U.S. dampens Chinese New Year celebrations

By Steve Keating

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The Chinese New Year felt more like the Fourth of July as the United States women's ice hockey team provided all the fireworks in a 12-1 victory in their Winter Olympics opener on Sunday.

The U.S. team again underlined the massive range of ability in the eight-team women's tournament with a rout that followed Canada's record 18-0 dismantling of Slovakia on Saturday.

The results added fuel to the debate over whether women's hockey belongs in the Winter Games.

"They are obviously a developing country in terms of hockey," American defenseman and four-times Olympian Angela Ruggiero told reporters. "Women deserve the right to be here.

"It's coming along if you look at the populations of the percentage of women who play hockey in China and the U.S. it's disproportionate right now.

"If China takes hold of hockey they could be very good."

With a population of close to 1.3 billion China has a deep pool of athletic talent but there are fewer than 200 registered women hockey players and no national league.

China was moving toward ice hockey respectability in the 1990s, finishing fourth at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

STEADY DECLINE

They slipped to seventh in Salt Lake City and hit rock bottom after failing to earn a spot at the 2006 Turin Olympics but the Chinese are once again showing promise under Finnish coach Hanna Saintula.

"It is not so easy to play these type of games because we don't have a league, only this team," said Saintula. "We have to play exhibition games all over the world.

"We can learn from every second of every shift. These games are important for us if we are going to improve our game.

"Today is a great lesson for my team."

Class started early for the Chinese on Sunday.

With U.S. vice-president Joe Biden and 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic chief Mitt Romney looking on, the Americans jumped out to a 5-0 first period lead.

Jenny Potter led the U.S. with a hat-trick but China's Jin Fengling scored the game's most appreciated goal, backhanding a rebound to deny the Americans a shutout and spark wild celebrations at a sold-out Thunderbird Arena.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)