Sam Donnellon: U.S. women hockey foes skating uphill in Vancouver

Forward Kelli Stack celebrates after beating Shi Yao for one of 12 goals the United States scored against China.
Forward Kelli Stack celebrates after beating Shi Yao for one of 12 goals the United States scored against China.
Posted: February 15, 2010

VANCOUVER - The loudest ovation among the large contingent of North American fans at Thunderbird Arena yesterday was for China's Fengling Jin, which underlines the quagmire for women's Olympic hockey. By the time Jin's power-play goal ruined the American shutout, the U.S. had scored 11 goals, forcing even Joe Biden to cover his mouth at times for fear of being caught yawning.

"In a perfect scenario you want people to turn on the TV and have their eyes glued," said U.S. captain Natalie Darwitz, who scored the final goal of a 12-1 thumping. "But when you turned on today you probably said, 'Ah, yuck. I'm going to go watch ski jumping or something else."

Ah, yuck. It's the real problem for the U.S., and Canada, too. There's us, them, Sweden and Finland maybe, then a whole lot of yuck. The day before, the Canadian women pounded Slovakia, 18-0, and the story managed to be about Slovakia goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova, who made 10 mouth-openers among her 49 saves, and had the winning team shaking their heads afterward.

"We put up 18 goals, but almost every goal was through traffic," Canada's Jayna Hefford said.

Yesterday's No.1 star also may have been the losing goalie. Shi Yao faced 61 shots and stopped 49, continually bailing out her defense.

The scary thing is that to a player, the Americans thought the Chinese team had greatly improved since the last time they played in a world championship. Spurred by its own hosting of the summer games 2 years ago, China is indeed spending more yuan on sports than ever, and yes, it has trickled to its women's team. It now has a Finnish coach, Hannu Juhani Saintula, behind the bench, and positionally at least, it was clear China had a clue as to how to play the game.

But when Saintula called the game, "A good lesson for us on how to play in our own end," adding that, "We can't practice that," he too was underlining the abyss that keeps this competition light years away from competing.

Indeed, most of the evidence leans the other way. The number of girls playing ice hockey in America continues to grow and it's easy to understand why. More rinks, more opportunity to play, and a need by major programs to balance expenditures on their men's teams with investments on women's teams have made it a lucrative avenue to get a college education. A New York Times story in 2008 revealed that the average scholarship for a Division 1 woman player was $20,540, more than double that of a woman basketball player.

There are almost 600 such players right now.

"And we've been really fortunate in North America to get finances from our national governing bodies that allow us to train and play," said Julie Chu, one of the U.S. assistants. "That makes it difficult to close that gap."

The college avenue is one way. Slovakia's goalie, for example, plays hockey for Bemidji State in Minnesota. Jin may have played her way into a free ride with yesterday's performance alone. The accidental beauty of Title IX, at least from a foreign standpoint, is that you don't have to be an American to cash in.

That's a slow, laborious way of leveling the ice, however. And one that may take too long for us to pause our thumbs on that remote. Once thought to be an immediate inevitability, the idea of an Olympic tournament in which six or seven teams have medal hopes seems no closer now than it was three Olympics ago.

Mark Johnson, the U.S. coach, was even asked about a mercy rule yesterday. One of the Miracle on Ice Olympians of 1980, Johnson said that was no way to grow a sport. You might also recall that his team was beaten, 10-3, by the mighty Soviets 2 weeks before it pulled off the greatest upset in Olympic history.

Johnson also noted the number of lopsided scores in the under-20 men's world competition recently.

"My answer to your question is no," he said.

Which is another way of saying there is no answer to this conundrum. Not now. Not on any horizon, immediate or otherwise. The U.S. team's next game is against Russia, tomorrow. In other sports, at almost any time, that kind of matchup would provoke lots of oohs and aahs.

Women's hockey?

More yuck.

Right before your thumb presses down on the channel button.

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