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Team Canada's Natalie Spooner hits the ice against Team USA's Kacey Bellamy, Megan Bozek, and goalie Molly Schaus,

MARK BLINCH/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The future of women's hockey at the Olympics has been given a boost by an IOC executive who says it has played a key role in helping change attitudes about women in sports.

Gilbert Felli, an IOC executive director, said on Friday that he believes women's hockey will remain part of the Olympic program, although he said all sports are reviewed after each Games.

"Yes I think so," Mr. Felli said when asked if he thought women's hockey was safe. He added that hockey federations around the world will have to work hard to make the game more competitive at the Olympics, but he said the overall contribution of the sport has been important.

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Many countries, particularly in Europe, didn't believe women could play hockey until the game became part of the Olympics in 1998, he said.

"Since we introduced it into the Games we can see that in many countries [women now play hockey]," he said. "In my country, Switzerland, we didn't even think that women could play hockey. Since we introduced it into the Olympic Games women hockey teams have started. So that's what the IOC is doing to help the balance of gender [in sports]."

The women's tournament begins on Saturday at the Sochi Olympics and IOC officials will be watching closely to see if it has become more than just a Canada-U.S. showdown. Those teams dominated the event so much at the Vancouver Olympics that the IOC President at the time, Jacques Rogge, suggested the sport could be dropped if the level of competition didn't improve.

This week Canadian hockey stalwart Hayley Wickenheiser said she is concerned about the fate of the game. "The tournament has to be competitive, there's no question, and countries have to show progress. That's the number one thing," said Ms. Wickenheiser who will carry the Canadian flag at Friday's opening ceremonies in Sochi.

On Friday Mr. Felli went on at length about the importance of the IOC keeping sports for women. But he said no sport is entirely safe. "All of these things [in women's hockey] are working, but that's for the women," he said. "For the [Olympic] program altogether, after Sochi we will analyze the different sports to see if some disciplines or some events need to go out or not. And we'll analyze based on fact on what's happened here."

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