Women's hockey steadily rises

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The U.S. women's hockey team has shared the spotlight with Canada for the last five Olympics.

On one side are the those who don't care. People like the sports talk radio host who was interviewing NBC hockey commentator Pierre McGuire the first week of the Sochi Games. The host wanted to talk only about were the NHL players and their respective Olympics teams. But at the end of the interview, McGuire made a point to praise the speed and skill level of the U.S. women's hockey team, which had just beaten Finland. After a slight pause, the radio host chimed in, "Hey, Tara Lipinski looks pretty hot on the air."

On the other side are the hand-wringers. They think the Canadians and the Americans are so dominant they're playing themselves out of the five-ring circus. "If the spirit of fair play was greater than the power of feminism," Mark Kiszla wrote in The Denver Post, "Olympic hockey for women would be in real trouble."

Oh, please. Nobody is asking the Dutch to defend themselves for winning 19 of the 27 speed-skating medals. There is no movement to eliminate Nordic combined from the Games even though Norway and Germany have won five of the six medals. Yet the border warriors from women's hockey are being asked to apologize for hogging the puck.

People on both sides are missing a good game that's only getting better. Yes, Canada is playing the United States for the gold medal for the fourth time in the five Olympics in which women's hockey has been held. But if you think this is the same old game, think again. The sport is improving year to year, not just Olympiad to Olympiad.

If anything, it's evolving too fast, at least for the officials who can no longer keep up with the physicality and speed. They need to have two refs and two linesmen on the ice, not just three refs. When the U.S. and Canada square off on Thursday, the officials will need all the help they can get to control the action and emotion between two equally talented, mutually antagonistic teams.

AP Photo/Mike Groll

Whenever the United States and Canada face off, the games are almost always more physical.

There's no telling who will win, but there will be great play, fascinating storylines with Hilary Knight and Natalie Spooner showing off their talent and Hayley Wickenheiser and Julie Chu bidding farewell. If the USA-Russia men's game was appointment viewing Saturday morning, so is noon ET Thursday. If you haven't seen the women play, if you think they don't belong in the Olympics, you owe it to yourself and them to watch.

Hats off to the NBC broadcasting crew, which has covered women's hockey with appreciation and respect. McGuire may call them "ladies," but he's the sport's biggest fan, and he sees progress in the teams chasing Canada and the U.S. "Oh my gosh, it is not even close to what we saw in Vancouver," he told USA Today. "Finland has really made improvements. Switzerland has made improvements. I'm really impressed by the tenacity of the Japanese."

The gap between the North Americans and the Europeans is a lot closer than the Sochi scores indicate. Consider the University of North Dakota women's hockey team, which has two Finns, a Dane, a German, a Norwegian and a Swede, as well as a Swedish assistant coach, Peter Elander. Back in November, North Dakota broke the 62-game winning streak of the University of Minnesota, which produced five current U.S. Olympians.

For now, it's a matter of numbers: Canada has 80,000 registered players, the U.S. has 60,000, and the next highest country, Finland, has 5,000. There are world-class players across both the Atlantic and Pacific -- just not enough of them. U.S. coach Katey Stone would encourage more international players to play at U.S. colleges, and both Canada and the U.S. will continue to work together to make their world a little larger.

Rene Fasel, the Swiss dentist who serves as president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, says women's hockey needs time to develop. "We need patience," he said. "We need to work very, very hard to close this gap with the help of USA Hockey and Canadian hockey. We need time. Just give me a little more time."

As for the appeal of women's hockey, Faisel said, "So much passion. You can see how much they want to play."

People on both sides of the argument against it just need to see that.

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