The woman who will carry the Canadian flag during the opening ceremony Friday, Hayley Wickenheiser, says she's concerned about the future of women's hockey at the Olympics.
The tournament in Sochi will have to demonstrate the game has gone beyond a Canada-United States showdown, the veteran national team member adds.
"I think I always worry about the future of women's hockey, mainly because of the fact that most of the world pays attention to the game only two weeks out of every four years," Wickenheiser said Wednesday. "The tournament has to be competitive, there's no question, and countries have to show progress. That's the number one thing."
The International Olympic Committee has been reviewing its selection of sports for inclusion in the Summer and Winter Games and women's hockey has come under scrutiny before.
The 2010 Vancouver Olympics proved to be something of an embarrassment, with eventual champion Canada beating its opponents 46-2, and the United States crushing its opposition 40-2. That prompted then-IOC president Jacques Rogge to say women's hockey had to become more competitive or its status at the Olympics would be in jeopardy.
Wickenheiser, the longest-serving member of the Canadian team, says she believes progress has been made. She points to countries such as Russia, under the leadership of former Ottawa Senators star Alexei Yashin, and Japan, which is being guided by former Canadian Olympian Carla MacLeod. However, she acknowledges the Olympic event is still a two-country contest.
"The problem is that Canada and the U.S. continue to improve and it's harder for the other countries to catch up. So that's a dilemma that women's hockey is always going to face," she said. "But the reality is that we are so much further ahead in this time span than if you look at, say, the history of where men's hockey was at this time.
"I think the game has really come a long way in the [four] Olympics that we've seen."
She says she hopes the powers that be look beyond what happens at the Sochi Games.
"What I think the IOC would be smart to do is look at it on a continual evolving basis and say, 'Hey, is the game growing every year, and show us proof that it's developing and that there's good competition and improvement in competition.' That's what I would base it on, not necessarily one Olympic competition."
Wickenheiser knows what it's like to have a sport dropped from the Games. She competed for the Canadian softball team at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games. Five years later, IOC members voted to remove softball and baseball from the Olympic roster.
This could be the last Olympics for Wickenheiser, her fifth Winter Games. "I think it's just something that is so special to have this as an athlete," she said.