is a very young republic, and it's making its very first steps in hockey," assistant coach Sergey Solovyov said. "The players you [see] are the pioneers for hockey in the country."

In Germany, where the first women's national team was formed in 1988, more than 50 teams compete at the club level. Nevertheless, forward Raffi Wolf played college hockey in the United States, as have many of the international players in the Olympic tournament. Wolf, a forward, was the University of Maine's leading scorer in 1999.

German forward Sabrine Ruckauer expressed surprise when she was informed that Team USA's players receive a training stipend.

"Really?" she said. "I did not know that. We're just happy to get our stick, skates and [jersey]."

Despite the disparities, American and Canadian players insist that the rest of the world is slowly catching up, particularly Team Russia.

Just eight years old, the team is the brainchild of a Russian hockey fan, Leonid Mikhno, who rounded up a hodgepodge squad and sent them on a North American tour. Each player received a hockey bag and $200.

This year the team is being shown on Russian television for the first time. And Pachkevitch, a founding member of the squad, now coaches women's hockey at MIT.

"I think we're behind Canada by one year," Russian coach Viacheslav Dolgushin said after his team's loss to Canada. "The time will come when we'll be able to defeat them occasionally."

In the meantime, women's hockey figures to remain a two-nation tango something Smith admits he can live with.

"There's a realization around this game that for this sport to get to a [higher] level of acceptance, it will be through better competition," he said. "[But] I'd like to win every game we play 45-0."

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