VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Canada's debut 18-0 demolition of Slovakia in front of a gleeful home crowd reopened the oldest question in women's hockey: Is this sport competitive enough to belong in the Olympics at all?
By scoring more goals than most teams will manage in an entire tournament, Canada managed the biggest blowout in games history. And there could be a repeat Sunday, when the equally powerful American team could be compelled to do something similar to nearly-as-vulnerable China.
Canada opened its run at a third straight gold medal outshooting Slovakia 67-9 and scoring 13 goals in the first two periods. The Canadians chalked up their merciless spree to a desire to avoid bad habits while preparing for the extremely unlikely need for a goal-differential tiebreaker.
"I thought the Slovakians played us really, really well," Canadian coach Melody 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."
That pool is awfully shallow on the top end. Every minute of Canada's opener was an emphatic, painful demonstration of its wildly superior skill in a sport still derided for its lack of parity 12 years after its Olympic introduction in Nagano.
Canada's performance could even rile some Canadians — including Don Cherry, the Great White North's irascible hockey icon who took the team to task four years ago after its blowout of Italy, saying it wasn't "the Canadian way."
"Hockey is not a game you can turn on and off," said four-time Olympian Jayna Hefford, whose three goals and three assists tied the single-game Olympic record for points. "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."
Parity is getting closer in women's hockey, but it's still a dream. Canada and the U.S. team still loom over second-tier Sweden and Finland, with the rest of the world fighting even to be slightly competitive in international play.
When the Americans face China, they might be forced to decide whether it's possible — or necessary — to show compassion for an up-and-coming program. Canada already knows its answer: It's responsible for the four biggest blowouts in Olympic history. Hefford completed her hat trick on the goal that surpassed Canada's 16-0 win over Italy in Turin.
Just 99 seconds in, Haley Irwin scored the first goal. Although the fans at Hockey Canada Place celebrated zealously with each of the 18 bursts of Vancouver's deafening foghorn, they threw no toques onto the ice for either Canadian hat trick by Hefford and Meghan Agosta.
Almost guiltily, they gave another standing ovation to the dazed Slovak players afterward.
"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."
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. With its entire international experience in the second division of competition, Slovakia had never faced Canada.
"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)."
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.
"These are tough games to play," said forward Caroline Oullette, who had a goal and four assists. "We shared the puck, and we wanted everyone to get a chance to score. We want close games. That is why we train so hard. We want to show our fans some even games."
The real victim was Slovak goalie Zuzana Tomcikova, who made 49 saves, many in spectacular fashion. 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."