Medal-round coaches defend women's hockey

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The competitiveness - and future - of women's hockey in the Olympics remained an issue on the day Finland won the bronze medal and the United States and Canada played for gold.

IOC president Jacques Rogge said Thursday he isn't ready to pull the plug on Olympic women's hockey, at least not yet even though the Canadians and Americans beat everyone else by a combined 86-4 at this tournament. He said the IOC will give the sport four to eight more years to build depth.

But he sounded a warning.

"There must be at a certain stage an improvement, we cannot continue without improvement. There is an improvement in the number of nations - and we want to see this wider," Rogge said.

"Women's hockey is a growing sport. There is no doubt that in the future women's hockey will be a hit."

Coaches from other nations are adamant that they've been working to close the competitive gap, but they need resources - chiefly, dollars - to catch up.

"The North American teams' sports federations have eight times Sweden's budget for women's hockey," Sweden coach Peter Elander said after his team lost 3-2 in overtime to the Finns in the bronze-medal match. "They have twice as many days together as we do.

"The finances for all teams have to be the same. ... If you want to have a close tournament in Sochi (for the 2014 Olympics), have (comparable) national programs in all countries."

With his voice rising in anger, Elander noted how the U.S. and Canada have a pool of girls from which to choose elite players that is 20 times that of Sweden. He pointed out Canadian and American players play together much more than their European counterparts, who often come to America to play collegiately because university hockey for women overseas remains in its beginning stages, if it exists at all.

European girls who don't want to move half a world away from home as teenagers to play college hockey and be educated in a second language often simply give up what they see as a dead-end sport in high school - or before.

Finland coach Pekka Hamalainen agreed with his rival coach.

"Of course the numbers of players are totally different. We can never compete with the numbers," he said through an interpreter. "Resources, that's another issue."

Buoyed by the country's first medal in women's hockey in 12 years, Hamalainen said the Finnish hockey federation is launching a program after these games to develop a more advanced under-18 team "with the sole goal being to win gold."

"It's a big battle, and that's the one we're going to do," Hamalainen said.

Last week, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation said there could be a mercy rule for the women in Sochi. Rene Fasel also said the lopsided results of the women's tournament at the Vancouver Games was no surprise to him - for the same reasons Elander outlined.

But Fasel insists that the rest of the world just needs time to catch up, adding, "It will be our task to help other federations. We have to go through this."

"The U.S. and Canadian girls, they are living on another planet," Fasel said. "There are 88,000 girls who play in Canada ... there are 267 girls playing in Slovakia. It's just part of the development."

Fasel made a point of noting China has 200 million girls, but only 67 play hockey.

"Not 67 million. Not 67 thousand," he said. "Sixty-seven."