Originally created 02/13/98

Call them champions



NAGANO - They've been called babes on blades, chicks with sticks, hockey honeys and a lot of other things polite people wouldn't repeat.

But you can call the U.S. women's Olympic hockey team anything as long as you call them Olympic champions.

They may not reach that ultimate goal, but if they miss it won't be by much. And if there is any justice in the world they will win the Olympic gold. These women have worked too hard and too long, they've handled themselves with too much grace and style to fail.

They don't exactly swagger, but they walk with a quiet confidence. They're reaching for a goal and they know how to get there.

After beating Japan 10-0 Thursday night they know they will play in the gold medal game Tuesday, after playing Canada in the preliminary round Saturday. Win that one and all the dreams come true. All the hard work pays off.

The team has spent weeks not thinking about Canada after going head-to-head with them 13 times in the last few months. They didn't want to let one of the weaker sisters in this tournament trip them up on the way to the gold medal match.

But now it's all Canada, all the time.

"We've seen so much of Canada we see them in our sleep," said coach Ben Smith. "We won't have any tricks for them. They've seen everything we've got."

They may not have seen the fire in the American women's eyes or the steel in their souls that won't let them even think about losing to Canada. The Americans lost to Canada seven times in their series and most of those were by a goal or two.

But hockey is a matter of national pride in Canada. Their women are three-time defending world champions, and anything short of gold in this first Olympics for women's hockey would be a disgrace.

"It's so much fun to play against Canada," said goalie Sarah Tueting, who specializes in acrobatic saves. "We know we can beat them.

I honestly believe that we are the better team."

Win or lose the American women have survived enormous pressure just to get where they are.

Think about all the weight these women are carrying. Not only do they have to play for their team and their coach and their country, but they play for women in sports. They especially carry the hopes and dreams of young women who want to play hockey but have not had an outlet. They play for young women in other sports who dream of the Olympics but have not had their sport recognized for Olympic competition.

They hope the attention of the Winter Olympics will lead to a professional league for women, much the way women's basketball vaulted to success after the 1996 Olympics. If that ever happens, it's a ways down the road. There simply aren't enough lower level amateur leagues and players to feed enough talent into a pro league right now.

But it could happen. Women's hockey is fun to watch. They're not allowed to body check, but there is a lot of bumping and banging going on. The women aren't as big or as fast as the men, and they can't shoot as hard.

But they play good hockey. Their game stresses playmaking and passing, and it's fun to watch.

The U.S. women are also nice people. Many athletes view interviews with the press as a painful chore that must be endured. They do it for the minimum time and then escape, often without saying anything to reveal what they're thinking. Not the U.S. women's hockey team.

They never tire of answering the same question about how they got involved in this sport in the first place. For the record, most of them followed their older brothers into hockey, and they've all long since left the shadow of those brothers.

After shutting out China this week Tueting didn't want to leave the mixed zone where athletes meet the press until all the questions from all the reporters had been answered. Before she left, she turned to the throng of reporters and asked, "Is there anything else? You guys have any more questions?" For that reason alone I wish her every success.

Captain Cammi Granato is mobbed by reporters everywhere she goes. She is easily the most recognizable member of this dream team. Yet she never tires of answering the same old questions, week after week, month after month. I have seen her on at least six different occasions and have yet to see her lose her temper or show impatience with idiotic questions.

Her teammates love her and don't seem jealous of the attention she gets.

"Cammi's a great player," said Tara Mounsey, a defenseman with a wicked shot. "There ought to be a lot of young girls looking up to number 21. She's just a great person on and off the ice. She should be a role model for a lot of little kids."

They're all role models. They play exciting hockey. They know how to behave. They deserve to be champions.