- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Could the success of the U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey teams — steamrolling their way through yet another Olympics en route to Thursday’s gold-medal showdown — put the sport on the chopping block for future Games?

Since the sport was introduced to the Winter Olympics in 1998, Canada has won two gold medals, with the United States winning the other, and the two countries have medaled in all three Olympics. Over four competitions, Canada has lost just two matches — both to the United States in 1998. The United States has lost just twice as well, once to Canada in the 2002 gold-medal game in Salt Lake, the other to Sweden in the 2006 semi-finals in what currently is considered by far the sport’s biggest Olympic upset.

This year, the gap between the haves and have-nots has been even more pronounced. In their four games in Vancouver, the Americans have outscored their opponents 40-2.

The Canadians were even a more dominant in rolling into the final, outgunning opponents 47-2. While the U.S. pounded Sweden 9-1 Monday to reach the gold-medal game, the Canadians had a relatively close game against Finland in a 5-0 win — although they outshot the Finns 50-11 in the victory.

Has the talent gap — in this Olympics, Canada trounced Slovakia 18-0, while the U.S. earned a 12-1 win over China in round-robin play — rendered the competition a joke?

“It can be a difficult balancing act,” U.S. women’s coach Mark Johnson told USA Today. “I get uncomfortable when the score gets to be lopsided. You certainly want to respect your opponents and the hard work the people next to you are putting into the tournament.”

For the other nations, it’s a matter of trying to catch up to a pair of programs that benefit from having players in the well-funded NCAA women’s hockey program — something that becomes a Catch-22 for women of other nations trying to get noticed by U.S. colleges.

For example, Russian women who want to get a scout’s attention would have to play at the highest level of women’s hockey in the nation — a level that, because they receive a small monthly stipend, makes them ineligible for U.S. college programs under NCAA rules.

“It’s very frustrating,” Russian Olympian Iya Gavrilova told Sports Illustrated. “They just close this road for us. There are a lot of hockey girls right now in Russia who want to play in the U.S.”

Gavriolva knows firsthand: She played for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs as a freshman in the 2007-08 season, scoring 41 points in 26 games for the eventual NCAA champions. However, when it was determined the now-22-year-old received a $500-per-month stipend in Russia, the team was forced to vacate its regular-season wins — although it was allowed to keep its NCAA title.

As a result, she was ruled permanently ineligible to play in the NCAA, and while she has remained at the school to study accounting, she cannot play hockey at the high level necessary to help her nation catch up to the Americans and Canadians.

For the teams on the wrong end of the lopsided Olympic scores, getting slaughtered is a double-edged sword: no one wants to be a doormat, but at least the games show how much a team needs to do to catch up to the superpowers.

“We are from China and it’s not so easy to play these kind of games,” China’s coach Hannu Saintula told CNN. “We go to have exhibition games all over the world. I pretty much understand that USA and Canada don’t want to play exhibition games against our team at this moment. So we try to play exhibition games against our own level and try to learn things from those games.

It’s not easy for China to put a team together at all: the entire nation has just 267 women’s players, as opposed to 88,000 in Canada and 60,000 in the United States.

While officially the International Ice Hockey Federation says they are pleased with the progress, the gap between the sport’s haves and have-nots appears to be widening. Through four Olympics, the U.S. and Canada have just one loss in tournament play against other countries, which was the Americans’ loss to Sweden in the 2006 semifinals.

Thanks to that success and higher visibility, funding is better in both the United States and Canada. A representative of the hockey federation of the host country of the next Winter Olympic games, Russia, was quick to point out his nation had a rich tradition “in men’s hockey — not women’s.”

“Actually, the gap in talent is widening,” said Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons. “The Canadians and U.S. have improved more than other countries.”

In the past, the International Olympic Committee has eliminated other sports, such as men’s baseball, where the competition isn’t as good, and although the IIHF says women’s hockey will be on the program in Sochi in four years.

But with the talent level of the two superpowers, there is concern how much longer it will be there.

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