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Women's hockey officials say blowouts are sport's growing pains

Canada's women's hockey team recorded another blowout victory in Monday's preliminary round in Vancouver, this one a 10-1 rout of Switzerland. It wasn't a record-setter like the 18-0 win over Slovakia in the opener Saturday, but it wasn't pretty, either.

Nor will the U.S. team's matchup against Russia on Tuesday night be a barn-burner. The Americans hung a 12-1 score on China on Sunday in their Olympic opener.

Eighteen goals. A 64-9 shot differential. Is this the Olympic ideal? Should there be a mercy rule for women's hockey?

Definitely not, say those involved in women's hockey — even the ones on the receiving end of such blowouts.

"I am not so happy, I must say. But that's the beginning of women's hockey," said Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. "When you have a country like Canada that has 80,000 female players against a country like Slovakia that has 200 females, you are going to get games like (that)."

And here's Zuzana Tomcikova, the Slovakian goaltender: "Women's hockey in our country doesn't have so much experience. It just started 10 years ago or so. We're still a building program. I hope people at home liked our game and how we fought and they're going to support us more."

When women's hockey was added in 1998, the same year that the men's hockey field became an all-star affair with NHL players, two countries had established women's programs: the United States and Canada. The rest of the world, eastern Europe in particular, lagged way behind. Clearly, it still does, given that hockey-mad countries such as Slovakia and Russia still don't have women's programs that excel.

But that doesn't mean the women should have mercy rules or any other special treatment. There were no such stopgaps in place for Angola when it had to play the U.S. basketball "Dream Team" in the 1992 Summer Games, nor for any of the Soviet Union's preliminary-round opponents in the 1950s and 1970s.

Learning on the big Olympic stage is part of the ideal for athletes who don't have the history or the resources yet to compete with the big boys and big girls. Fasel, who is Swiss, recalled a 20-0 men's hockey win by Canada over Switzerland in the 1930s.

"And in Torino (in 2006), Switzerland beat Canada, 2-0," Fasel said. "It took nearly 70 years to come on the same level, and the women are growing fast now at the moment."

There are some good signs, such as Swedish goaltender Kim Martin, who plays at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She helped beat the United States in the semifinals in Turin, Italy, a win that is the Olympic women's equivalent of the 1980 U.S. men's team beating the Soviets.

Slovakian goaltender Tomcikova plays for Bemidji State, a Division I college program.

It's a slow process. There will be more blowouts this week on the way to an anticipated Canada-U.S. gold-medal game. But there is no need for hand-wringing, especially when the women who suffered the 18-0 defeat are proud to have been out on the ice in Vancouver, representing their country in the Olympics for the first time.

"We belong here because we made it through (qualifying), and we need more games like this to improve," Slovakian defenseman Barbora Bremova said.

Oh, and in that qualifying tournament, Slovakia beat Bulgaria.

The score was 82-0.

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