There's a very good article in the Boston Globe about the growth of women's hockey, with specific focus on high school programs in Massachusetts. The state of Minnesota still has the highest number of girls playing ice hockey, but MA is in second place (distant second).
The article does a generational sort of tracking noting how players in the game experienced very different versions of women's hockey depending on when they graduated in the last 20 years. For example in the late 80s and 90s there weren't that many public schools with girls' programs which meant that girls who played the sport either went to private school, tried to join boys' teams (rare), or played on club teams.
Twenty years isn't really a whole lot of time. But it's been long enough to create the kind of depth in the sport that means even the top scorer at one of the better private high school programs is attending a DIII school--the best DIII school, but still. It illustrates that there is a lot of talent out there.
The article also made me think about what is happening at the top levels of the sport. Fat Louie at Women's Sports Blog did a post not too long ago about the new training regimen of the US National Team which is currently in Minnesota preparing for the 2010 Vancouver games. OK she posted a link but it was the linked comment that got me thinking. I love her snarkiness and yes it seems demeaning that the best female players in the world are playing against real estate agents and other young male professionals in a rec league. But these guys are good players--former collegiate players themselves. And the type of game they play--aggressive but no checking--is what happens in the international women's game. The national team will play the college teams but they usually just kill them. It's great PR for the sport--not great training. It's similar to when the national softball team did their college tour prior to Beijing. Fun for fans--not so rewarding for players.
This is to say that yes it would be great if there was enough depth in the women's game so that the national team could get the kind of practice it needed without having to play high school boys (that one seemed a little ridiculous). But there isn't a huge women's professional league that offers that kind of regular competition. And those who do not make the Olympic team are not sticking around to be practice players because there is no funding. Most of these women are already making economic sacrifices to play at this level.
But I think it would also be great if it didn't really matter who the team was playing against. In other words, if elite men playing against--or even with--elite women wasn't a novelty and did not engender a belief that female hockey players are just plain inferior.
Hopefully as the sport continues to grow at the high school (and younger) level (big if given the hit sports programs are likely to take in the recessions--especially public school programs) the options for play at the highest levels of the game will not be so limited.