Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

The first question to be asked about the women's ice hockey competition now underway at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games is an all-too-familiar one: will gold go to the United States or to Canada?

Since the first official Women's World Championship in 1990 - and the inaugural Olympic women's tournament in 1998 - every major title has gone either to the US, defending champions in Beijing, or Canada, the current world champions.

And all but two finals - at the 2006 Winter Olympics and the 2019 World Championship - involved these nations.

Nothing that has happened since the women's preliminary group matches began on Thursday (February 3), before the Opening Ceremony, has appeared to alter this balance of power.

The relative balance of power may have been affected by the injury in the opening match to the US leading light Brianna Decker that will keep her out of the tournament. But even this is hard to gauge, as the Pyeongchang 2018 champions are drawing strength from the loss of their fallen star, who remains in Beijing as a talismanic figure.

"From the beginning our biggest two words have been 'adjust and adapt'," said US forward Grace Zumwinkle after scoring her first Olympic goal in yesterday’s 5-0 win over the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team.

"She's obviously a huge part of this team but we're going to rally around her and come out stronger because of it."

While no Olympian is safe from the potential heartbreak of competition-ending injury, Decker's departure from the ice hit the unbeaten US particularly hard, even providing extra motivation as tempers flared against the ROC.

"Today we were definitely playing with an extra chip on our shoulder just for her, doing whatever we can to make her proud," said team-mate Savannah Harmon.

Losing key player Brianna Decker to injury in their opening match has hardened the resolve of the United States women's ice hockey team as they defend their Olympic title in Beijing ©Getty Images
Losing key player Brianna Decker to injury in their opening match has hardened the resolve of the United States women's ice hockey team as they defend their Olympic title in Beijing ©Getty Images

The US’ Olympic victories at the 1998 and 2018 Games book-end four consecutive golds for Canada, who beat their perennial rivals 3-2 in overtime at last year's International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship on the home ice of Calgary.

The latest women’s Olympic ice hockey tournament has been expanded to include 10 teams, with the five leading nations in Group A initially playing for quarter-final rankings and the five in Group B seeking the three remaining spots in the last eight.

But will the largest women's Olympic tournament thus far engender a boom of the kind which has occurred in women's basketball or soccer? That is another all-too-familiar question that will not be simply resolved when the final takes place at the Wukesong Arena on February 17.

Despite more than 30 years of global competition, there is still no fully operational women's professional league in North America, although the Zhenskaya Hockey League, also known as the Women’s Hockey League and now involving nine Russian and one Chinese team, has been operational since June 2015.

In the US, elite women players threatened a boycott over low wages in 2017, and were given a significant rise by USA Hockey, with typical earnings moving up from $6,000 (£4,400/€5,200) a year to $70,000 (£51,000/€61,000). But they are still a world away from their compatriots in professional basketball or soccer.

With the Beijing 2022 Games on the horizon, development of the Chinese women's game was accelerated when two teams, combining native and imported players, took part in the Canadian Women's Hockey League.

When the latter collapsed in 2019, the two Chinese teams merged into the entity currently supplying every member of the women's Beijing 2022 roster - the KRS Vanke Rays - and joined the Zhenskaya Hockey League.

The first newspaper report of an official women’s ice hockey match occurred in 1891, when, on February 11, the Ottawa Citizen published an account of a game between two unnamed teams.

During the 1920s, college teams were formed in both the US and Canada, but after the Second World War the growth of the women’s game slowed, with the main focus falling on the swiftly-expanding men's game.

The women's game revived itself in the 1970s, however, when new teams formed in Sweden, Finland, Japan, China, South Korea, Norway, Germany and Switzerland and the college game took on new life in Canada and the US.

The modern era of organised women’s hockey began in the late 1980s when the first international invitational tournaments were organised. In 1987, the first Women's World Invitational Tournament was held in New York and Mississauga, Ontario, with teams representing Canada, Ontario, the US, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Japan.

The IIHF came under intensive and widespread lobbying to create a Women’s World Championship.

In 1989, the IIHF President attended the inaugural European Women's Championship, and plans were drawn up for the future World Championships, the first of which took place the following year in Ottawa - aptly enough - where Canada earned the first title.

Women’s ice hockey made its debut at the Winter Olympics at Nagano in 1998, with the US defeating Canada 3-1 in the first gold-medal match.

When Canada and the US outscored their opposition by a combined 88-4 in the women’s competition at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge warned "we cannot continue without improvement."

Hayley Wickenheiser, who won four Olympic ice hockey gold medals with Canada, believes the women's game is growing steadily ©Getty Images
Hayley Wickenheiser, who won four Olympic ice hockey gold medals with Canada, believes the women's game is growing steadily ©Getty Images

Hayley Wickenheiser, who won four Olympic golds and a silver for Canada in a 23-year career that ended in 2017, and served for four years as a member of the IOC's  Athletes’ Commission, has voiced her belief that the women’s game has improved across the board.

Reflecting before Pyeongchang 2018 upon her time at international level, Wickenheiser told insidethegames: "Generally speaking the quality of the game is far stronger now. The same nations are at the top of the game, but the general level of performance is definitely better.

"In the past you might see teams winning matches by five to 10 goals. Now the margin is more likely to be two to three goals. If you look at the teams finishing fifth to eighth in recent World Championships, you will see between six to 10 countries involved.

