February 11, 2014 Updated: February 11, 2014 at 11:22 am
SOCHI, Russia - Jocelyne Lamoureux is one of the stars of the U.S. women's hockey team. She loves her sport. She's been competing almost as long as she's been walking.
But she sees the obstacles women's hockey faces as it seeks a wider audience.
"It's a masculine sport," Lamoureux said a few minutes after helping the U.S. thrash Switzerland, 9-0, in the opening round of Olympic competition. "That's what a lot of people say. That's how a lot of people categorize it."
Lamoureux was raised in North Dakota by parents who taught her to skate at 2 years old and sent her to a frozen pond to play hockey with her brothers when she was 4. Her brother, Jacques, was one of the finest players to compete for the Air Force Academy.
But not all moms and dads are similar to the Lamoureuxs.
"I guess as a parent, I can see how you might want to see your girl in figure skating and not playing hockey," Jocelyne said.
"But at the same time, you want girls to grow up and do things they have fun with, and hockey is fun."
Women's hockey is at a crossroads. The sport is increasing in popularity, especially in pockets of America's East Coast and Midwest, but it is failing to keep pace with the explosive growth of women's lacrosse and soccer.
The women's teams from the United States and Canada feature an ever-increasing skill level with skaters who are faster and more physical. This rise in excellence will be on display Wednesday when the United States and Canada meet in an Olympic contest that promises a wide assortment of ice thrills and as much of the rough stuff as the restrictive rules of the women's game will allow.
"You're going see the best women's hockey the world has to offer," said Monique Lamoureux, Jocelyne's twin sister. "You're going to see some great hockey."
But this steady rise in North America delivers as many problems as rewards. The U.S. and Canada dominate the sport to such a degree that its place at the Olympics is in danger. Just look at women's softball, which departed the Olympics largely because the U.S. and Japan were too dominant.
Steve Sertich is a hockey man, through and through. He's a former star at Colorado College and the father of CC star and Hobey Baker winner Marty Sertich. Steve serves as head women's coach at Bemidji State.
He believes in the women's game. When he started coaching girls high school hockey 15 years ago, Sertich at the time wanted to turn his head. He loves to watch hockey played the right way, and this was not the right way.
"It was almost embarrassing to watch their practices," Sertich said in a phone conversation from his Bemidji office. "It was really ugly."
Sertich looks forward to Wednesday's game between the U.S. and Canada. He expects a fierce, fast, exciting match.
"It will be hand-to-hand combat out there," Sertich said. "It's going to be physical."
Sertich is an unabashed supporter of the women's game, but he wonders about the sport's growth. He believes interest and participation has leveled off in many of the sport's hotbeds and "even gone down" in several areas in the United States.
Colorado is a center of college hockey with men's teams at Air Force, Colorado College and Denver. All three schools have competed in the NCAA Tournament in the 21st century.
None has a women's team, even though all have arenas that could be shared with a female squad.
CC athletic director Ken Ralph wants one thing clear:
He's a fan of women's hockey. When Ralph served as AD at Rensselaer Technical Institute, he oversaw the elevation of the women's program to Division I status. He would like to introduce a program at CC.
"Too expensive," he said. "The biggest obstacle is finances. Hockey is a spectacularly expensive sport compared to other women's sports like lacrosse and soccer. Cost really is probably the biggest impediment."
Sertich is waiting for males who adore hockey to give the female version a chance. There's a resistance, he said, to fully recognizing and celebrating how far women have traveled in mastering a complex sport.
How far have women traveled on the ice?
We'll see on Wednesday when the world's two most powerful teams tangle.