SPOKANE, Wash. ? A big crowd is expected at the Spokane Arena Thursday night with fans paying from $9 to $25 to see a women's ice hockey game between the U.S. and China.

Two weeks ago, 10,158 spectators ? the largest crowd for a women's hockey game in the U.S. ? packed Joe Louis Arena in Detroit to watch unbeaten Team USA defeat Canada.

And sellout crowds are expected for the 2002 Winter Games tournament, Feb. 11-21, in West Valley City and Provo.

But what about after the Olympics? Can the sport of women's hockey spark enough enthusiasm and interest to springboard into a women's professional hockey league?

Ask the best women's hockey players in the world and they'll tell you a pro league definitely is on the horizon.

"Whether that's going to happen in a year or two or five or 10, I don't know," admits forward Karyn Bye, who won a gold medal with Team USA in the '98 Games.

"The important thing is to make sure we can put together six good quality teams for the market and we've got to make sure the market is ready because there are still people out there who don't know women's ice hockey exists at the level it does."

Bye, U.S. team captain Cammi Granato and teammate Shelley Looney are 30, the oldest players on the American team. They concede they may not be around long enough to play in a pro league. Granato has hinted this may be her last year as a player.

But Bye and other Team USA veterans could find themselves coaching or administrating if a pro league does come along. After the last Olympics, the National Hockey League hired Bye to tour the country and speak about women's hockey.

"The NHL has been supportive of the women's game on all sorts of levels," said NHL spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur. "We've made an intensive effort to promote the game."

The league's efforts have paid off in the form of more female fans. Among womend 18-24, television viewership of NHL games was up 60 percent last year during the regular season and 100 percent during the playoffs.

Observers agree the NHL is in the best position to start a women's league. Much as the National Basketball Association did with the women's game when it launched the WNBA six years ago, the NHL would be in a unique position to place the game in areas where both the NHL and women's hockey are well established ? the Midwest and Northeast.

Mansur noted that basketball and soccer, which also has a women's pro league, have a longer history and more participants in the U.S. The NHL did examine the possibility of starting a women's league after Nagano and will do so again after Salt Lake.

"And we might look four years after that," Mansur said from her New York office. "To start any kind of pro league you need to have an exceptional quality of product, incredible corporate sponsorship and make sure you're in locations that can be supported with attendance."

A Boston entrepreneur started a women's professional league shortly after the '98 Games but it lasted only six months. Canada has a club league, but the players are not paid.

"I think if you try to do it too soon, it's just going to fold, and that would put us down deeper than where we are now." said Team USA center Krissy Wendell, who is just 20 and plans to play the next four seasons at the University of Minnesota.

"To have six good teams that people will want to come watch is going to take a while, I think," said U.S. forward Jenny Potter, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. "For our (college) games, we get at least 1,500 people but on the East coast, they don't get that many."

A crowd of 5,153 turned out for the Americans' 16-0 victory over China on Tuesday in San Jose. The teams will play at 9 p.m. MST here Thursday, then at 7 p.m. MST in Boise on Saturday before playing a final time Jan. 31 in Denver. The U.S. begins Olympic competition Feb. 12 at the E Center against Germany.

E-MAIL: zman@desnews.com