Wednesday, February 18, 1997
Golden moment for women

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Angela Ruggiero celebrates the U.S. women's hockey team's gold-medal victory over Canada.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - Sarah Tueting showed up wearing a big, floppy hat of red, white and blue and a light, lacquered medallion the color of gold.

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America's fine female goalie had removed her mask and revealed her bliss. She stood upon a stage, a real live niece of her Uncle Sam, clutching one of the floral bouquets bestowed on Olympic champions and trying to organize her emotions into coherent sentences. But the words just tumbled out in a joyful torrent, the way a small child might recount a first trip to the circus.

''I've got this permanent grin on my face right now,'' Tueting said. ''My cheeks are starting to hurt from smiling so much.''

This was the moment she had been waiting for, a moment for which the members of the United States women's hockey team had deferred education and declined employment, delayed honeymoons and postponed children. They had been chasing a dream that had never existed for any previous generation of American women, and now it was caught. Tuesday night, in an arena known as Big Hat, Team USA secured the crown of the first Olympic women's hockey tournament with a 3-1 conquest of Canada.

Teuting stopped 21 of Canada's 22 shots on goal, failing only on a power play with 4:01 left in the game. Gretchen Ulion, Shelley Looney and Sandra Whyte scored the American goals, Whyte's into an empty net with eight seconds remaining.

This was the 15th meeting in four months of the two ranking powers of the women's game and represented such a breakthrough for the sport that even the victims felt a little like victors.

''There's no question there's a feeling of emptiness,'' said Canadian coach Shannon Miller. ''But interestingly enough, when they showed (U.S. captain) Cammi Granato's face on the big screen and the Olympic gold medal going around her neck, my feelings changed very quickly inside of me. I had a feeling of joy go through my body because what I realized was an Olympic gold medal was being hung around a female hockey player. I couldn't believe the impact it had on me.''

These two teams have been intense rivals - combative, contentious, what hockey types call ''chippy.'' Yet for all that has separated them, there is much more they have shared.

Most of the women players on both sides of the border learned to play hockey while tagging along behind older brothers. They typically rose through the ranks on coed teams until they were stifled by sexism or could no longer keep up. Until women's hockey was added to the Olympic program, most of them were athletes in search of an outlet.

''The whole game I had this feeling in my stomach that, 'Whoa, I'm actually playing in this game,' '' Granato said. ''It almost felt surreal at times . . .

''All your life you work and you play hockey because you love it and all of a sudden you realize, 'Hey, I'm a girl. There's no pro league. There's nowhere for me to play but college.' You go to college, and nobody's at the games, and the guys are kicking you off the ice. Then, all of a sudden, you get a berth in the Olympics. It's so special for us because every day we cherish the things that come our way because we've never had it before.''

When it was first organized in 1990, the U.S. women's hockey team counted itself fortunate if its uniforms matched or its scores showed up in the agate type of the sports section. The notion they are now in demand by network television represents more progress than they had ever expected.

''Our team has never really been the story,'' said Lisa Brown-Miller. ''I kind of at times wished I was two people. Part of me wanted to be at home just to actually witness this hype because I've never seen it before. Obviously, I wanted to be here too.''

Brown-Miller is the senior member of the U.S. team, and the gold medal game will be her last. She was married Aug. 19, 1995, and left the next day for training camp. The joke on the team is that she has spent more nights with her roommate, Karyn Bye, than she has with her husband.

In the first frenzied moments following Tuesday's game, after the American players had thrown their gloves and sticks and helmets in the air, Brown-Miller sought out Bye and found her slumped on her knees.

''I was so exhausted,'' Bye said. ''She came over and got down on her knees right in front of me. I said, 'Brownie, we did it. Look at all you've given up. What a way to end your career.' And then I go, 'I can't stop crying.' She said, 'That's OK.' ''

Miller-Brown said she could now ''put my skates on the shelf with no regrets,'' and get on with her life. Karyn Bye preferred to make the moment last. She held up her gold medal with reverence, and showed her glee with laughter.

''If I ever go to bed tonight,'' she said, ''it's coming with me.''

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

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