By Al Mattei

In late December 2005, the U.S. women's ice hockey team played the final game of a multi-city tour before selecting the 2006 Olympic team.

The opponent for the Sunday matinee in Trenton, N.J., was Finland, a team which has won seven out of the nine bronze medals since the International Ice Hockey Federation began sanctioning a women's ice hockey world championship in 1990.

The Americans have won eight out of nine silver medals. And Canada has won eight out of the nine golds.

Even as player development models, nutrition, tactics, and player identification models have evolved over the years, the odds for Olympic and world championships amongst women's national teams are still very much a pecking order: Canada is expected to beat the United States, which is expected to beat Finland, which is expected to beat everybody else.

But coming into Torino 2006, that is not necessarily the case. The United States held the IIHF title coming into the Olympics -- and even with title in hand, the Maajoukkueet have always been a difficult team for the Americans to solve; it took a couple of glaring defensive errors for the United States to take a 3-1 win in Trenton, a result not only indicative of how well Finland has played over the years, but a closing of the gap between the two hockey nations.

"Finland is one of those teams that hang around, and don't seem to know a word that begins with the letter "Q," says U.S. head coach Ben Smith. "They keep playing and keep playing, and we're going to see them down the road. They are showing the growth of the sport, and how things are closing in with the teams around the world."

Finland head coach Hannu Saintula has begun to assemble what could very well be the first women's national team to be able to challenge the two-headed monster from North America. He no longer has to trawl the wilds of Lapland to convert female bandy players to ice hockey, and he is getting the benefits of having players who have competed in North America auch as Mari Pehkonen, late of the University of Minnesota at Duluth.

But more importantly, Saintula and his players have been rapidly improving on a phase of the game in which they had been heretofore deficient: tactics.

"The biggest difference between North American players and Finnish players is that, while we can think hockey, we are not physically as strong," Saintula says. "Our effort is good, though."

"Athletically, Finland is a great team," says Team USA's Angela Ruggiero. "We managed to pull off four wins in a row (in the 2005 tour), but the scores were all close. Sweden and Finland are getting better all the time, and, on any given day, can beat a U.S. or Canada. And that makes women's hockey more exciting."

"If you look at the men's game way back, it was just a one- or two-team tournament as well," says Team Canada head coach Melody Davidson. "It's a long process, but they're getting there. If we're not playing sharp, I could see Sweden and Finland stealing a win on us."

Finland's women could be seen in the tunnels of Sovereign Bank Arena riding stationary bicycles to keep up their heart rates, before and after the the exhibition match.

"I hope, but I also think, that we have reached the level of the North American teams," Saintula said. "They are both so good; little bit different from each other, but good. Our self-confidence is so much higher than it was even two years ago. We have made physical fitness a priority and practice a lot together."

What also gives the hockey powers cause for concern was that the United States had a .500 record in the Olympic test event in 2005 when the Torino facilities were given a good run-through.

"These are the kinds of games we're going to encounter when we get into Torino, and we're going to see this level of competition with a sort of passive-resistance European 'rope-a-dope,'" Smith says, "so we're going to have to be careful."

Will there be Maajoukkueet Mania at these Olympics? Stay tuned.