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Women's hockey on move

The game has grown six-fold in the United States in the past decade, due in large part to the national team's success.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
There is no checking in women's hockey, but that does not mean there is no contact, especially when the United States and Canada play.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


DENVER -- Cammi Granato had waited a long time to play in front of a crowd like this -- in a situation like this.

It was two nights before the NHL All-Star Game, and 9,562 people -- all paying customers, according to officials from USA Hockey -- had come to the Pepsi Center to watch the U.S. women's team battle arch-rival Canada.

It was the largest crowd to watch a women's game in the United States.

But Granato was worried. Instead of getting a bounce from the fans who wore red, white and blue, waived flags and chanted U-S-A, she and her teammates came out flat.

"You could see it at the beginning, we were a little nervous, trying to get used to it," Granato said.

That was understandable. The largest crowd to watch Team USA on its home turf had been 7,500 in San Jose before the 1998 Olympics.

More typical were the crowds at November's Four Nations tournament in Provo, Utah, where 1,047 watched the United States lose the gold-medal game to Canada.

But once the United States -- and Canada, for that matter -- got rolling, the game turned into the hoped-for showcase.

The speed, fancy passing and, at times, brilliant goaltending had the spectators on the edge of their seats. The rough stuff made them yell. And Team USA's 3-2 victory brought them to their feet.

"This game," U.S. coach Ben Smith said, "is not for the faint of heart."

Body checking is prohibited in the women's international game. That is curious because the players wear the same equipment as men -- more, in fact, because women are required to wear face masks. Men are not.

Chuck Menke, USA Hockey's director of media and public relations, said the no-checking rule "preserves the integrity of the game."

And the Girl's and Women's Ice Hockey pamphlet put out by USA Hockey says the rule allows players "to concentrate on the basic skills of hockey -- skating, passing, stick-handling and shooting."

Even Smith, when asked about the main selling point of the women's game, said, "I would hope they see these kids are technically efficient and can move the puck pretty good. And nobody can skate with these girls."

But when the United States and Canada play, the teams write their own rules. The rivalry is hot. Canada is the world's dominant power and is 20-7 against the United Sates. Team USA, however, beat Canada for the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Only one body-checking penalty was called at the Pepsi Center, but getting caught with one's head down still was dangerous.

The greatest hits: Granato and fellow forward Katie King were roughly upended in front of the Canadian net by Geraldine Heaney and Cassie Campbell during a second-period power play. No call.

In the first period, Team USA defenseman Angela Ruggiero was hit by Canada's Amanda Benoit-Wark, but it was Benoit-Wark who went flying. Then Campbell gave it a try, but Ruggiero knocked her to the ice as well. No call there, either.

"Incidental contact," Menke said.

"The shots may not be as hard as the men, but you get a great physical contest," Ruggiero said. "We surprise a lot of people."

What has surprised members of Team USA is how the sport has grown. USA Hockey says it registered 37,028 female players for the 1999-2000 season. When Granato joined the women's national team in 1990, there were 6,336.

Back then, Granato said, "people smirked or gave you a weird look when you told them you were a hockey player. But now, after Nagano, and with (the 2002 Olympics in) Salt Lake City, you can feel the hype. The progress has been tremendous."

Granato told the story of a women who told her that after the United States' victory at Nagano, she immediately got into a pickup game with her kids in the driveway.

"Another said she went right out and bought hockey stuff," Granato said. "It's great to know you've had that much of an effect."

"They're so excited to meet you," Ruggiero said. "They skate with you, and they're really excited. I talk to them, and there are some I e-mail. It's nice to hear you have such a positive influence. We never had moments like that growing up."

Karyn Bye, who scored the winning goal against Canada in the All-Star weekend game, said progress is just as evident on the ice.

"It's changed unbelievably," said the forward, who has been with Team USA since 1992. "From the World Championships in 1992, just the skills, size and speed, and knowledge of the game. After the Olympics the sport made a huge jump. I hope it continues to grow."

If it does, attendance should grow as well. But as Team USA's players found out, that creates a whole different kind of pressure.

"The nerves are going, the heart is fluttering," Bye said. "It's great fun for the young players to try and get used to it."

Forget the young ones, Granato said. Even the grizzled vets need to acclimate themselves to crowds like the one at the Pepsi Center.

"Usually, when we play in front of big crowds, it's in Canada," Granato said. "We score, and it's so quiet. So to play in front of a big crowd like this is exciting."

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