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A Medal, but No Pot of Gold

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 1998; Page A1

NAGANO, Feb. 16 — No rivalry at these Winter Olympics has been more hotly contested than the struggle for the first women's hockey gold medal.

In 14 meetings during the past 18 months, the United States and Canada have skated to a 7-7 draw. Along the way, the bad blood between the teams has been evident in shouting matches, high sticks and illegal body checks.

But after Tuesday's decisive game — to break their tie and decide the gold medal — where will women's hockey go? The sport has been one of Nagano's hippest and most appealing sports, with tickets for the final almost impossible to get. (The game was to be played Tuesday at 4 a.m. EST and replayed from 7 to 9 a.m. on WUSA-TV-9).

But once the battle is over, women's hockey will disappear until the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

Players are struck by the paradox — hot today, frozen tomorrow.

In U.S. forward Karyn Bye's home town of River Falls, Wis., many store windows have signs wishing her good luck. She is getting about 40 e-mails a day from fans.

"I wish I could be two people; one here and one back home to get a feel for how big this is," Bye said. "People are saying women's ice hockey is the talk of the Olympics. I really don't think I can grasp it."

But while women's hockey is just now becoming popular, there is no professional league in which the players can continue their careers.

"For us, it's like you work, you work, the whole team travels together for a year, and then it's over," said U.S. team captain Cammi Granato.

Women's basketball leaped toward professional play in North America with a U.S. gold medal from the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Within months, the women's professional American Basketball League began play, followed in June 1997 by the Women's National Basketball Association, with both leagues filled with Olympic players.

But women's hockey is not professionally viable. There have been rumblings of a professional league coming out of New Hampshire for the last month, but players here have played down that possibility.

"I don't think women's hockey is ready for a professional league yet," Granato said. "The sport just doesn't have the depth for something like that and, for us, this isn't really what all of this is about right now."

The women here see their Olympic experience as an opportunity to grow the game at the grass-roots level, much the way the women's soccer and softball teams in Atlanta encouraged local development in their sports.

"This is an opportunity for all of us," Granato said of their humble and realistic expectations. "This is our chance to show the world, all different types of people, that women can play hockey."

Just by reaching the gold medal game, the U.S. women have shown what they can do, said Anita DeFrantz, the U.S. member of the International Olympic Committee's executive board and a former Olympic rower.

"They've already made an enormous difference," said DeFrantz, who will be awarding the medals Tuesday night. "Now young girls can aspire to be hockey players. It's just tremendous."

For hockey to grow from grass roots upward, for it to be embraced by a professional sports culture, will be a slow, arduous and perhaps impossible process.

The majority of high schools in the United States do not have a men's hockey team, much less a women's squad. In 1990-91, there were only 149 female teams at any level — an average of three teams per state, according to USA Hockey. That number has grown to 910 female teams in 1996-97, although the average is still low, 18 teams per state.

International depth is also a problem. While the men's Olympic hockey tournament is being billed as a "dream tournament" because the talent is so spread out it is impossible to call any one squad a "dream team," the women's tournament has been much less competitive. The United States and Canada have crushed the four other teams here by a combined score of 61-19.

In Canada, a few more opportunities exist for girls and for women, although few in that hockey-crazed country believe it could support a serious professional league, either. Many of Canada's elite women play in the amateur Central Ontario Women's Hockey League, but the talent pool is so shallow that when the national team began touring last year, three of the six teams stopped operating because of a lack of players, Canada Hockey spokesman John MacKinnon said.

"There are a lot of places where there is nowhere for a girl to play," said U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero, a California native. "You just have to play on the boys' teams. When I first started there were hardly any teams at all, but then Wayne Gretzky came to Los Angeles, and the rinks came."

Most of the 20 women on the U.S. team will leave here and return to lives as college students or coaches; one is a high school student. Granato is one of only two female Olympic hockey players who have seriously explored options in the National Hockey League. Granato, whose brother Tony plays for the NHL's San Jose Sharks, has spoken to the New York Islanders about a tryout next year; Canadian goaltender Manon Rheaume once played in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. But as a goaltender, Rheaume was not subject to the NHL's hard hitting. Granato, who weighs 140 pounds, fears she would not be able to fight off NHL opponents 50 pounds heavier.

"With us, not only do you have an offseason, but there's nowhere for you to go next year if you're out of college," Granato said. "We realize that after this, it's over until the next Olympics."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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