U.S., Canada women set gold standard in hockey

Intense rivals likely to face off in final

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 12, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - Circle Feb. 21 on the calendar. Take the phone off the hook. Send the kids to the movies.

Perhaps the best duel since Roger Clemens vs. Pedro Martinez will be fought on the ice of the E Center, if all goes according to the script.

The U.S. women's hockey team will try to repeat its 1998 gold-medal performance against archrival Canada.

"All of our players know that when we play this team, it's a life-and-death struggle," said U.S. coach Ben Smith.

The Olympics' preliminary competition is a two division round-robin. The United States plays Germany today, followed by China on Thursday and Finland on Saturday. Canada defeated Kazakstan, 7-0, yesterday and then plays Sweden and Russia.

But everyone, it seems, is already warming up for the final. Everyone, that is, except the players and coaches of the two North American teams.

"We really can't think about that yet," said U.S. team captain Cammi Granato, dancing around the question for the gazillionth time. "Everybody's asking us about the gold-medal game, and we haven't played our preliminary round."

The background to the rivalry is fascinating. Canada has won every world championship since the inaugural game in 1990, pinning back the ears of the Americans each time. The United States has returned the favor just once when it really mattered, in the 1998 gold-medal game in Nagano, Japan, the debut of women's hockey at the Olympics.

But in exhibition play this season, the U.S. women beat the Canadian squad eight consecutive times and went through the rest of the competition with ease, compiling a 23-0 record.

But the Americans dismiss those numbers.

"There were a couple of cupcakes on that tour," said coach Ben Smith.

Said Granato: "It doesn't mean anything. Once the Olympics start, that record doesn't win us anything."

The 20-player squad has 14 veterans of the 1998 squad, including goaltenders Sara DeCosta and Sarah Tueting.

They have the firepower. Jenny Potter centers a line of Karyn Bye and Katie King that scored 77 goals during the exhibition tour. One goal back is the line of Granato, the team's leading scorer with 35 goals and 28 assists, and two rookies, Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz, who watched the gold-medal game on television at age 14 and knew at that moment where she wanted to be in 2002.

Veteran Tricia Dunn teams with Olympic first-timers Julie Chu and Andrea Kilbourne on the third line, and the fourth line consists of 1998 teammates Chris Bailey, Laurie Baker and Shelley Looney.

The team is tight. The players live together six months each year, watched the Super Bowl together, even burned their own CDs for the locker room, two songs for each player. And the veterans have schooled the rookies on the magic of 1998.

"I don't really know if anything will match that," Bye said. "I was one of 20 pioneers to go through it. It was a special time and a special moment. But I obviously hope these Olympics will add more memories."

Canada returns 11 of its silver-medal players, led by top scorer Caroline Ouellette, Hayley Wickenheiser and Jennifer Botterill.

The team has six players - Botterill, Dana Antal, Isabelle Chartrand, Becky Kellar, Tammy Lee Shewchuk and Vicky Sunohara - who have played or are still playing U.S. college hockey.

"I like the position we're in," said team captain Cassie Campbell. "We're not the defending Olympic champion, and, for the first time since I've been on this team, we don't feel any pressure."

China, Finland and Russia are the teams most expect to play for the bronze.

The Chinese team, which finished fourth in Nagano, runs on defense. Guo Hong is the Great Wall in net; as she goes, so goes the team's fortunes. Veteran forward Liu Hongmei is the leading scorer.

Finland took the bronze in 1998, but is still smarting from finishing out of the medals at the 2001 world championships, the first time that happened. The team is led by two Nagano veterans and the squad's top scorers, forwards Karoliina Rantamaki and Marja-Helena Palvila.

Russia made a statement when it took the bronze away from Finland at the world championships. The team takes its cues from forward Ekaterina Pashkevitch, who coached at MIT after moving to the United States from her homeland.

The American squad may play like a machine, but the women are real. Potter gave birth to a son last year, and had to play her way back into form, leading her to joke, "If NHL players took off for pregnancy, I don't think they could make it back."

Darwitz, 18, missed her prom and homecoming and "lives in two different worlds. My friends are talking about a party last Saturday night, and I'm talking about playing Canada."

Tara Mounsey, the top-scoring defender from the 1998 team, has had five knee surgeries, including one to rebuild the anterior cruciate ligament and one to repair the medial collateral ligament two years ago. She came back from rehabilitation just in time to make the team.

"There were times when I was close [to quitting], because the progress was extremely slow," Mounsey told the Concord Monitor, her hometown newspaper in New Hampshire. "It was so frustrating at times. But I have a great team and great friends on the team that kept things in perspective for me. And now here I am, going to the Olympics for the second time. Thank God I stuck it out."

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