Originally created 02/12/02

Salt Lake might be hockey proving ground



SALT LAKE CITY - The rest of the world is catching up to the U.S. women's hockey team.

But is it doing it fast enough?

The novelty factor from Nagano is gone. This is the second Olympics for women's hockey. And as the U.S. team tries to win another gold - it opens play at 1 p.m. EST today with a game against Germany - the Americans find themselves in an unusual situation.

They want to win the gold, of course. And while U.S. coach Ben Smith says he would like to win every game 45-0, he knows that U.S. blowouts aren't necessarily good for the sport. That is one of the reasons why the U.S. team prepared for traveling to China in September and playing a Friendship Cup with China and Russia.

It was as much for the development of the opposing players as his own.

"It's not USA Hockey's responsibility to bring the rest of the world into women's hockey, but it certainly helps the sport," Smith said. "So we play Friendship Series or Goodwill Series with these teams. And you can see over the last 12 months that the Russians are getting better."

He laughed and added: "Wow, what a surprise. They've got hockey in Russia."

Maybe so. But while the Russians obviously love hockey, they have been slow to embrace the idea of women playing the game. In two meetings with Russia in the Friendship Cup, the U.S. won 9-0 and 6-0. China managed to score a goal in each of its two games against the Americans, but still lost 9-1 and 12-1.

Perhaps even more troubling for the future of the sport: The games were played in front of "crowds" estimated to be 100 people.

Since then there has been talk about the Chinese giving up on women's hockey after Salt Lake.

"That would be a big blow," Smith said. "We need China in our sport."

So what does it mean for these games?

The Americans clearly are the favorites, but Smith and his players insist it won't be easy. The Canadians, who ripped Kazakstan 7-0 Monday, figure to be their primary competition. But they say there will be others that could pull off an upset.

When his players were asked during a press conference about getting overconfident, Smith, a native New Englander, chimed in with his own message.

"P-A-T-S," he said. "Pats, Pats, Pats."

"It just shows you that there's no such thing as a sure thing," he said of the Patriots winning Super Bowl XXXVI as 14-point underdogs. "Go ahead and make us the clear-cut favorite. ... But that doesn't necessarily mean we'll be the team standing at the end."

This much does seem certain: What happened in Nagano gave women's hockey a boost in the U.S.

The American women provided a sharp contrast to the men. They didn't trash their hotel rooms. And they won.

To prepare for the Olympics, the U.S. Team went on a "Skate To Salt Lake Tour" that included stops in big cities - 10,158 fans saw a 7-3 victory against Canada in Detroit - and small ones.

Smith made a point of taking his team to Warroad, Minn., a tiny town near the Canadian border that has seen six of its male hockey players earn Olympic gold medals.

"It has a population of 1,600," Smith said. "There were 2,200 fans there. ... It would have been a good night to rob a bank."