Final raises questions about future

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Long after the game, after the Americans left sore-hearted, uncomforted by their silver medals, and Finland departed thrilled by its bronze, a half-dozen members of the Canadian women's hockey team skated back onto the ice, gold medals around their necks, for the kind of impromptu celebration the Olympics are supposed to exemplify, the kind that money and commercialism stole from the men's game years ago.

Meghan Agosta stood on a faceoff spot and lit a cigar. Marie-Philip Poulin, the offensive star who scored the only two goals of the game (both in the first period), zigzagged across the ice, beer in left hand, the right raising her gold medal. Goaltender Kim St. Pierre skated around holding a magnum of champagne, the bottle sporting a Canadian flag.

After photos and cheers from the staff workers cleaning out the Canada Hockey Place, Haley Irwin and Agosta lay flat on the ice a few feet from the blue line, staring straight up at the rafters, like two kids on a country hill looking up at constellations. Rebecca Johnston climbed into the ice resurfacing machine and blared the horn.

They were champions and had earned the right of innocent spontaneity, having beaten rival Team USA, 2-0 in a gold-medal game taut by a close score but somehow a contest whose outcome never seemed in question.

There have been four Olympic gold medals awarded in women's hockey. The United States won the first, in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. Canada has won the past three. The most recent victory was powered by the Canadians' speed and ability to control play. Team Canada possessed the more dangerous offensive players and thanks to the prodigious scoring -- Canada outscored the opposition 48-2 in the tournament -- the squad clearly was underrated as a defensive hockey team.

The afternoon should have belonged to Team Canada, especially its sudden stars, goaltender Shannon Szabados (who did not even know she would be starting) and Poulin, the 18-year-old prodigy.

But things haven't come easy for Team Canada. For the past two nights, the Canadian athletes have had their celebrations muted by the shadow of politics, self-inflicted or otherwise. A day earlier, Team Canada won gold and silver in the bobsled, but instead of basking in victory, the victorious athletes fielded questions about being given an unfair advantage by their federation, which refused to allow open access to the Whistler track.

And Thursday, when Team Canada completed a successful march to a third straight gold medal, the athletes were upstaged by the thinly veiled IOC threat that women's hockey must be more competitive -- or else there won't be women's hockey at the Olympics in the future. And to make matters worse, the IOC is doing its best to turn into the stodgy, corporate-handcuffed NFL, which its own players call the "No Fun League." Upon hearing of the victorious Canadian women celebrating their Olympic championship on the ice, the IOC said it would investigate.

"It is not what we want to see," said Gilbert Felli, the IOC's executive director of the Olympic Games. "I don't think it's a good promotion of sport values. If they celebrate in the changing room, that's one thing, but not in public. We will investigate what happened."

There is more than a hint of sexism here. I can't imagine Sidney Crosby puffing on a cigar after winning a gold medal turning into an international incident.

Canadian dominance in the short term might have doomed the sport in the long term. Team Canada began the tournament with a shutout -- 18-0 versus Slovakia -- and ultimately won gold by shutting out the Americans. If this were any other sport, the sight of the Americans standing beneath their blue line holding back the tears and frustration of losing would whet the appetite of fans waiting for these rivals to have at it one more time. Superpowers give sports their identity, especially fledgling ones that need faces with which the public can identify.

"Not only Canada and the U.S. that have a lot of great hockey players coming up, it's Sweden, Finland, Russia," Canadian defenseman Carla MacLeod said. "I think the game's growing. Like on the men's side it was kind of lopsided at first but now you see in today's game it's a battle. And I think in years to come, it's going to be a battle."

But IOC president Jacques Rogge did his best to overshadow a gold-medal matchup between two great teams by threatening the extinction of the sport. As an ambassador of the games, Rogge looked more like a double agent.

"There is a discrepancy there, everyone agrees with that. This is maybe the investment period in women's ice hockey," Rogge said. "I would personally give them more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement. We cannot continue without improvement."

Yes, neither the Americans nor Canadians were seriously threatened in these games, but historically, neither were the Germans in luge nor the Americans in basketball.

Rogge sounded as if he could use a history lesson. Let's review the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, when the Dream Team made its debut, shall we?

Group play:
Vs. Angola: 116-48
Vs. Brazil: 127-83
Vs. Croatia: 103-70
Vs. Spain 122-81
Vs. Germany: 111-68

Medal round:
Vs. Puerto Rico: 115-77
Vs. Lithuania: 127-76
Vs. Croatia: 117-85

As for luge, the Germans have won at least one gold medal in luge in each Olympics for the past half-century, and Rogge and the IOC are not talking about putting the luge track, as they say, on ice.

In other words, the women's game should be left alone.

"There's no reason women's hockey should be taken out of the games," Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser said. "We commit. We train. We have a lot of passion. We're focused athletes, so it's up to the rest of the world to push it, to catch up to Canada and the U.S., to Sweden and Finland. It's not as easy as it looks."

The players were aware of the threat. Nobody thought it fair, and they are right. Angela Ruggiero, an American defenseman, wept because it was over. There are no seven-game series for the women, no rest-and-go-get-'em-next-year cycle. The finality of Thursday's game was clear, and Rogge should have known better than to undermine what turned out to be a tremendous game.

"I think we have to be patient. Look at the final today. You can't take that away from the Olympic Games. We have to be patient," St. Pierre said. "The other countries will hopefully someday get better. We're lucky that Canada and the U.S. are hockey countries, but in Russia girls aren't supposed to play hockey. It's the same in China or Slovakia, so hopefully by seeing what we did today will get the other countries going."

As gold-medal coach Melody Davidson said, "I don't know how the game can't grow after a game like tonight."

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.