By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The NHL is prepared to throw women's hockey an Olympic lifeline and said on Thursday that it is in talks to help set up a North American professional league for the world's top female players.
After years of dominance by Canada and the United States, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge warned at the Vancouver Olympics that women's hockey must be more competitive or risk removal from the Winter Games.
An elite league is considered a key step in helping narrow the massive gap in talent that has left women's hockey fighting for Olympic survival.
The league could look similar to the WNBA, which partnered with the National Basketball Association to form a professional women's basketball circuit that began in 1997 with all teams owned by the NBA.
"We've been having dialogue over a couple of months discussing structures of a women's league," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly during a break in meetings on the final day of the World Hockey Summit.
"We talked about getting more specific and building a business plan and seeing what ways, if any, the NHL can help facilitate those efforts."
The NHL's efforts to help women's hockey comes at the same time it is considering ending its participation at the Winter Games. Citing various concerns, the NHL has not committed to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Meanwhile, the women players have pleaded for patience and remind the IOC that their first world championship was in 1990 and only entered the Olympic program in 1998.
In some countries the women's hockey is still battling the stereotype that "a woman's place is in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant," according to Melody Davidson, coach of Canada's national women's team.
While an elite league is a step in the right direction, the road to parity is sure to be a long one for women's hockey.
But Hayley Wickenheiser, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and captain of Canada's national team, said there are serious talks going that can level the playing field.
"We start by bringing the best European players over to North America where women's hockey is most popular," said Wickenheiser. "We invest in them, we help them learn what it's like to play at the most elite level and they take that experience back to their own countries."
Speaking to delegates, Wickenheiser rolled out an alarming set of numbers that showed the huge gap between Canada and the United States and the rest of women's hockey playing world.
While Canada has 85,000 women players with well developed grass-roots programs, Russia and China have fewer than 1,000 registered players and six rinks available to women hockey.
The budget for Canada's national team is C$2.1 million ($2 million) and, with the exception of the United States, other countries' budgets are about a quarter of that.
For instance, Peter Elander, who coached Sweden at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games and is now a coach at the University of North Dakota, said his team's budget is twice that of the Swedish national team.
"To me the most glaring thing is how countries like Russia, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, good hockey countries have relatively little or no investment in their women's national teams," said Wickenheiser.
"For me on a federation and country level it is just not good enough we have to raise the bar."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)