- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - A five-time Olympian, Hayley Wickenheiser has been representing Canada in the Winter Games ever since women’s hockey was added to the program.

And she likes the progress the sport has made.

“This is the most competitive Olympics we’ve ever seen,” she said this week after winning her fourth gold medal in a 3-2 overtime victory over the United States. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen in most of the games. There’s a lot of entertainment value in that.”

The gold medal game in Sochi featured the United States and Canada, a scene that’s as predictable as a snowboarder saying he’s stoked. The North Americans have won every gold medal, meeting in the championship game in four of the five Olympics since women’s hockey was added in Nagano in 1998.

And the game they produced Thursday could hardly have disappointed, with Canada coming back from a two-goal deficit in the final 3:26 of regulation, then winning it on a power-play goal in overtime.

But the real progress, women’s hockey players and officials said this week, was elsewhere in the bracket. Unlike the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where nearly half of the games were blowouts, almost every game was close. And with Switzerland finishing third to earn the nation’s first-ever women’s hockey medal, there are signs that the gap between the powers and the rest of the world is narrowing.

“It’s good that it’s a new winner,” International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel said of the Swiss victory, smiling broadly after the bronze medal match. “It will be also much better next time.”

Hockey’s distaff division has struggled for its entire Olympic lifespan with a lack of competition, and it’s not hard to see why: tens of thousands of girls grow up playing the sport in its North American hotbed, Fasel said, while in Switzerland the number is more like 900. The Americans and Canadians also fund their national teams so that athletes can to train and play together almost year-round, while the rest of the world might assemble its Olympic or world championship team six weeks before the tournament.

So, while results like Canada’s 18-0 victory over Slovakia at the 2010 Olympics are not unexpected, they were troubling to the sport’s organizers - never more so than at the end of the Vancouver Games when then-IOC President Jacques Rogge was widely quoted as saying, “We cannot continue without improvement.” (An IOC spokesman said this week that his comments were misunderstood, and Fasel said kicking the sport out of the Olympics “will never happen.”)

The IIHF responded with a new format, tested at the last two world championships and for the first time in the Olympics in Sochi.

By splitting the eight competing countries into two unequal groups, there were far fewer blowouts than in Vancouver. Using the IIHF measuring stick of a five-goal margin of victory or more, there were only three blowouts in 22 games at the 2014 Olympics, compared to nine in Vancouver and four in the most recent world championships.

Fasel said that while the gap between the North Americans and the rest of the world still exists, the dwindling margins of victory show that it is closing. But the Europeans are still in the race for third place.

“I think the bronze medal was our goal,” Switzerland forward Sara Benz after the third-place game. “In the semifinals we wanted to beat Canada. But maybe next Olympics. It’s our goal to achieve more and more every year.”

U.S. coach Katey Stone reminded fans that women’s hockey has been an Olympic sport only since 1998, and the first world championship was in 1990.

“There have been tremendous strides made in women’s hockey,” she said. “I think people need to be patient.”

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