By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - It has been 20 years since women's ice hockey became part of the Olympic program but those playing the game at the highest level are still stick-handling around the same old question.
Does a sport dominated by two nations belong in the Olympics?
Two decades after being welcomed into the Olympic lodge, women's hockey's place in the Games is viewed as secure yet in some corners its survival remains tied to political correctness and the balancing of the gender scales as much as providing a competitive showcase.
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics then IOC president Jacques Rogge flashed a yellow card warning hockey officials the sport had to get more competitive.
Four years later in Sochi the IOC said they were satisfied with progress the women's game has seen but as the puck prepares to drop at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, Canada and the United States remain in a league of their own.
While those working within the sport point to growing participation numbers at the grassroots level, at the top the status quo remains unchallenged.
Since 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Canada and the United States have held a duopoly, playing for every gold medal except one when Sweden crashed the party at the 2006 Turin Olympics, taking silver.
The United States skated away with that first gold in 1998 and Canada has reigned supreme ever since, winning four consecutive Olympic titles.
It has been the same story at the world championships.
Since they began in 1990, Canada and United States have played in every final with Canada winning 10 and the U.S. eight, including the last four.
There is no reason to think the outcome in Pyeongchang will be different.
"I can't tell you for sure if the gap is widening or decreasing but I can sure tell you what our intention is," Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney told Reuters. "It is incumbent on all of us who might have a bit of an edge right now to continue to grow the game worldwide.
"We compare women to men and that is dead wrong and we should make sure everyone understands it is distinct, that we understand that it presents its own beauty, its own look and it is outstanding hockey.
"At the end of the day they can skate, they can shoot; they can pass better than they could five years ago, or 20 years ago."
The general consensus is that globally the sport is growing and play improving.
A 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) survey pointed to a four percent rise in female players over the previous year with "growth almost everywhere" from China to Kuwait.
Such progress, however, is dulled by the fact that while the rest of the world makes small steps, the U.S. and Canada continue to take big strides.
Most recent participation statistics have Canada leading the way with 86,925 registered women's players followed by the United States with 75,832. The rest of the world together account for less than half of their numbers.
At a time when the gap should be closing, USA Hockey officials concede that it probably expanded this year after the U.S. national team threatened a boycott of the world championships over wages and support for the women's program.
The standoff ended with the players securing a year round monthly training allowance, larger bonuses for winning medals, more resources and a high performance advisory group to help develop the game at the youth level.
USA Hockey has pushed a "good for the sport" spin on the outcome, rationalizing it as a sort of hockey version of trickle-down economics that will ultimately be good for the global game.
The theory is that by the U.S. investing more in women's hockey other countries will be forced to do the same if they are to keep pace.
But the reality is that outside of Canada few countries have the appetite to pour similar amounts of cash into women's hockey.
"Obviously what happened last spring moves it up another level, which quite frankly I hope pushes other people to say, look we've got to do the same because if it gets lopsided this is not a good thing," U.S. women's head coach Robb Stauber told Reuters. "Time will tell if other countries up their funding and take what happened here as a lesson that maybe we can do more."
For the moment Canada and the U.S. have set a gold medal standard no other countries can match.
While Olympic group play has generated the predictable and disheartening mismatches, hockey fans, with some certainty, know they are in for a treat once the tournament reaches the championship game.
When Canada and the U.S. meet it is often 24 karat entertainment. Four of the last six world championship finals between the two have gone to overtime while an extra session was also needed to decided the Olympic champion in Sochi.
Canada and the United States have become not just one of the Winter Games great rivalries but one of best in winter sport.
"I know they love to hate each other," said Renney. "They all know each other and have great respect for each other but I can tell you right now when the puck drops it is war."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Gene Cherry)