SOCHI, RUSSIA - Apart from who will win the gold, Canada or USA, the lingering question at the XXII Olympic Winter Games in women's hockey is: where to from here?
Critics of the sport's inclusion point to it being a two-country race filled with one-sided games. The IOC basically gave women's hockey a warning four years ago at the Vancouver Games to make the sport more competitive or risk being dropped.
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, as part of an IIHF delegation, met with IOC president Thomas Bach Sunday to discuss the future of women's hockey in the Olympics.
To sum it up, Nicholson left the 30-minute meeting encouraged.
"The one thing I talked to him about is, hey, we were challenged by the IOC coming out of Vancouver, I hope now the IOC understands what the IIHF has done and ... the IOC will be positive," he said.
"Maybe we can catch a wave here, a positive wave and not a negative wave because there has been a lot of progression and there still has to be a lot more. What countries have done in four years doesn't happen in many sports. It'd be great for the IOC to come out strong on female hockey. In fairness, they've challenged in the past, which I don't disagree with, but they should recognize what's happened."
The games have been more competitive here after organizers put the four strongest teams in one pool. While Canada outshot Switzerland 69-14 in their opening game, the score was 5-0. The USA beat Finland 3-1. There weren't any 18-0 scores like we saw in Vancouver.
Canada plays Finland Monday night while the Americans will play the Swiss.
"If I compare to even since Vancouver, the level of speed, of skill, the physical play has increased so much more," said Team Canada captain Caroline Ouellette. "It's not necessarily that the other countries in the world are not catching up, it's that the top countries keep getting better, as well."
Nicholson pointed to the progress Russia has made since Vancouver with former NHLer Alexei Yashin as its general manager. Russia, which won bronze at the women's world championships in Ottawa last spring, beat Germany 4-1 in their opener Sunday.
"I'd love to see Russia do well here," said Nicholson. "It was neat to see (Yashin) come back to Ottawa at the worlds. I talked to him many times. He's loving the experience. He's on the ice playing with the girls. Talk about loving the person who is leading them, they certainly have that with him."
Yashin said he saw a chance to help Russian hockey and get back to the Olympic Games (he was a member of three Olympic teams as a player).
"I really thought I could help with my experience," said Yashin, who goes on the ice in full equipment to help instruct the players.
The biggest difference between his team and the Canadians and Americans? Endurance.
"You look at the Americans and Canadians and they are very fit. They skate very well. They play almost like guys," said Yashin.
Ouellette said the values that are taught through sport for girls are too valuable to surrender and women's hockey should be granted more time to develop, particularly in Europe.
"I think sport in general teaches you so much about life, about leadership, about self-confidence, about teamwork. I can't imagine my life without it. I feel so lucky that I found my passion and I've been able to do it for years," she said. "I came this close to never being able to play the game because my dad said no at first. It took me two years to convince my parents.
"I played with boys all my life until I was 17. We have to realize that some of those countries in Europe, they are where we were when I started playing in the '90s. We have to be patient. Removing it from the Olympics would be an absolute tragedy for our sport. It would absolutely kill it."
Finland and Switzerland look like another couple of speed bumps on the road to the inevitable collision between Canada and the U.S. in the women’s hockey tournament at the Sochi Games.
Canada plays Finland Monday night in the second game of their three-game round robin while the U.S. faces Switzerland.
Canada outshot the Swiss 69-14 and won 5-0 in their opener Sunday.
“We were pretty happy with our start, everyone had lots of energy,” said Team Canada forward Brianne Jenner. “That’s what you want to see at the start, everyone is feeling good and happy with our first win.”
Finland, ranked third in the world, lost 3-1 to the Americans.
“In the first period against USA we were quite shy with the puck,” said Finnish coach Mika Pienineimi. “We have to challenge Canada. I hope we are more courageous with the puck.”
Swiss coach Rene Kammerer probably summed up the task both his team and the Finns face against the two powerhouses of women’s hockey.
“We have to play with more self-confidence and go to the net and think, ‘I can score against Canada, I can score against USA’,” he said.
“Now we go to the net and think, ‘Ooh Canada, ooh USA’.”
Canada and the U.S. meet in the final game of the round robin Wednesday.