Monday, February 9, 1997
Women's hockey seeks acceptance

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Karen Bye celebrates her goal in a 5-0 U.S. victory over China.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - Sue Merz had been dreaming of this day, but she didn't much like the storyline. During the last nights preceding the first Olympic women's hockey tournament, Merz was haunted by unhappy visions.

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''Anxiety dreams,'' she said Sunday. ''I'm trying to get dressed in the locker room and my skate doesn't fit or I can't find my glove. Wild dreams. I'd like to have a night for sleeping.''

Dreams became reality for America's hockey heroines Sunday night, and rest should have come easily afterward. The U.S. women defeated China in their Olympic opener, 5-0, ending years of anticipation and easing weeks of raw nerves.

''We tried not to play it up,'' said U.S. coach Ben Smith, ''other than the fact it was the biggest game of their lives.''

Because women's hockey has never before been part of the Olympic program, there is more at stake here than merely medals.

The players seek acceptance for their game, which has sometimes met with resistance and, periodically, prejudice.

''Most people don't even realize our sport exists,'' said center A.J. Mleczko. ''We'd be traveling on a plane and the pilot would announce that the U.S. women's hockey team was on board and people would say to us, 'That's great. But what's a field hockey team doing playing in December?' ''

The Olympics means validation and visibility. It means so much to these players that they could barely contain their excitement. U.S. goalie Sarah Tueting caught herself getting caught up in the moment Sunday night and told herself, ''Shut up, Sarah. Concentrate on the puck.''

Tueting said the biggest difference between the hockey genders is power. Elite men players put more mustard on wrist shots than women can generate with a full-windup slapshot.

The women's game is swift enough to be entertaining, but it is still a little soft.

Since bodychecking is forbidden, the women fancy themselves as finesse players. They claim that restrictions on contact makes their game more beautiful. But just because they're not goons doesn't make them Wayne Gretzky. The fact is the women's passing is not particularly crisp, their stick-handling is a mite mechanical and they tend to dawdle rather than dart around the net.

If the women's game is more beautiful than the men's, it is only because the players have done a better job of protecting their teeth. As the game evolves, and its talent pool widens, things are bound to get better. But for the moment, and probably for the foreseeable future, the Olympic women's hockey tournament suffers from severe imbalance.

Canada, which has won all four of the women's world championships, took 64 shots on goal to Japan's three in a 13-0 stampede Sunday afternoon. China, which has not scored against the U.S. in three straight games, did not manage its first shot on goal Sunday until the second period. If either the gold or silver medal goes to any team outside of North America, it would be the biggest upset at the Winter Games since the birth of the Jamaican bobsled team. It would make the Miracle on Ice seem as routine as a Zamboni run.

''I think you're going to see it start to balance out,'' said U.S. defenseman Tara Mounsey. ''It has in the last six months. Sweden tied Canada the other night. That shows balance.''

The good news about growing pains is that they are proof of growth. During the 1990-91 season, only 5,573 female players were registered with USA Hockey. That number has since quadrupled. Though the first newspaper account of a women's hockey game appeared 107 years ago this week in the Ottawa Citizen, it was less than four years ago that Minnesota became the first state to sanction women's hockey as a high school varsity sport.

As opportunities expand, so will expertise.

''You've got to hope,'' said Canadian coach Shannon Miller, ''that the exposure of the Olympic Games will really light a fire in our sport at the grassroots level.''

That's often the way it works. Several of the American professionals who will compete in these Games trace their interest in hockey to Lake Placid and 1980. Similarly, the debut of Olympic women's hockey should prompt more young women to start chasing pucks.

''This year during the tour we saw how much it hit the little girls,'' said U.S. captain Cammi Granato. ''They're going to have it easier. They can set goals and they might not have as many obstacles.''

U.S. pairs flawless but fourth
Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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