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Women Mark History With 5-0 Rout

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 8, 1998; 11:31 a.m. EST

 The Japanese and U.S. women mixed it up in an exhibition game prior to the start of the Olympics.
(AP Photo)

NAGANO, Feb. 8 (Sunday) — Women skaters are the marquee athletes at the Olympics, the household names with faces and stories that dominate prime time coverage of the Olympics. But those women have always been the ones wearing figure skates and sequins and stage make-up. Tonight, female athletes wearing shoulder pads and face masks and steel-toed hockey skates proved there is more to graceful skating than triple toe loops.

A new breed of women on ice introduced itself to the Olympics today as the United States scrapped and slapped its way to a lopsided 5-0 victory over China on the first day of women's hockey in Olympic history.

The American women, one of the top U.S. medal contenders, completely dominated the Chinese in a historic victory on a day that opened opportunities beyond figure skating for young girls everywhere who dream of Olympic gold.

"It's not just a man's game anymore," said U.S. team captain Cammi Granato, who scored twice tonight. "We really feel like we're out here paving the way for all the women behind us."

Women's hockey is making its Olympic debut here after decades of relative obscurity. While it's been largely overshadowed at these Games by Olympic men's hockey, which includes millionaire stars from the National Hockey League for the first time, the women's game is one of the most popular and watched additions to Olympic competition.

"I think this is doing a lot for young girls; they have a lot more dreams now," said U.S. forward Jenny Schmidgall, 18, who had a goal and an assist tonight, and will enter the University of Minnesota this fall to play on the school's first women's hockey team.

In every Olympic games, a new sport emerges as the "hip" game of the moment. In Nagano, snowboarding and women's hockey have captured imaginations of athletes and spectators. Granato and her teammates, mostly well-spoken products of New England colleges, have been swamped by media from around the world. Defenseman Sue Merz, from Greenwich, Conn., who played hockey in Switzerland after graduating from college, was interviewed by a Swiss television station — in German.

"Our top priority is to win a medal," Merz said. "But for all those young girls out there, they can look these women playing and say, 'I want to be like that, Mom.'"

Women's hockey is markedly different from men's game. Skating is slower and shooting is weaker, but it is still played with great skill by the top teams here. The Americans played a precision passing game tonight that gave them almost continuous possession of the puck. The Americans outshot the Chinese 31-10, and U.S. goalie Sarah Tueting didn't make a save that required pads until the third period.

Body-checking is illegal, so there is none of the violent crashing and banging that television viewers are accustomed to when watching men play. An American player was given a roughing penalty tonight for a slap that was probably softer than the one she got from the doctor when she was born.

The women are also smaller than the men, but a lot bigger than their figure skating counterparts. The heaviest player on the U.S. team is 175-pound defenseman Angela Ruggiero, who weighs five pounds more than Jason Dungjen, the heaviest U.S. male figure skater. And the lightest player, 127-pound forward Alana Blahoski, is still a lot bigger than 79-pound figure skating sensation Tara Lipinski.

 Checking at Women's Game
 The United States' Karyn Bye scored a goal in the victory over China.
(Denis Paquin/AP Photo)
The Americans' crushing victory over China shows that women's hockey is still wildly uneven, with Canada and the United States, the No. 1. and 2 seeds in Nagano, dominating world play and other countries lagging far behind in a tournament that numbers only six teams. Earlier in the day, Canada crushed Japan by the football-like score of 13-0 and Finland also defeated Sweden by a touchdown, 6-0. That means the three top teams won by a combined score of 24 to nothing.

Although the U.S.-China game was even more one-sided than the score suggests, fans in the cavernous Aqua Wave rink, which looks like a hangar for jumbo jets, were still excited. A large contingent from the United States waved flags and screamed for the U.S. women.

"I think about girls growing up and knowing that their are more options for them than just figure skating," said Christina Dunn, 28, of Watertown, Mass., whose sister, Tricia, plays on the U.S. team. "These women are showing them that they can do something maybe a little more non-traditional."

Heather Norton, 23, of Ogunquit, Maine, who played hockey at the University of New Hampshire, called the game "historic."

"So many women have spent their lives breaking down the barriers between men's and women's sports and breaking down old stereotypes," Norton said. "This game should have happened a long time ago."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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