Disparity could erase women's hockey

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- If this was the only game of the Olympic women's hockey tournament you caught, congratulations. It was the only one worth your time.

What's wrong with the women's game is hardly USA-Canada. It's like Tennessee-UConn women's basketball at twice the speed, bristling with just as much attitude and even more bodies flying around with real abandon. It's one of the best rivalries in any sport.

It just happens to be the only rivalry in this one -- because they're the only legitimate teams.

The disparity is so great in women's hockey that International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge gave the rest of the world eight years to close that gap, or risk having all that work erased from the Olympic program.

"There must be at a certain stage an improvement. We cannot continue without improvement," Rogge said. "There is an improvement in the number of nations -- and we want to see this wider."

The United States and Canada came into the final unbeaten, with a combined goal differential of 86-4. They have been paired in every one of the dozen world championships since the inaugural event in 1990, and were already the class of the field when the sport made its Olympic debut in Nagano 12 years ago. And while both have only become bigger, deeper, faster and more skilled with each passing year, the rest of the world keeps falling farther and farther behind.

Counting Thursday's 2-0 win over the United States, Canada now owns the last three gold medals; the U.S. won the first.

Only one other team has even reached the finale in either the worlds or the Olympics: Sweden, which after upsetting the Americans at the Turin Games four years ago, got clobbered by Canada.

Late last week, as the lopsided results piled up, International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel found himself playing defense against critics who want the women's game pulled from the Olympics not in four years, or eight, but now.

He counseled patience, noting there were 200 million girls in China. Unfortunately, only 67 play hockey.

"Not 67 million. Not 67,000," he acknowledged. "Sixty-seven."

There are 34 countries listed as IIHF members on its Web site, among them Australia, South Africa and No. 34 Bulgaria. It's not just the size of the player pool, but the quality of the coaching, facilities and the depth of each country's commitment.

There were more than 85,000 female hockey players registered in Canada at the end of last year, nearly 60,000 in the United States. It was a long drop from those numbers to bronze medalist Finland, which registered 3,500.

"Obviously, we take the game seriously," U.S. captain Natalie Darwitz said after losing the hard-fought gold-medal game 2-0 to the Canadians.

"I can't speak for the other countries, but my feeling is you've just got to give everybody else a little time and a little patience. Hopefully in eight or even 12 years, we're not still talking about just two countries, we're talking about an eight-team tournament that's tough to get through.

"Like the guys' tournament," she added, "where you see upsets every night."

There has already been talk of a mercy rule when the women's hockey tournament kicks off in Sochi.