"I think a big part of the popularity of the women’s game in Canada is to do with the Olympic Games. For the past four Olympics the Canadian public have seen the women win gold. And after each victory, in the year after the Games, you always see 50 per cent more participants."

She also made the point that, whether male players from the National Hockey League (NHL) played in the Olympics - and they have not attended the last two - the Games remain the highest aspiration for the women's sport.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation figures for the Sochi 2014 Games illustrated how the women’s game was closing the gap on the men’s in terms of popularity. The Canadian men's team, who also took Olympic gold, were drawing TV audiences of around 15 million, about half the country’s population, but the figures for the women’s final, where Canada beat the US 3-2, were just short of 13 million.

Meanwhile Angela Ruggiero, the youngest member of the 1998 Olympic gold medal-winning team aged 18, who retired in 2011, also serving on the IOC Athletes’ Commission as well as on the Coordination Commission for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, told insidethegames: "I think the women’s game has progressed significantly in the 18 years since I played in the first Olympic final - in terms of the quality of the play, and the sheer number of players now in the game. 

"The talent pool is far greater, the standard and intensity of training has improved significantly.

"I also think there has been a big increase in respect and popularity for the women’s game. We don’t have an NHL. For the women’s game, the Olympics is the pinnacle of our sport - players dedicate themselves completely for the four-year periods until the next Games.

"For many years, ice hockey was perceived of as a men’s sport, but I think the perception has totally changed. A lot of federations have recognised that they have the opportunity to increase participation in the sport by at least 100 per cent if you open it up to women.

"If you are the President of a federation and you are looking to get more kids playing your sport, once you start looking beyond the traditional male roles you are looking at a group that is double the number. There is a reason for National Olympic Committees and National Federations to be interested in doing this, from the point of view of both growth and economics."

President Xi Jinping pledged that 300 million Chinese would be on skis or skates in time for the hosting of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
President Xi Jinping pledged that 300 million Chinese would be on skis or skates in time for the hosting of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

Speaking in 2016 when IIHF President, René Fasel, said the women’s game had been "one of the key growth areas" in recent years.

"We have already seen big strides in the last decade with games becoming more competitive and better physical preparation of the top female athletes," Fasel told insidethegames. "There is still much more potential and still a considerable gap between North America and the rest of the world although it is getting smaller.

"We also noticed that the gap between the countries playing in the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship and the Olympic Winter Games and those in the tier below is getting much smaller. There are more countries with the potential of qualifying for our top events."

The question of that relative level can be most pertinently asked right now with regard to the status of the host team.

Chinese participation in the Beijing 2022 ice hockey tournament has been actively encouraged by President Xi Jinping, who pledged in the lead-up to the Games to get 300 million Chinese on skis and skates in time for the hosting of the Olympics. That has meant a boom in investment and the creation of numerous ice rinks within the capital.

While the Chinese men’s team - comprising 11 Canadians, nine Chinese, three Americans and a Russian - were a borderline case for inclusion in the men's tournament that starts on Thursday (February 10), despite their host status, the Chinese women’s team has far more legitimate aspirations.

China's women twice reached the semi-finals of the World Championships in the 1990s and played in the bronze-medal game at the 1998 Olympics, one of three Winter Games at which they have competed.

Their Beijing 2022 roster contains 13 of 23 players with an adopted Chinese name.

The squad includes Jessica Wong - aka Wang Yuting - who won a silver medal with Canada at the 2009 IIHF Women's Under-18 World Championship and forged a successful career in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

She came out of retirement in 2017 to play for the development team that became KRS Vanke Rays.

China overcame Japan in a shootout today and are positioned well to make the quarter-finals ©Getty Images
China overcame Japan in a shootout today and are positioned well to make the quarter-finals ©Getty Images

China's women currently stand 20th in the IIHF world rankings. Before play got underway their main rivals in the battle for the three quarter-final places in Group B appeared to be Japan and the Czech Republic, respectively ranked six and seven, and Sweden, ranked ninth and eager to return to a more familiar position in the top echelon of the women's game.

After a 3-1 defeat by the Czech Republic in their opening game, China earned their first Olympic preliminary win since February 12 1998, and their first in Olympic competition since victory in the seventh-place match at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.

Two goals from Qiqi Lin - a 25-year-old Chinese-Canadian born Leah Lum who began her career with the University of Connecticut - and another from Ni Lin earned a 3-1 win over Olympic debutantes Denmark.

The latter is a 30-year-old American, born Rachel Llanes, who has had extensive experience playing in Canada and the US.

Today’s 2-1 win over Japan in a match that went to a penalty shootout could prove highly significant for the women’s game in China. After Akane Hosoyamada had given Japan a first-period lead, Hu Baozhen equalised early in the third period.

Hannah Miller, a 25-year-old from British Colombia and bearing the Chinese monicker of Mi Le, scored the decisive goal after a tortuous shootout –- involving five players from each side - that had seen the first seven players failing to score.

When Japan’s final player involved, Ayaka Toko, had her effort saved the match was won and lost, although the single point gained for reaching overtime, despite eventually losing, was enough to secure them with the first of the three quarter-final qualifying places.

China will now claim one of the two remaining  places along with the Czech Republic unless Sweden beat them in what will be the hosts' final group match tomorrow and then defeat Denmark in their last game on Tuesday (February 8).