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For Noora Raty, a continental divide is the difference between bronze and gold

Goalie Noora Raty of Finland is among the best in the world. (David W Cerny/Reuters)
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GANGNEUNG, South Korea — When Noora Raty sprawled facedown on the ice Monday afternoon at Gangneung Hockey Centre, she clearly lamented the goal she had just allowed even though there was no shame in allowing it. This is the state of women’s hockey for the rest of the world, those who don’t wear the maple leaf of Canada or the stars and stripes of the United States. And it’s a shame.

Raty might be the best women’s goaltender in the world, though anyone who looked only at the score sheet from the United States’ 5-0 drubbing of her Finland squad in the Olympic semifinal wouldn’t know it. She faced 157 shots in five games in these PyeongChang Olympics. Her prone position after the third U.S. goal might not have been frustration. It might have been pure exhaustion.

“As a goalie, you want to face a lot of shots,” Raty said, “and that’s what I’ve been getting.”

This is life on the outside of the Canada-U.S. women’s hockey axis, and it looks demoralizing. Canada faced the Olympic Athletes from Russia in a semifinal late Monday, so the United States had to wait to see . . .

Oh, come on. We knew who would win: Canada in a romp. The final was 5-0, and that will set up the fifth gold medal game between Canada and the United States in six women’s Olympic hockey tournaments. Set your watch to it.

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Raty, though, represents the rare outsider who not only would fit in on either team but who knows, quite intimately, what separates those teams from everyone else. She played at the University of Minnesota, where she won back-to-back national championships and set an NCAA record by going 38-0 as a senior. She lives in Minnesota still. She (and her Finnish teammates) beat Canada, 1-0, to win the 2017 Nations Cup. She has the cred.

But her story, it’s a struggle. The Americans are simultaneously a symbol of how far women’s sports have come in the United States and how there are battles still ahead. To hear Raty tell it, that conversation has hardly even started in places such as Finland.

“You can’t even compare,” Raty said. “There’s so much respect for hockey players in the U.S. You say you’re a hockey player, and you’re an Olympian, [people are] like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool,’ and they start asking questions.

“In Finland, you say you’re a hockey player, [it’s] like, ‘Get a real job.’ ”

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Raty’s real job is “hockey player.” She plays professionally in China. In the summers, though, she trains and works out in Minnesota. Now, that entire state is an outlier in the United States in terms of pucks owned per capita and average age a kid gets on skates, which might be measured in months, not years. But the glimpse she gets into how young girls are raised not as skaters, but as hockey players, makes it easy for her to reflect on her home country.

“We have nothing like that in Finland,” Raty said. “There’s a lot of great coaches getting involved in girls’ hockey that can actually teach the game [in the United States], and I feel like all the good coaches in Finland, they go on the boys’ side.”

Whatever happens in the gold medal game — Canada, with a win over OAR, will be going for its fifth straight gold — the most significant development in the women’s game over the past year is not a result from any sheet of ice anywhere in the world. It’s the victory the women of Team USA scored over USA Hockey. They threatened to boycott the world championships unless the sport’s governing body agreed to compensate them more in line with the men. They did not budge, and they won.

So when U.S. forward Hilary Knight, who will play in her third straight gold medal game Thursday, makes a reference to “everything we’ve accomplished on and off the ice,” it rings true not only among the Americans but around the world.

“I think it was great for the sport,” Raty said. “I like how they did it for the youth.”

But in using their leverage and advancing their sport, the Americans had a governing body against which to push and a public who generally backed them. In Finland, Raty has no such infrastructure to bargain with, and a public who would shrug its shoulders even if she did.

“I feel like in Finland, if you’re not making money out of sports, then [people believe] you should do something else,” she said. “In U.S., when you go after your dreams, people are cheering on. They have your back. They kind of think it’s cool that you’re ready to put your personal life — everything, your finances — on the side and go after your dreams.”

Raty’s dreams weren’t reachable Monday. The Americans’ first goal came just 2:25 into the game, the second late in the first period. From the outside, it appeared Raty had no shot at either. But she grew frustrated when the United States scored on back-to-back shots in the second period. Never mind that the first was near the end of a five-on-three U.S. advantage, the next still on the power play.

“I had some troubles getting my hands working here,” she said. “I feel like I’m just opening up the space for the shooters.”

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She can’t say this, but her teammates aren’t good enough to clamp down on those shooters. The final goal, this one from Dani Cameranesi, came after a play in which the Americans passed at will. Raty had no chance.

“Tonight, we beat one heck of a goalie,” U.S. Coach Robb Stauber said, “and one heck of a team.”

There’s a reason he listed the obstacles in that order. But what we have learned by watching this tournament — and taking into consideration what the American women did to advance the standing of their sport, by fighting so the next generation wouldn’t have to — is that the obstacles for female athletes around the world can still be significant. Title IX isn’t an international doctrine.

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In an Olympic year, the women on the Finnish team gather once a month for a practice or two, Raty said. The Americans convened for months in Tampa in preparation. They are a team, in every sense.

“They can focus on playing hockey full time,” Raty said. “They are true pros here.”

After that final U.S. goal, Raty sat in the crease for a moment, beaten. She slapped one of her pads. And then she did the only thing she could. She got back up. She is an elite hockey talent playing in the most important tournament her sport has to offer.

But when she stood up, she couldn’t pull the rest of her team — or the rest of the world — up with her. Noora Raty and the Finns will play for the bronze Wednesday, and she’ll do so knowing, better than most, the distance between that game and the match for gold the following night.

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