China no challenge for Team USA

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- So maybe Team USA does take every game one at a time. Maybe it isn't paying attention to anything but the business at hand, which is to win the gold medal -- presumably against Canada, the other big bad dog of women's ice hockey. Maybe the Americans are only focused on execution and are so disciplined that they aren't looking forward to tomorrow.

But are we really to believe they entered Sunday's opener against China unaware of Team Canada's thrashing of Slovakia 18-0 a day earlier?

No, we're not. And following Team USA's 12-1 destruction of China in the Group B preliminary round, team captain Natalie Darwitz held to that unrealistic premise for exactly 30 seconds.

"Canada? Who's Canada? Did Canada play a game?" she said comically. "Sure, we were aware of it, but we hadn't played a game yet. We saw what they did out of the corner of our eye, but right now we aren't scheduled to play them. We're trying to focus on what we have to do and not on them, but [no one] is making it easy on us."

There are numbers on paper that speak to dominance of these two superpowers. There are more than 75,000 registered female hockey players in Canada, 66,000 in the U.S. In China, there are just 166; 21 of whom comprise the Chinese National team. Women's hockey has been an Olympic sport since the 1998 Nagano games. The Canadians have played in the gold medal game in each of the three finals, the Americans two, winning the inaugural gold.

And then there are the numbers over two games. The two teams have beaten the competition by a combined score of 30-1, and outshot Slovakia and China 128-16.

Team USA put on quite a show for Vice President Joe Biden, who should have been on the phone with the Chinese government negotiating a deal -- a few billion shaved off of what we owe for each goal scored, and perhaps an extra $5 billion bonus should the Chinese actually score.

There were tremendous moments, the best being Jocelyne Lamoureux's shifty, between-the-legs juke-and-score that ended the second period at 8-0. The Chinese defender, Zhixin Liu, did everything right -- stayed in front, took the body -- and still wound up victimized.

The worst feeling in the building belonged to Chinese goaltender Yao Shi, because the Americans were all over her like a really horrible case of hives. She faced 24 shots in the first period, 20 in the second, and as the Americans let up, playing pitter-patter with the puck instead of firing at the net in the third, 17 shots in the final period. Any goalie who faces 61 shots in a game should be immediately eligible for the Vezina. That, or a Purple Heart.

"I thought we did pull back," Darwitz said about running up the score. "We were in their offensive zone and just passed back and forth. It's no fun to play a game like this for us, either. Being aggressive in the offensive zone, playing the neutral zone, protecting the D-zone -- that's hockey. We want to play a game that challenges us."

If the Canadian men's hockey team will be validated only by winning the gold medal, so too is the case for both the U.S. and Canadian women's teams.

China excels at a good many things -- figure skating, short-track speedskating, among others -- but Sunday's mismatch underscored the fact that hockey is a non-native sport to China and it will be years before the Chinese become competitive on the ice.

"I put the onus on the federations to spend the resources to develop the sport," said defenseman Angela Ruggiero, who scored Team USA's first goal. "I do think they have potential. We've been working on this team for two years. We've played together for six months. Other federations must do the same to build the sport."

The real, more important question for women's hockey is whether blowouts at the hands of the Americans and Canadians help the sport, as the Olympics are about world-class competition. The American and Canadian debuts were examples of just how far some countries need to come before competing on the world stage.

Moreover, there is a question of whether the governing bodies of the weaker teams will have the stamina to develop and finance the game or will choose not to field teams.

"It would be a shame if the IOC pulls hockey out of the Olympics," Darwitz said. "This is our NHL, our Stanley Cup. It is the only time anyone pays any attention to us."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.