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Women’s hockey to make small gains in Sochi after Rogge’s threat in Vancouver

Canada's Caroline Quellette, right, takes a hit from USA's Hilary Knight during pre-Olympic women's hockey action in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, December 12, 2013.

Larry MacDougal/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The changes in women's hockey since Jacques Rogge threatened to kick the sport out of the Winter Olympics will be felt in Sochi, albeit subtly.

The then-president of the International Olympic Committee said at the conclusion of the 2010 Olympic women's hockey tournament that "we cannot continue without improvement."

The U.S. and Canada had outscored their opposition in Vancouver by a combined 88-4. Of the 20 women's games in the tournament, nine were decided by five or more goals.

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Rogge's comment galvanized those with power in the hockey world — the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation — to care about, and become more involved in, the women's game.

But if it takes a decade and a half to build an Olympian, that attention hasn't come soon enough to make the 2014 women's tournament an eight-country race.

Odds are Canada and the U.S. will meet in the final for gold Feb. 20 as they have three of the four times women's hockey has been an Olympic sport. Finland is capable of an upset, but that's a long shot at the Olympic Games where the North Americans will be peaking.

If the gap between the North Americans and the rest of the world has closed at all since Vancouver, it widens in an Olympic year because Canada and the U.S. play more games and spend more money on preparation than the rest.

But Russia and Switzerland are stepping up their games, tightening the race behind the North Americans.

Finland, the Swiss and the Russians have each won the bronze medal at the world championship over the last three years. Sweden, the Olympic silver medalist in 2006, fell behind those countries last year. Germany and Japan round out the Olympic field in Sochi.

Two embarrassing scores will be eliminated in Sochi simply because the IIHF changed the tournament format.

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The top two ranked countries will never face the bottom two, which will prevent scores like the 18-0 thrashing Canada handed Slovakia to open the 2010 women's tournament.

The format change also has Canada and the U.S. squaring off in a preliminary-round game Feb. 12, which adds a marquee matchup to the tournament in addition to the final.

The optics will be somewhat better in Sochi, but the same challenges remain. Canada and the U.S. have thousands more females playing hockey than the rest of the world and their federations invest more dollars in women's hockey than the Europeans and Asians.

IIHF president Rene Fasel doesn't expect the gap between the North Americans and the rest of the world to close in Sochi, but believes it could happen before the next Winter Games in Pyeonchang four years from now.

"Our goal is to be more competitive in (South) Korea in 2018," he said at the 2013 world women's championship. "We need that time to go there."

Coming out of 2010, the IIHF committed two million Swiss francs ($2.1-million) to a plan to grow the female game worldwide.

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At the 2008 world women's championships in Harbin, China, Fasel could not answer any questions put to him by The Canadian Press about the state of women's hockey. After 2010, Fasel was chairing IIHF meetings on the subject.

The IIHF created the position of a director of female hockey, which is a position that doesn't exist on the men's side. Canadian Tanya Foley first held the position, but she stepped down in 2012 and a replacement has yet to be named.

The world's governing body of hockey has held international high performance camps every summer since 2010.

A coach and athlete mentorship program between countries was also established with Canadian forward Hayley Wickenheiser the lead ambassador for the players. Melody Davidson, who coached Canada to the last two Olympic gold medals, is the lead coach mentor.

Under the new tournament format, five games were decided by five or more goals at the 2012 world championship and that number dropped to four in 2013.

But the IIHF initiatives are top-down. For real change, each country's hockey federation has to believe the women's game is worth their time and money.

The NHL's involvement helps women's hockey in North America, but less so worldwide. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames have established financial and marketing relationships with the Canadian Women's Hockey League teams in their respective cities.

The majority of the Canadian team and a large chunk of the U.S. squad play in the CWHL, but the league has few players from outside North America.

The NHL hired WNBA executive Val Ackerman as a consultant on the women's game and the NHL owns the rights to the trademark "WNHL". A women's pro league run by the NHL does not appear imminent, however.

