North Americans lack competition

SALT LAKE CITY -- Officially, the final pairing for the women's gold-medal hockey game Thursday night wasn't decided until the completion of the semifinal games Tuesday. Realistically though, the U.S.-Canada game was on the Olympic schedule the minute after the gold-medal game in Nagano ended.

But wading through the preliminary games to the women's hockey gold medal game was like listening to Carrot Top open for U2.

The two teams outscored their Olympics opponents 63-4 combined with 350 more shots on goal en route to the gold-medal game. The United States has allowed only one goal in the Olympics and goalie Sarah Tueting probably is still kicking herself for letting that one slip by her. The Americans have won 35 games in a row and have never lost to anyone except Canada. Canada, meanwhile, has never lost to anyone but the United States.

The dorm furniture had a better chance against the men's hockey team than the rest of the world has had against the North Americans.

Given such utter domination, the question tonight is not just which team will win, but whether the sport should even be in the Olympics until there are more than two quality teams in the entire world.

"I know there are people who say this shouldn't be in the Olympics," U.S. coach Ben Smith said. "My reply to that is in 1928, (the U.S. men) beat Belgium 28-0. Did we say, scrap hockey from the Olympics? No. In 1992, the first year of the Dream Team, we beat Angola by like 1,000-1. Did we say, let's get rid of basketball? No. It was up to Angola to work and improve.

"It's the nature of mankind. There is a competitive urge that makes people want to get better. It raises the bar."

But what happens when the other countries can't even find the bar? While there are more than 100,000 registered female players in North America, there are fewer than 400 in Russia.

"I'm not a historian, but what you see today are two countries standing on top," Smith said. "One of them is Canada, and everyone knows how important hockey is to that country -- it's more than a sport, it's an important part of the national culture. And in this country we have Title IX, which has been the impetus for so much regarding women's sports here.

"There's a tremendous chasm in the support women's hockey is getting elsewhere, even though there is a great hockey tradition in some of those countries, such as Russia and the Czech Republic.

"And they're getting better. I was watching the China-Russia game. And it was a good, competitive game. If Canada and the U.S. weren't here, you would see a lot of competitive games."

Of course, if the U.S. and Canada weren't here, there wouldn't be much point to playing those games.

The U.S.-Canada gold medal game was one of the most memorable events at Nagano in 1998 and U.S. player Angela Ruggiero said she took off two years from Harvard just to play this one game. The Nagano gold-medal game was a 3-1 gem and the Americans are solid favorites to defend their championship this time around. The United States beat Canada eight consecutive times before the Olympics.

Forward Chrissy Wendell said that in addition to playing for the gold medal, the United States is excited to play a team that can finally provide a competitive game.

"Absolutely," she said. "I enjoy playing Canada, and I'm just so excited for the opportunity to play them."

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.