NAGANO, Japan -- Think women's soccer, women's basket-ball and almost women's softball.
All made their Olympic debut in Atlanta. The U.S. teams won gold in soccer and basketball and silver in softball. Those teams captured the imagination of men and women all over the country and gave a huge boost to women's sports.
U.S. women hockey players hope to duplicate the appeal of those teams as they fight for the first women's hockey gold medal ever awarded. The women play as exciting a style of play as the men. The only basic difference in the rules is women are not allowed to check, although there is a good bit of bumping around.
After going 25-7-1 during their pre-Olympics tour, the American women must win at least four of their five games in the Olympic tournament this week if they hope to reach a gold medal-showdown with hated rival Canada on Feb. 17. Anything less than silver would be a disappointment for the U.S. team, and they clearly expect gold.
"You can see the energy picking up in the locker room as we prepare for these games, to know we're finally here," said captain Cammi Granato as the team prepared for tonight's opening game against China.
Coach Ben Smith is trying to guard against a letdown because in a six-team tournament like the Olympics, even one unexpected loss could be a disaster.
"We've tried really hard to make this a day-to-day process, so we're not rushing this thing and we're not putting any other pressure than the pressure of the day," said Smith. "It doesn't do our team any good to go projecting into the future and trying to control something that's not even in their control."
He said he doesn't want the team playing the gold medal game in their minds because first they have to get by the other teams in the tournament.
"People who think there aren't going to be surprises are probably at their first Olympics," said Smith.
The biggest surprise would be if Canada and the United States did not play each other for the gold medal. The two teams have played 13 times since October, with Canada winning 7. Canada is four-time defending world champion and has dominated women's hockey for years.
"Obviously, they've been a thorn in our sides," said Granato. "I think it's a healthy rivalry. It's a lot of fun. It just comes down to what happens on that day we play them."
"It was a great competition between us and Canada, but I won't say either team has the edge," said Karyn Bye. "Canada has won the world championships four times. They know what it feels like to win and we don't. But we are ready to find out."
After China, the U.S. women play Sweden on Monday, Finland on Wednesday, Japan on Thursday and Canada on Saturday. After the round-robin tournament the top two teams play for gold, while the third and fourth teams play for bronze.
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