VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Canada Hockey Place's flag-festooned crowd practically shook the ice into cubes with a soul-stirring pregame ovation for its mighty women's hockey team. The home fans even roared for the Slovak opponents tentatively edging onto that ice for their Olympic debut.
And then Canada stopped being gracious hosts during a jaw-dropping victory that will make some people wonder why Slovakia — and women's hockey — are in the Olympics at all.
Canada opened its run at a third straight gold medal with the biggest blowout in Olympic history Saturday night, mercilessly thrashing Slovakia 18-0.
Meghan Agosta and Jayna Hefford scored three goals apiece, with Hefford completing her hat trick on the goal that surpassed Canada's 16-0 win over Italy in Turin. Agosta and Carolina Ouellette had five points apiece, and five Canadians had multigoal games. Every skater scored except defenseman Meaghan Mikkelson.
"Hockey is not a game you can turn on and off," said Hefford, whose six points tied the single-game Olympic record. "We don't want to get into bad habits. The Olympics is about not giving up. The Slovaks didn't give up, and we didn't give up."
Although the fans celebrated zealously with each of the 18 bursts of Vancouver's deafening foghorn, they threw no hats onto the ice for either Canadian trick. Almost guiltily, they gave another standing ovation to the dazed Slovak players afterward.
Yet every minute was an emphatic, painful demonstration of Canada's wildly superior skill in a sport still derided for its lack of parity 12 years after its Olympic introduction in Nagano. Canada and the Americans still loom over second-tier Sweden and Finland, with the rest of the world fighting even to be slightly competitive in international play.
Canada's debut demolition won't help matters, and it could even rile some Canadians — including hockey icon Don Cherry, who took the team to task four years ago after its blowout of Italy.
Coach Melody Davidson and her players say they refuse to let up because goal differential could determine placement in the playoff round if another club somehow manages to beat or tie Canada in the preliminaries.
"I thought the Slovakians played us really, really well," Davidson said with a straight face. "I thought they battled hard and competed really hard. It's great to see countries throughout the world growing and joining the pool."
Slovakia beat Germany in a tiebreaking game at last year's world championships to earn its first Olympic berth, but a rough draw almost guaranteed a brutal beginning to the Olympic tournament.
Zuzana Tomcikova made 49 saves, many in spectacular fashion, in her thankless job as Slovakia's goalie behind her overmatched teammates. The Canadians sometimes had absurd amounts of time to make plays in open ice, skating around Slovak defenders as if they were orange cones in a puck-handling drill.
"I didn't even know how many shots there were, but I didn't think I played as well as I could," said Tomcikova, who attended high school in Canada and plays at Bemidji State in Minnesota. "My girls did so well in front of me, and I'm sorry I didn't help them more."
Canada has high hopes for double gold medals in its favorite sport, where national heroes such as Wayne Gretzky set a lofty standard. Just 99 seconds into the opener, Haley Irwin scored the first goal — and Canada scarcely slowed down, outshooting Slovakia 67-9.
Canada had four goals in the first 8½ minutes and led 7-0 after one period before Agosta completed her hat trick midway through the second period for a 10-0 lead. Canada then scored two short-handed goals during the same Slovakia power play moments later before nursing a 13-0 advantage into the third.
"It was a tough game, but it was an amazing experience," Slovak captain Iveta Karafiatova said. "Team Canada is at another level. I just hope that people realize that back home in Slovakia."
With its entire international experience in the second division of competition, Slovakia had never faced Canada. For an example of the talent disparities in this still-young sport, this same Slovak team beat Bulgaria 82-0 in a qualifying tournament in 2008 — two weeks after Bulgaria got its uniforms and skates.
"We joined this big hockey family to learn," Slovakia coach Miroslav Karafiat said. "The ideal for us would be to play games like this ... about 20 times (a year)."
Kim St. Pierre stopped nine shots for Canada, getting the easiest start on the club's schedule. Shannon Szabados is expected to play Canada's tougher games.