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MORRISSEY: Talent gap still wide at Sochi in women’s hockey

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Updated: March 18, 2014 6:27AM

SOCHI, Russia — Russian women’s hockey coach Mikhail Chekanov was not a happy man after Switzerland upset his team Saturday.

“We wish much luck to all the journalists who will clearly have much joy criticizing us,’’ he said.

This is how you know women’s hockey is making strides: It has critics!

The talent gap between U.S.-Canada and the rest of the world in women’s hockey might or might not be closing — it depends on whom you ask. We’re not seeing the 11-0 laughers as often as we used to at the Winter Games. There might even come a time when people will look to women’s hockey for something other than the possibility of another U.S.-Canada brawl.

Japan, which hadn’t scored an Olympic goal in 16 years — no, that’s not a misprint — scored one last week in a 2-1 loss to Russia.

“This game is growing, and you have to be patient,’’ American coach Katey Stone said. “When men’s hockey started competing in the Olympics a long time ago, there was a lot of disparity. And look where they are now. It takes time.’’

The United States or Canada has won every Olympics and World Championship gold medal in women’s hockey. Sweden and Finland have been alone in a decidedly second tier. But now the Swiss are rising a bit. The Russians were, too, until their slip here knocked them out of medal contention. The Finns also are out of medal contention after losing to Sweden.

In most Olympic sports, countries don’t want their competitors to get better. This is different. This is survival. After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, there were real concerns that the International Olympic Committee might shut down women’s hockey. Then-IOC president Jacques Rogge had said, ‘We cannot continue without improvement.’’ A two-team tournament isn’t much of a tournament.

Last week, an IOC spokesman said the organization is “very pleased’’ with the quality of competition here. But Germany coach Peter Kathan, having watched his team lose to Finland on Sunday, didn’t sound like a guy who sees a whole lot of gap-closing going on.

“The level of ice hockey in North America is better, and there is a big gap between there and Europe,’’ he said. “It is a big gap, as big as the Atlantic Ocean.’’

When Switzerland eliminated Russia on Saturday, it was looked upon as a sign of progress for women’s hockey. The Russians, on the rise in women’s hockey, had pumped a lot of money into their national program. And here was Switzerland, with a population of about eight million people, beating them 2-0.

It was not seen as progress by Chekanov.

“While this is not the last day of our lives, clearly there is a huge gap between Switzerland and Russia,’’ he said. “We are clearly weaker. We have to be more determined in the future and work harder.’’

When the U.S. and Canada faced each other last week, the speed on display was striking compared with the rest of the world. Canada won that game 3-2. If the two teams don’t meet in the gold-medal game Thursday, it will be a huge upset.

In Vancouver, the U.S. beat Sweden 9-1 to get to the gold-medal game. Are the days of lopsided scores over? Probably not. The Americans beat the Swiss 9-0 last week. But give it some time.

“It’s actually developed quicker than men’s hockey,’’ said Canadian Hayley Wickenheiser, who is playing in her fifth Olympics. “If you look at men’s hockey, It took the Finns like 90 years to beat the Canadians in the World ­Championship. We’re ahead of the game here.’’

This is about money, as it usually is. The United States and Canada have put money into its national programs and have grown the game from the ­grass-roots level. Other countries don’t have it so good.

“It is a problem after this Olympic period because we … will lose about 10 players who will have to go to work,’’ Kathan said. “We will have to find ­players.’’

Kendall Coyne, a 21-year-old U.S. forward from Palos Heights, has been playing hockey since she was 4. She played with boys’ teams until she was 15 because that was the way to improve. That’s changing, she said. Her sister, who is four years younger, played only on girls’ teams, where there is more talent now.

“The amount of growth that ­women’s hockey has had, you’re able to play girls’ hockey growing up and still make it to this level,’’ Kendall Coyne said.

Now, if only the world would catch up.

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