By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada's women's ice hockey team got the Vancouver Winter Games party started with a record 18-0 win over Slovakia Saturday in a blowout that raised more questions about the sport's place in the Olympics.
After an opening day that failed to produce a gold medal for the host country, Canada's dominance over Slovakia served as the perfect tonic for a raucous flag-waving capacity crowd of 16,496 at Canada Hockey Place.
But it was not the result Olympic and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) officials wanted to see with more and more people questioning whether women's ice hockey has developed enough to belong in the Games.
"I don't think it helps our sport, but at the same time we know moving forward every Olympics the competition gets better," Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser told Reuters. "You can't lose sight of that, it's just part of developing the game.
The one-sided game was predictable, with Canada the two-time defending Olympic gold medalists and Slovakia making its Olympic debut.
"I always remind people, on the men's side it was like this early on lopsided scores for sure," said Wickenheiser. "It's the Olympic Games, you don't come here to just dump the puck and sit back."
While Canada has over 85,000 women playing hockey, including four who have skated in four Olympics, Slovakia has just 263 and the difference in depth and quality was on full display.
Even before the entire crowd was in its seats the game had already been decided. Canada raced to a 3-0 lead a little after five minutes into the game and increased the margin to 7-0 by the end of the opening period.
The rampaging Canadians, with hat-tricks from Jayna Hefford and Meghan Agosta, added six more goals in the second and five in the third. With the win, Canada replaced its 16-0 demolition of Italy at the 2006 Turin Winter Games as the most lopsided ever at a Winter Games.
Canada's 18 goals were double the number of shots the Slovakians had on net.
"We were trying to do our best but it wasn't possible, they were so fast," said Slovakian forward Petra Pravlikova. "Canada was amazing.
"These kinds of games we have to play to improve."
But there were no tears shed for the 11th ranked Slovakians, who earned a place in the Vancouver Games with the help of an 82-0 win over Bulgaria. That victory is an IIHF record for the largest winning margin and the highest scoring game on record.
Both teams dismissed the blowout as growing pains but players are aware women's softball was chopped from the Summer Olympics partly because it did not have enough countries capable of competing at a high level. Women ski jumpers have been denied entry for the same reason.
The women's tournament is unlikely to produce any drama until the gold medal game, which once again is expected to be a showdown between old rivals Canada and the United States.
Women's ice hockey has been in the Games since 1998 and Canada and the U.S. have won every gold medal.
The world championships have also been dominated by the two hockey super powers. Since 1990 there have been 12 world champions, Canada winning nine and the U.S. three.
"Slovakia didn't give up and that's what the Olympics are about," said Hefford. They're not going to give up, we're not going to give up.
"At the end of the day the score is the score but we're here to put our best performance on the ice every night."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)