Women's hockey is Canada, US - and nobody else
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.
``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.''
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.
This gold medal match was a lock before a puck even hit the ice here. Counting Thursday's win, Canada now owns the last three gold medals; the U.S. won the first.
In a measure of how deep respect runs on both sides of the border, thousands of fans in red Canadian jerseys broke into chants of ``USA! USA!'' when the Americans were awarded their silver medals. Likewise, many of the few blue-clad U.S. fans got to their feet when the Canadians collected their golds.
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. Had you seen the Swedes lose to Finland in the bronze medal game earlier in the afternoon - all you need to know is that Finland had a few women who had problems making high-speed turns - it was easy to understand why.
The Swedes, beaten 13-1 by Canada earlier in the tournament, had to replace nine players from their team in Turin. Many of them were still young enough to play but tired of the scrimping and sacrifices required to remain part of the national team program over there.
Contrast that with the turnover on Canada's roster. Their team has seven new players, but that's because there's intense competition for every spot. That's how Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both goals for Canada, earned hers. And she's all of 18.
The disparity is so great between these two and everybody else that International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge felt compelled to address it during a press conference earlier in the day. He gave the rest of the world eight years at the outside 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.''
Good luck with that.
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.
How's this for six degrees of separation: Canada beat Slovakia, which had 267 players to choose from, by an 18-0 score. The Slovaks made the field here by trouncing Bulgaria 82-0 in a qualifying game. It makes you shudder to think how shallow the player pool is back there.
Small wonder, too, that there's already talk of a mercy rule when the women's hockey tournament kicks off in Sochi.
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.
So here's a preview: At 31, Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser played in all four Olympics. Winning the gold on home soil reminded her what a long trip she and her teammates have been on.
``The midget games, the junior games that we played. Been up a goal, down a goal. We've faced adversity. Played through fatigue. Long bus trips. There was nothing really that we could see today,'' she said, ``that could surprise us or throw us off.
``That's part of being an Olympic champion, doing all the little things when nobody is watching.''
The clock has started ticking on the rest of the world. Unless the competition gets serious - and fast - all those women and all their sacrifices to get a game in the Olympics they could call their own are going to disappear. All because it wound up being owned so completely by their sisters from just two lands.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org