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Marie-Philip Poulin of Canada in action against Olympics Athletes from Russia during the Olympic semifinal game on Feb. 19, 2018.GRIGORY DUKOR

When Canada plays the United States for the gold medal in women's hockey Thursday, it will be the fifth time in the past six Winter Olympics the two superpowers have met. The only time the tournament hasn't come down to those two countries was when Sweden stunned the Americans in a shootout in the 2006 semi-final – only to be clobbered by the Canadians three days later.

For as long as it's been in the Olympics, women's hockey has been a two-country tournament with other countries seemingly thrown in just to round out the schedule. When Canada embarrassed Slovakia 18-0 in at the 2010 Vancouver Games, the blowout was less an indicator of the host-country's prowess than it was a warning sign for the state of the game.

Though Sweden, Finland, Russia – and even Korea – have made great strides in women's hockey in recent years, what the Games so far in Pyeongchang have shown is that the rest of the field is still running far behind Canada and the United States, and the drop-off in talent remains steep.

Despite this, the head of the sport's governing body made the rather bold proclamation on Monday that women's hockey will achieve parity faster than the men's game ever did.

And in this case, parity means a smaller hockey nation beating the likes of Canada.

"It will take less time than the men's teams" International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel said.

"I have some numbers from the 1930s when Canada beat Switzerland 30-0. … It was 70 years [before the Swiss men would beat Canada]. The women are closer."

He was referring to a game at the 2006 Olympics in which the Swiss beat Canada 2-0 in men's hockey, causing no shortage of angst among Canadian fans. Asked after that game whether he thought a win was even possible, Swiss forward Flavian Conne responded to a reporter: "Are you crazy, man?"

Men's hockey in Switzerland has continued to develop in the intervening years, producing several top NHL players. But Mr. Fasel is probably right – it likely won't take seven decades for the Swiss women to notch a win against Canada.

However, his comments may have more to do with the IIHF's desire to ensure China's women's team gets a spot at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing than they do with raising the overall level of play.

On Monday, Mr. Fasel announced the women's tournament would be expanded to 10 teams for 2022, an increase from the current eight-country format, with the extra spots ensuring a berth for China.

"That is correct," Mr. Fasel said. "The Chinese, at the last meeting we had in Beijing, there was a request to add two women's teams."

There are positives and negatives. Canadian forward Jennifer Wakefield said the benefit of adding more teams to the mix is that it forces the hockey federations of those countries to invest in the sport, which spurs development of players and helps the game as a whole.

Adding countries such as Austria, Norway and Denmark makes sense, she said.

"I played with a bunch of players that were just on the cusp of the last world championships and I think it's great to get Austria more involved, Norway, Denmark; there's some really great players," Ms. Wakefield said. "And for us to branch out into 10 teams, they're going to really push the federations to put more money into women's hockey."

The downside is the blowouts that will likely ensue.

But Mr. Fasel doesn't seem worried. He said the IIHF has been pleasantly surprised by the level of play in Pyeongchang. However, those comments came before the Americans' 5-0 blowout of Finland in the semi-final, and Canada's 5-0 defeat of Russia to advance to the gold-medal game. Neither outcome was ever in doubt.

Mr. Fasel said that since that game in Vancouver where Canada beat Slovakia by 18 goals, "we have had progress."

It was telling though, that when Canada and the United States finished their respective semi-final games, the players and coaches talked of having prepared all year for an eventual gold-medal game against the other – stating the obvious, that the matchup could have been predicted long ago.

"Everyone's plans are falling into place," Canadian coach Laura Schuler said. "It's awesome at the world's biggest stage for everybody to watch two powerhouses go at it."

Canadian and American hockey fans would probably agree, since the two women's teams have produced one of the best rivalries hockey has to offer. But for the game to expand, Mr. Fasel needs it to move beyond just two countries.

A former player, Ms. Schuler was on the 1998 Canadian team, the year women's hockey was introduced at the Olympics and the Americans won gold. It is the only time Canada has not won the tournament.

"It was a back-and-forth hockey game and unfortunately the puck bounced their way that time," Ms. Schuler said of the 1998 gold-medal game. "Right before those Olympics, we had played the U.S. 14 times, we won seven, they won seven and they won the 15th game. You could have given us another period and it probably would have went the other way."

Heading into Thursday, Canada and the United States are just as closely matched as ever. But for now, just as it was in '98, that's the kind of parity Mr. Fasel can only dream of for the rest of the field.

Two of North Korea's most senior officials were sat directly behind South Korea's president during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games, which have provided some respite from the tense relations between the two countries.


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