"The NHL being involved has helped marketing and bring more awareness to it," Davidson says. "It does help, but we still have to do it ourselves. As a body, or as a group, women's hockey, we can't expect people to do the job for us. We still have to figure out the ways to make it grow."

The best thing to ever happen to the previously neglected Russian women's team was the country winning the Olympic bid.

A country with hockey facilities and expertise ignored their national women's team until it saw an opportunity to win a medal in Sochi.

The Russian women have taken tremendous strides in a short time with attention paid to coaching, dry-land training and skill development. Nadezhda Alexandrova was named top goalie at the 2013 world championships.

Former NHL star Alexei Yashin was appointed the team's GM just over a year ago and spends a lot of time on the ice with the women.

Had the Russian federation taken these steps after their bronze medal at the 2001 world championship, the Olympic gold in Sochi would be a three-country race.

Better late than never.

"You look at the Russian team as a prime example of what needs to happen," Canadian forward Jayna Hefford says. "For a long time I don't think they had the funding, support or coaching. All of a sudden, they start providing that for their girls and they win a bronze medal within a year."

"A lot of countries, it's just a matter of putting support and funding behind their programs," she added. "Canada and the U.S. are just so far ahead because we've had that for so long. The gap is closing. It's not closing as quick as people want to see it close."

Attitudes towards female sport remain less progressive in some countries than in North America.

"It's a battle of equality and how women are perceived in certain countries and whether they are allowed to play hockey or not, whether they are outcasts for playing the game," Canadian forward Caroline Ouellette says.

"I know a lot of Europeans and it's really challenging. They have no funding, no leagues to play in. Until that gets better, how can we expect those teams to compete with us?"

Finland, the 2010 bronze medalist, is the country with the best chance of upsetting the superpowers, if the planets align for them. The Finns shocked the Americans 3-0 at the Four Nations Cup in November.

Reports are the Finns are extremely fit, which means their coaches have accepted that female athletes can be pushed hard in training.

"They've improved significantly," Davidson says. "They've got the goaltending, probably one of the best goalies if not the best goalie in the world right now. They're so much stronger on the puck. They have, in my opinion, to be playing more games against the guys."

Noora Raty of Finland and Florence Schelling of Switzerland are goaltenders who can gobble up the puck and keep games close.

Switzerland's bronze in 2012 after hosting the women's world championship for the first time the previous year indicates a boost in that country's female program.

In a one-game stakes, there are always outliers. Soft goaltending, and conversely a goalie playing over her head, plus a power-play goal or two, is all it takes for an upset.

Canada, the U.S., Finland and Switzerland make up the A pool in Sochi. The top two countries after the preliminary round advance directly to the semifinals.

The bottom two in Pool A head to the quarter-finals to face the top two countries from the B pool, which consists of Russia, Sweden, Germany and Japan.

The IIHF convinced the IOC to increase the size of the men's Olympic rosters from 23 to 25 in Sochi. The women's Olympic rosters remain at 21, even though countries can take 23 to the women's world championships.

The women will not have the same insurance against injury that the men do. For the countries lacking depth in their lineups, the loss of a player to injury will have a major impact on their fortunes in Sochi.

And while men's international hockey has adopted the two-referee system, the women still have one. Keeping up with the track meet that is a Canada-U.S. game is onerous for a single referee, but countries haven't lobbied the IIHF to add a second to women's games.

Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson did not appreciate Rogge's comment in Vancouver because it devalued the hard work the Canadian women put into winning the gold medal.

Removing women's hockey from the Olympic program would create a major gender imbalance at the Winter Games, which the IOC does not want.

Rogge's term as IOC president has ended since Vancouver, but the former president actually did a lot for women's hockey with a single statement.

"It means that he paid attention, a lot of sports don't even get that," Wickenheiser says. "If we're on the radar of the IOC, to me that's a very good thing.

"Hockey is such a strong, important sport for the Winter Olympics, it would be really premature to pull out women's hockey before you look at the facts and the growth of the game. There's enough evidence there. You can't deny the game is growing."

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