Less than three minutes into an opening-round women's hockey game Sunday against China, Thatcher raced to the boards in a battle for a loose puck. It ricocheted back to teammate Angela Ruggiero, who skated in for the first score of the United State's eventual 12-1 win over China at the University of British Columbia

VANCOUVER, B.C. — The assist was only temporary.

The memory, though, will last Blaine’s Karen Thatcher a lifetime, and it made all of her hard work worth it.

Less than three minutes into an opening-round women’s hockey game Sunday against China, Thatcher raced to the boards in a battle for a loose puck. It ricocheted back to teammate Angela Ruggiero, who skated in for the first score of the United States’ eventual 12-1 win over China at the University of British Columbia.

“That’s a nice way to start my Olympic experience, with an assist,” said the 25-year-old Thatcher, who moved to Blaine about four years ago and calls it her home.

Actually, after she was credited with an assist, which was announced in the arena, a later scorer’s decision removed it.

“Oh, well,” Thatcher said when told. “No worries.”

None indeed.

Thatcher ended up getting an official assist in the second period as the Americans easily beat the No. 7-seeded China team, despite a sizable and loud fan base backing the Chinese on the Lunar New Year.

Thatcher, one of 15 Olympic rookies on the U.S. team, admitted there were some initial butterflies. But a few nerves didn’t cause trouble against a fledgling China team.

“It still seems like a surreal feeling,” said Thatcher, who said she made reaching the Olympics her goal when she was 7 years old. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the dream.’ So getting that first period out of the way felt good.”

Jenny Potter, a 30-year-old mother of two, led the way with three goals and added two assists to become the leading career scorer in U.S. Olympic history with 26 points.

The U.S. outshot China 61-7 and didn’t allow a goal until there were less than three minutes left in the game. The Chinese scored on a power play against the Americans’ third-team goalie.

The game, attended by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, tied the biggest win in U.S. Olympic history — a 12-1 win over China in 2002.

That eight years later the U.S. could beat the same team by the same score caused some to wonder how much progress has been made in increasing competitiveness in the event, and if there should be concern about the long-term future of women’s hockey in the Olympics.

Coupled with Canada’s 18-0 win over Slovakia on Saturday, the result heightened the notion this could just be a three- or four-team tournament, as only Finland and Sweden seem capable of competing with one of the North American squads.

The next game for the U.S. is against Russia on Tuesday, in the second of three pool-play games.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com