GANGNEUNG, South Korea — On the day that the United States women’s hockey team charged into its third consecutive Olympic final, and Canada earned a berth in its fifth in a row, the International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel announced that the women’s Olympic hockey tournament would expand to 10 teams from its current eight in time for the 2022 Games.
International ice hockey officials celebrated the decision, which was announced Monday, and pointed to Japan’s overtime upset of Sweden in the consolation bracket on Sunday as evidence of the budding depth in the women’s game. Yet since women’s ice hockey made its debut in the Olympics in 1998, Sweden is the only team other than the United States or Canada to finish higher than third.
Sweden upset the United States on its way to the silver in 2006, and it has finished fourth in the past two Olympics. Finland, which twice has won the bronze, in 1998 and 2010, played the Americans tough in a 3-1 loss in the opening game of pool play, on the strength of 39 saves from its goaltender, Noora Raty.
Raty is considered perhaps the best goaltender in the women’s game, but in Monday’s semifinal rematch, the sharpshooting Americans overwhelmed her with 38 shots in a 5-0 victory. Three of the Americans’ goals came on power plays, as if the Finns weren’t already outmatched.
“Every girl can shoot now,” Raty said, referring to the Americans. “Their shots have gotten a lot better in four years. It’s harder for the goalie to track the puck.”
Canada, the four-time defending champion, routed Russia’s team in the second semifinal to set up yet another No. 1 and No. 2 showdown. The Olympic final will be the 10th meeting between Canada and the United States since October.
They play over and over because no other country can consistently give either of them a tough test. And when one considers that even those U.S.-Canada games haven’t been particularly competitive — Canada has won the previous five — it is fair to question just how deep the global talent pool is in women’s hockey.
“Canada plays so well as a team, they’re really prepared,” Raty said. “Their system is really good.”
The United States, she said, is “just more individual skill; they have four lines that could play on any other team.”
Raty, 28, the first female goaltender to play in Finland’s second-tier men’s pro league, attended college at the University of Minnesota, where she became the winningest women’s goalie in N.C.A.A. history with 114 victories. She now plays for a team in China, which is striving to develop a competitive women’s team ahead of the 2022 Games in Beijing, but continues to make Minnesota her home base.
Raty’s globe-trotting existence has enabled her to see women’s progress from many sides. She supported her friends on the United States team last year when it threatened to boycott the women’s world championships if U.S.A. Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, did not increase salaries and support for the women’s program. The team’s standoff led to a four-year deal that affords the women greater travel and insurance provisions; a guaranteed $2,000 training stipend per month, year-round, from the United States Olympic Committee; and larger performance bonuses for winning medals.
But Raty is also realistic. She recognized that the same conditions that the American women found untenable would be considered progress among her Finnish teammates. For all of Finland’s international success, Raty said, the country’s system for developing players leaves a lot to be desired.
“I feel like all the good coaches go to the boys’ side,” she said.
And the lack of support goes deeper than that. “In Finland, you say you’re a hockey player and they’re like, ‘Get a real job,’” Raty said, adding, “I feel like in Finland, if you’re not making money in sports you should do something else.”
The United States is different, Raty said. Her American friends might not get big paychecks, but they are encouraged to dream big. “People think it’s cool you’re willing to put your personal life and finances to the side and go after your dreams,” she said.
Will developing hockey countries like South Korea and China pour enough money and resources into their women’s programs to significantly bridge the gap with Canada and the United States? They have their work cut out for them, since the North American pipeline shows no signs of drying up.
Raty, who works with young players in Minnesota, said, “There’s a lot more coming.”
One of the players whom Raty taught a few years ago has arrived. Her name is Maddie Rooney, and on Monday she started in goal for the United States, stopping 14 shots in the semifinal victory. “I take credit for some of the coaching I’ve done with her,” Raty said.
With tongue in cheek, she added, “I’m really happy she played well today, although she could have let in a few goals.”
Monday’s announcement that the Olympics will let in two more teams was celebrated as a victory for women’s hockey. But if an established program like Finland can’t keep pace with the United States, how will the upstarts?
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