GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – Don't try to tell Melody Davidson that the rest of the women's hockey world isn't catching up to North America. The general manager of Canada's national women's team recently returned from the world under-18 championships in Russia, where she saw her country win a medal.

"Our first bronze,'' Davidson said. "I think that's a good indication of where the youth is, where the competition is. The parity is phenomenal.''

On the 20th anniversary of women's hockey at the Olympic Games, the U.S. and Canada are again heavy favorites to play for the gold medal. Both have secured automatic berths into Monday's semifinals. Canada finished group play 3-0 to earn the top seed for the playoffs, handing the U.S. its only loss.

But there have been fewer embarrassingly lopsided scores, save for the unified Korean team — which absorbed 12 North Koreans shortly before the Games — and the Olympic Athletes from Russia, whose ranks were thinned by doping bans. Since the 2010 Vancouver Games, when the U.S. and Canada outscored opponents 86-4, proponents of the women's game have redoubled their efforts to create more parity.

The U.S. and Canada have led the way, enlisting players and coaches to participate in outreach programs designed to spread their knowledge around the world. As the Olympic playoffs begin, Davidson and others say they are seeing improvement. The winner of Saturday's quarterfinal between Switzerland and the Olympic Athletes from Russia will face Canada, and the Finland-Sweden victor will play the U.S.

"I'm a member of the [International Ice Hockey Federation's] women's committee, and our biggest objective is making sure we're helping grow the game globally,'' said Reagan Carey, director of women's hockey for USA Hockey. "If you look at the younger levels, you'll see the gap isn't quite as much as it is at the senior level. We're seeing younger generations getting more experience and developing more.

"Since that alarm bell sounded in 2010, we've really gotten to work. There has been a lot of progress since, and a lot of good things to come.''

The competitive imbalance at the 2010 Olympics drew a warning from International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, who said "we cannot continue without improvement.'' The following year, the International Ice Hockey Federation created the Ambassador and Mentor Program to boost global development of the women's game.

The program enlists coaches and players from the top women's hockey countries to share their knowledge with others. The Czech Republic, France, Germany, Kazakhstan and Japan are among the nations that have sought assistance, and those helping them have included former Minnesota Duluth coach Shannon Miller, former UMD goaltender Kim Martin and former Gophers defenseman Courtney Kennedy.

Angela Ruggiero, a four-time U.S. Olympian and chairwoman of the International Olympic Committee's Athletes' Commission, said the IOC also is examining funding of women's sports. It wants to ensure countries are giving similar financial support to athletes of both genders, knowing that growth cannot occur without proper resources.

"A lot of countries are emerging for that third spot [behind the U.S. and Canada], so it's getting more competitive in that second echelon,'' Ruggiero said. "But funding is pivotal. It's not just giving them an allocated spot. It's thinking about the resources that are required to help them in their development as athletes and change the culture.''

In Pyeongchang, Canada outscored opponents 11-2 in three pool-play games, and the U.S. had a 9-3 margin. At the world under-18 championships, Canada went 1-3 in pool play — including a 3-2 loss to Russia — and was defeated by the U.S. in the semifinals.

Davidson said the world championships field will grow from eight to 10 teams in 2019, and she hopes the Olympic tournament will follow suit at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

"We're working toward getting the parity where it needs to be,'' she said. "The leadership and the on-ice performance and the preparation that's happening now is really coming along.''