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As women's hockey blowouts continue, a call for patience

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Another day of Olympic women's ice hockey competition, another lopsided score. And, unfortunately, more fodder for critics who say women's hockey doesn't have enough global competition to warrant a place on the Winter Olympics menu.

A spirited crowd of 19,000 was on hand at the Canada Hockey Place on Monday afternoon as the U.S. overwhelmed Sweden 9-1 in the Olympic semifinals to clinch a spot in the Thursday's gold-medal game.

The mostly-Canadian audience cheered wildly for Sweden, which was to be expected in the wake of the U.S. men's shocking win over Canada Sunday night. But the point is, they were cheering. For women. Cheering for tough, athletic women on skates, and not the ones in skirts and lipstick (although those are terrific athletes, as well).

They got to witness Monique Lamoureux's impressive hat-trick. They got to see that Jenny Potter, a mother of two, can not only serve up dinner for her family, but also perfect passes to her teammates. And they got to see Jessie Vetter defend her goal as fiercely as Ryan Miller.

As a mother of a 10-year-old soccer- and basketball-playing daughter, that made me happy. "This is our Stanley Cup," one of the U.S. players said last week, and how great it is that dedicated, talented hockey players who will never experience the thrill (or the paycheck) of playing in the NHL can compete on this prestigious stage.

And that little girls — and boys — got to see that Olympic hockey is not just about Sidney and Alex, but also about Hayley and Angela.

But part of me cringed with every U.S. goal, because with every rout, the sport could be skating on thinner and thinner ice. The International Olympic Committee booted softball after the Beijing Olympics and refused the admission of women's ski jumping because of lack of depth in the international field, and some would argue women's ice hockey is no different.

Going into Monday's semifinals, the U.S. and Canadian teams had outscored their opponents 72-3. Canada crushed Slovakia 18-0, Switzerland 10-1, and Sweden 13-1. The U.S. outscored its first-round opponents by 30, beating China 12-1, Russia 13-0, and Finland 6-0. The Finns played Canada in Monday's other semifinal, and barring a huge upset, it will be the U.S. vs. Canada in the gold medal game for the third time since the sport was added in 1998.

A letter to the editor in the Vancouver Sun last week read: "After witnessing the early routs at the hands of the Canadian and U.S. women's hockey teams, it's hard to see how these predetermined massacres can be deemed sporting. A sport dominated so comprehensively by two teams, year after year, can barely be considered a competition. For Canada then to celebrate so fulsomely over such hollow victories speaks poorly about us."

Funny, I don't hear anybody calling for the exclusion of women's luge, even though Germany has won 29 of the 39 medals awarded in that sport's history — including sweeps in Salt Lake City and Turin. And what about Russia/Soviet Union winning every figure skating pairs gold medal from 1964-2006?

International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President Rene' Fasel of Switzerland held a press conference in Vancouver with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman last week, and was asked to comment on the U.S. and Canadian blowouts and the sport's future.

"We started in 1998 with six teams, and then decided to go up to eight for reasons of development — and it was really too early," Fasel said. "For the moment, the (Canadian) and the U.S. girls are on another planet. But we have 80,000 girls playing hockey in Canada, we have 60,000 playing in the United States, and in Slovakia? We have 267 girls playing. And if you have 80,000 girls playing 267, that's the 18-0," he said, referring to Canada's win over Slovakia.

"But if we want our sport to develop we have to continue with our objectives to promote women's hockey all over the world. China is here. Well, there are 700 million girls in China, and how many do you think are playing hockey? Sixty- seven. Not 67 million, not 6,700. Sixty-seven. We think there is huge potential in China for the game of hockey and maybe Gary, as your friend (NBA commissioner) David Stern has done with basketball, would go to China and try to promote the game and boost hockey there."

The women on the U.S. team refuse to apologize for their scores. They believe that, like women's soccer, women's hockey will develop in other nations in due time, and the only way to get there is to keep showcasing the sport to the world. They also urge the IIHF to provide developing teams with quality coaching and financial support.

"Obviously, that has been a topic of conversation at this Olympics, the lack of parity," said Lamoureux. "The federations need to give the women's programs more funding. If you look back 30 to 40 years ago, Canada and Russia were blowing men's hockey out of the water, but other countries came around. It's just gonna take time, and hopefully, people will be patient."

For my daughter's sake, I hope she's right.

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