Monday, February 16, 1997
Cold words inflame hockey rivalry

The Cincinnati Enquirer

American's Sandra Whyte battles Canada's Threse Brisson for the puck.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - She would not say what it was she had said. She would not rekindle the heat of the moment in the chilly aftermath. Sandra Whyte was too embarrassed to repeat herself and too wise to make matters worse.

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The American hockey player was a little startled by the furor over her postgame remarks to Canada's Danielle Goyette Saturday night, but she still had the presence of mind to step out of the way.

''I really don't think it's a big deal,'' Whyte said Sunday at the Aqua Wing arena. ''How can a few words being exchanged be a big deal when you have men on the ice and they pummel each other and that's OK?''

There are no trivial international incidents at the Winter Olympics, and the one alleged against Sandra Whyte was of a sort to make the skin crawl on a skeleton. After the Americans' 7-4 comeback victory, Canadian coach Shannon Miller complained that one of the U.S. women had made a tasteless remark about Goyette's late father, who died two days before the Olympics of Alzheimer's disease.

''It was uncalled for and Goyette started bawling,'' Miller said. ''That was a big mistake.''

Whyte admitted saying something regrettable as the teams were about to leave the ice, but insisted it did not involve Goyette's father. Still, the two players had to be separated at center ice. As Goyette skated away, she barely restrained herself from bashing her stick against the boards, but was unable to stem the flow of tears.

''Obviously, a few words were exchanged,'' American captain Cammi Granato said Sunday. ''But there was a very big misconception on their part. We know we're a very classy team. We would never stoop so low as to say the words we're being accused of.''

Intense dislike

Because Goyette's first language is French, it is conceivable that she might have misinterpreted Whyte's parting shot. Clearly, however, her umbrage was appropriate. One source says Whyte's words included at least one adjectival obscenity.

Though the U.S. team sent Goyette a sympathy card after her father's passing, relations between the two teams have been steadily deteriorating and increasingly ugly. They meet again Tuesday to decide the first women's hockey gold medal, and to see just how low they can stoop.

''I don't want to use the word hate in sport,'' Miller said, ''because I think that's too strong to say how we feel about each other. But you could say there is a very intense dislike.''

Saturday's game included 48 minutes of penalties, including a 10-minute misconduct against American goonette Angela Ruggiero, and more trash talk than a typical men's tilt. At one point, Miller was caught on camera shouting an obscenity at U.S. coach Ben Smith. After the game, Miller summoned Granato to complain about what Whyte said to Goyette.

She said/she said

The complete text of Whyte's statement remains elusive. Goyette's immediate reaction suggested whatever was said was unusually vicious. Miller's history indicates she will seize on almost anything, real or imagined, to motivate her team. Whyte's story, like Bill Clinton's, was not specific enough to entirely dispel doubt.

What we have here is one of those she said - she said - she didn't really say stories. Who knows whom to believe?

''Obviously it's a huge psychological factor for them,'' Whyte said. ''If something was said (about Goyette's father), obviously that's unforgiveable. But nothing was said. It's a little bit upsetting, but I think a lot of things are said in sports that at times are a little bit ugly.''

That doesn't excuse tacky behavior, but it may help to explain it. The U.S. and Canadian women have played 14 times since October - each team winning seven games - and both sides have long believed they would have to beat the other to get the gold medal. The heat of this battle is therefore intense.

''That's the Olympics,'' Goyette said Sunday, in a prepared statement. ''Emotions have a tendency to run high. After having played 14 exhibition games, it's time to turn the page and focus on the biggest game in the history of women's hockey - the Olympic gold medal game.

''It is not worth going back to what was said during and after the game, let's move on . . .''

The sentiment was noble, but the peace is fragile. Whatever else you might say about women's hockey, it sure isn't ladylike.

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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