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Posted: Feb 19, 7:47p ET | Updated: Feb 19, 7:52p ET

Women's hockey: How to catch North America?

VANCOUVER (AP) -- Peter Elander is a good-natured raconteur who speaks five languages. He only needs a few terse words of English to explain why his Swedish women's hockey team can't catch North America.

"I think our team is much better than it was in Torino," the coach said. "Unfortunately, Canada hasn't stopped developing."

Neither has the United States, which the Swedes will face in Monday's semifinals. Women's hockey in North America is well-funded, talent-rich and centralized -- and more than ever, the rest of the world is almost certainly playing for bronze.

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So what's a smallish Nordic nation to do against these mountainous odds? Elander has tried a bit of everything to close the gap, while Finland has its own smaller plan with just a fraction of even Sweden's resources. While the results haven't surfaced in Vancouver, Elander will keep trying -- even while asking for more financial help from across the world to make it happen.

Canada has outscored its opponents 41-2 in three stunningly one-sided wins, while the United States has a 31-1 advantage despite basically shutting down its offense in the third period of each game. Sweden and Finland are alone on the sport's second tier, and while both teams advanced to Monday's semifinals, both also endured one-sided losses to their North American opponent in group play.

"We improve every year, but Canada and the United States keep getting even better," Swedish forward Erika Holst said. "They don't stand still for us to catch them."

Elander, Sweden's coach since 2001, made a wealth of improvements to his program over the past four years. He centralized his team several months before the Olympics, recalling the national team's best players from their American universities or their Swedish club teams for months of steady practice.

"Practice, I think, is underrated in this sport," Elander said. "They get more out of practicing with our coaches than they would elsewhere."

Sweden also has arranged stipends for its older players who have run out of university eligibility, allowing them to continue playing hockey as a job. A Swedish women's league has been in operation for 2 1/2 seasons, giving them a place to play competitively, and the nation started an under-18 national team to spark youth development.

This is all revolutionary in Europe. In North America, similar programs have been running for many years.

"The under-18 team, they practice like maniacs," Elander said. "The girls ahead of them see that, and they realize they have to work even harder. It goes all the way up through the program. Now everybody is playing more decent games."

Elander also recruited outside teaching for his national team from NHL regulars Andreas Lilja and Fabian Brunnstrom, along with conditioning help from Swedish sprinter Johan Wissman. Elander particularly enjoys Lilja's sessions with his team, saying the Detroit Red Wings defenseman "has a nasty edge that's good for us to learn."

Lilja even invited the entire team to his Stanley Cup celebration in his native Helsingborg in 2008.

Finland didn't have the resources to centralize its team, leading to some interesting dynamics at the top U.S. colleges for women's hockey. Minnesota Duluth, which has a respected program run by former Canada coach Shannon Miller, has spent the season without four Swedes -- star goalie Kim Martin, leading scorer Elin Holmlov and sophomores Jenni Asserholt and Pernilla Winberg -- and Canadian forward Haley Irwin, but Finns Saara Tuominen and Mariia Posa were left behind in Duluth.

The Canadian and American teams also have been together for several months, leaving their universities or club teams and centralizing in cold-weather hubs where they can work as a team. Canada played a lengthy barnstorming schedule across Alberta against teams of teenage boys, while the Americans toured the country against all-star teams when they weren't practicing in Minnesota.

"I remember in 1981, I saw the Soviet Union win against Sweden 13-1 in the gold medal game at the Stockholm (men's) world championship," Elander said. "The Soviet Union was also fully centralized, and everyone was quoted saying it's not fair because they're together all the time. Maybe all the other programs, to have a closer tournament, should be fully centralized and fully financed by their Olympic committee or the International (Ice) Hockey Federation."

That's not the only good idea Elander has taken from North America. He acknowledges borrowing drills from Canadian practices, which doesn't bother Canada coach Melody Davidson at all.

Even U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero has ideas about improving the competition, saying the nonprofit Canadian Women's Hockey League -- a six-team league in eastern Canada -- should be more active in inviting international players to its teams.

"That's a place where good young European players could get better," Ruggiero said. "They should open their rosters and be active in growing the game."

For all the hand-wringing during the tournament's first week, there's almost no chance women's hockey would ever be dropped by the Olympics. Aside from the obvious gender equity issues, the sport sells thousands of tickets, with fans clamoring for tickets even to the lower-tier games for the chance to see an Olympic event that's a whole lot more watchable in person than luge or a ski run.

Each tournament also adds 168 female athletes from all around the world to the Winter Games, and none of the players from the also-ran teams has acknowledged disappointment. From China to Slovakia, they learn from each blowout loss, improving their own games by playing against the best.

"It's a good role for us," Finnish goalie Noora Raty said. "I think we play better when we are underdogs."


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