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Catching US, Canada requires cash, people and 1 great game

Catching US, Canada requires cash, people and 1 great game

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WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. (AP) — Finland goalie Noora Raty believes her country is closing the gap on the United States and Canada in women's hockey.

She has some proof, too.

The Finns beat Canada 4-3 on April 1 in the preliminary round of the world championships. Raty made 35 saves as Finland earned its first victory over the Canadians in 21 games.

"It's tough when the other team has 10 times the resources we have, but we're doing our best using the resources we have, and I think we're getting there," Raty said. "We know we might lose nine out of 10 games, but we hope that one game is going to be in February. That's all we need."

Ideally, that one win will come again with a medal on the line at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

"To beat them on a regular basis is against all odds," Finland coach Pasi Mustonen said. "But we really believe we can take them a certain night, and that's what we are working for."

The United States and Canada have dominated women's hockey in the 20 years since the sport was added to the Olympics.

Only three other countries have medals. The Americans won the first gold in 1998, and the Canadians took the last three . Sweden broke up the North American hold with silver in 2006 and won bronze in 2002 at Salt Lake City. Switzerland earned its first medal with bronze in 2014, while Finland finished with bronze in 1998 and 2010.

Finland and Sweden both count on strong goalies. China, with Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Games, is busy investing in the sport and might be the best bet to eventually provide a consistent medal threat.

When not playing for Finland, Raty is helping grow women's hockey in China playing with Kunlun Red Star. The far-flung team in the Canadian Women's Hockey League has a roster featuring a handful of Americans and a Canadian. Raty said she believes China has the resources both in terms of money and population to challenge the United States and Canada.

"Once China decides they want to be good at something, they're going to be good at something," Raty said. "I don't know if five years is going to be enough. But if you look at '26, '30 Olympics, if they keep doing what they're doing, they can be a powerhouse someday. It's just a matter of fact, of getting players involved. I heard our online streams, they had over 100,000 people watching our streams. That's nothing out of a billion people, but interest is starting to be there."

Demand is only a piece of the puzzle. Financial resources and a talent pool are also key. Add both to a dedicated commitment to women's hockey, and that's why Canada and the United States do so well.

The Canadians bring together players for months before an Olympics for training, and the Americans started a residency program in Florida in September. The countries also are playing a six-game pre-Olympic exhibition schedule, not counting two games in the Four Nations Cup in November.

"The North Americans, they have a professional team," Mustonen said. "We have people who have children, who study. We aren't even close to those possibilities, so usually what happens (in) the Olympic year is the gap widens once again because they centralize."

Mustonen estimated Finland has about 4,000 registered hockey players compared to the pool of 55,000 in the United States and 90,000 in Canada. Half of Finland's players, like Raty, play abroad. For those still in Finland, they practice at least three times a week with boys teams to mimic playing and practicing against the North Americans.

Lief Boork started coaching the Sweden women's team in 2014 after coaching men for years. Now he's coaching players who must fit games around their work schedules because bills and family needs often come first. That also means cramming games into long weekends.

The Swedes' travel schedule to the Four Nations Cup was so compact that they arrived only hours before their first game. They lost 9-0 to Canada.

Boork noted Sweden also had players playing against Canada for the first time. The Swedish women's hockey league has about 70 foreign players, including forward Jennifer Wakefield of the Canadian national team.

"We are kind of in between," Boork said. "The girls are doing it very well, but we need more experience and more time to develop the team to top international hockey. And that's kind of a financial thing, and our federation has to make up their mind to understand the level of international women's hockey."

Canadian forward Meghan Agosta believes the North American teams have set a high bar for the sport and shown how to build a system. She noted parts of the world needed time to catch Canada and the United States in men's hockey, too.

"Now it's a lot better and the competition is totally there and you can never take a night off," Agosta said. "You want to play against the best to be the best."

The rest of the world keeps trying.

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