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Reuters, Published February 08 2014

A U.S. victory may bode ill for women's ice hockey

SOCHI, Russia - Women’s ice hockey is the snow leopard of the Sochi Games, its survival in the Olympics endangered by the success of the United States and Canada, which have dominated the sport since its Olympic debut in 1998.

In the past four Winter Games, only Sweden in 2006 has been able to break the North American stranglehold on the top two podium spots. Finland, ranked third in the world, entered the Sochi Games confident that it had closed the gap after pulling off an upset against the Americans in November at the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Finland fell back Saturday. It was only a preliminary game, but its 3-1 defeat to a resurgent U.S. team at Shayba Arena was worrisome. The Finns were outshot, 15-3, in the first period and 43-15 overall, and did not score until the final minutes.

The top two teams, the Americans and the defending champion Canada, are so strong that their fans have cause to wonder if they are rooting for them at the sport’s peril. Hilary Knight, a forward whose unassisted goal off a turnover in the opening minute set the tone for the game, said she took it as a backhanded compliment when she heard people say, “Yeah, we don’t want you to be one of the top two teams.”

After Canada’s scorched-ice run to victory in 2010, which included an 18-0 rout of Slovakia, Jacques Rogge, then the president of the International Olympic Committee, said ominously, “We cannot continue without improvement.”

Since then, the International Ice Hockey Federation has introduced coaching symposiums and summer camps in which North American players work with women from other countries, including Japan, which is competing here.

The federation also modified the Olympic format, grouping the top four teams in the same division, with all guaranteed a spot in the medal round. The idea was for teams in both groups to find their level of competition in the preliminary rounds rather than finding themselves on either end of lopsided scores.

The modified format is like giving a flashlight to a hotel guest without electricity. It is a short-term fix that cannot hide the larger problem. At the Four Nations Cup, the Americans outshot the Finns by 59-16 but lost because Noora Raty delivered a performance in goal that she described this week as “one of those games that you probably only get once in your lifetime.”

Raty, who led the University of Minnesota-Duluth to back-to-back NCAA titles, said after practice Thursday: “I kind of wish that game had happened here, but you never know. It could happen again.”

She was quickly disabused of that dream by Knight, who scored on the Americans’ first shot. In the 10th minute, the Finns’ Riikka Valila had her team’s best scoring chance, but goaltender Jessie Vetter stopped her shot from close range.

Kelli Stack and Alex Carpenter collected the other goals for the United States, both in the second period. It has been an eventful week for Stack, who was sitting with a few teammates in a lounge in the athletes’ village Wednesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped by.

“He came over and said hi to us and shook our hands and smiled,” Stack said, adding, “He asked us what sport we were in, and we said ice hockey and his eyes lit up.”

Putin, a recreational player, was an enthusiastic backer of Russia’s Kontinental League, formed in 2008 to compete with the NHL for the world’s top talent. Russia also has an 11-team women’s pro league, which is great for expanding the game domestically but has limited international efficacy.

What the women need, said Raty, 24, are sponsors to invest in a North American-based professional league that pays its players a living wage.

“I might be done playing if I can’t play pros,” Raty said.

She added: “I wish there’d be a women’s pro league, because that’s the next thing our sport needs. I feel like our sport can’t grow without a pro league. The only one we have is in Russia, and not many players actually want to go there.”

For post-collegians, there is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, but what the players earn is not enough to make ends meet without a part-time job or financial assistance from their parents, USA Hockey or sponsors.

“At the end of the day we absolutely love what we do,” said Julie Chu, 31, who plays for the league’s team in Montreal. “So we can make some sacrifices. Some days we have to get some financial support from our parents, which is hard when you’re in your late 20s or early 30s.”

The women’s conundrum is that, for the game to increase its profile, it needs an infusion of money, but to get that money the game has to increase its profile.

“To get on TV and have more TV opportunities would help us sustain our game better,” Knight said, adding, “We don’t necessarily drop the gloves as the men do and we can’t open-ice hit somebody, but our game is more dynamic and it’s more of a finesse game, and I think that’s special.”