By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia Feb 18 (Reuters) - Women's ice hockey, which has come under fire for lacking competitiveness, will never be dropped from the Winter Olympics, the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said on Tuesday.
IIHF chief Rene Fasel's comments came after National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would be "distressed" if women's ice hockey was chopped from the Olympic programme.
"That will never happen, I can guarantee you," said Fasel.
For the fourth time in five Olympics, women's ice hockey superpowers Canada and the United States will clash in the final after storming through group play and the semi-finals with little fuss.
A change in format placed the two top-ranked teams in the same group away from the weaker nations and helped avoid the embarrassing blowouts that blighted past Olympics.
However, the United States' 6-1 demolition of Sweden in the semi-final, where they outshot the Scandinavians 70-9, suggests the gulf is as wide as ever.
During the 2010 Vancouver Games, then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge fired a warning shot across the sport's bow, telling officials that standards had to improve.
Fasel acknowledged there is plenty of work to do but the Swiss IOC member said he had seen progress in Sochi.
"We started in Vancouver with a 17-0 Slovakia game," said Fasel. "It's much better, but we are not there.
"I really hope that in Pyeongchang we will have a better result, but we have to work very hard."
Closing the chasm between the North Americans and the rest of the world will not be easy or quick.
Fasel noted there are over 80,000 women ice hockey players in Canada and nearly as many in the United States, while Finland can count only about 4,000 players and other nations no more than a couple of thousand.
After finishing their colleges careers, Canadians and Americans can continue playing in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, a five team semi-professional circuit, while Europeans have no similar option.
"Professional women's sport is much easier in North America than it is in Europe," said Fasel. "We even have problems with soccer, which is really the king of sport in Europe.
"I think in Europe it is not feasible to have a professional women's league. It would never work at the professional level." (Editing by xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx)