By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - A format change to the Sochi Winter Games women's ice hockey tournament may prevent coaches and players from having to apologize for the embarrassing routs that have blighted past Olympics.
But hockey officials could yet be left squirming as they try to justify how a winless team managed to reach the Sochi medal round.
During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, then International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge fired a warning shot across the sport's bows, acknowledging that the huge gap in skill between the two North American powerhouses Canada and the United States and the rest of the world needed to be addressed.
But with that gap seemingly as wide as ever, and the sport under pressure to eliminate the ugly routs that trigger debate every four years over whether women's ice hockey deserves to be on Games program, officials opted for the quick fix implementing a format that will separate the strong nations from the weak.
For Sochi, the world's top four ranked teams, Canada, U.S., Finland and Switzerland will compete in Group A with all four teams advancing to the medal round, meaning one country could see their way through to the quarter-finals without having won a single game.
The top two teams in Group A will advance directly to the semi-finals.
The other group will feature Germany, Japan, Russia and Sweden.
Despite their best efforts to inject some competitiveness into the women's tournament the format is unlikely to change the end result with Canada and the United States again playing for the gold medal.
The two have between them won every gold and silver medal on offer at every Olympics since its introduction in 1998 and every world championships since that began in 1990 and it is a trend that is expected to continue in Russia.
Certainly the change in format will not change anything in the U.S. approach as they prepare for their opener against Finland on February 8.
"I don't see that it changes anything that we're trying to do," U.S. coach Katey Stone told reporters. "We're going to take it one game at a time and stay in every moment, play every moment, play our best hockey on that day and move on.
"I just think it's exciting, when it comes to an opportunity like this you have world class athletes, they want to play at the highest level you possibly can so you have great challenges from start to finish."
In other words, do not expect the U.S. or Canada to show any mercy to opponents.
At the Vancouver Games, Canada and the U.S. outscored opponents 72-3 in the qualification round.
Canada was particularly ruthless on home ice demolishing overmatched opponents 18-0, 10-1 and 13-1 with the Americans equally unforgiving recording runaway 12-1, 13-0 and 6-0 wins.
While the International Ice Hockey Federation hopes the new format will eliminate similar blowouts in Sochi it would be the upset of the Olympics if the U.S. or Canada were not to reach the gold medal game.
"It's definitely a rivalry... we definitely know them very well and it's always a great game but we're focused on Finland right now," said veteran netminder Jessie Vetter.
(Editing by Mitch Phillips)