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Breaking the Ice

When millionaire NHL celebrities like Adam Deadmarsh, Brett Hull and John Vanbiesbrouck take the ice this week wearing the colors of the United States, the media glare will be hot and the cheers deafening.

But no U.S. Olympic hockey player will be prouder than an unknown, unpaid defenseman named Merz.

Sue Merz. Late of the Newtonbrook Panthers.
For the first time, you see, women's hockey is an Olympic event at the 1998 Nagano Games.

Women's ice hockey.
So where have you been? There are now two professional women's basketball leagues in America, one pro baseball team, scores of female boxers Charles Barkley wouldn't test in a bar fight and enough lead-footed woman race-car drivers to blow the doors off the highway patrol in thirty states. There's also a Women's National Hockey Team. Been around for eight years--long enough to get an attitude. In summary: They don't like archrival Canada very much, they serve their penalty minutes like troupers, and they're keeping a wary eye on Finland, which seems to improve with every game. The Chinese? "Couple of lucky breaks and they could be right there," one U.S. player says.

"This team didn't just fall out of the sky," head coach Ben Smith said one day last week. "They're pioneers, all right, but they've all been working at this, sacrificing for years. These are the twenty best women hockey players in the country." Indeed: The two goaltenders, Rhode Island's Sara DeCosta and Illinois's Sarah Tueting, are so good that they knocked a legend off the Olympic team. Goalie Erin Whitten, the first woman ever to post a win in a men's professional game--October 30, 1993--didn't survive the U.S. team cut.

The Americans, who flew to Japan last Friday, have their game faces on for the Olympics. Playing Canada in a final warmup game last Wednesday in Colorado Springs, their adrenaline was already flowing fast. You should have seen the sizzle on Sue Merz's slap shot.

"Our whole focus right now is on winning the Olympic gold medal," said team captain Cammi Granato. "We're ready." Actually, Cammi's always been ready. At the age of four she began trading body checks with her brothers on a frozen field near her family's house in Downers Grove, Illinois. Surname sound familiar? One of those brothers, Tony Granato, now plays for the San Jose Sharks.

Given the current fast track of women's sports, no one should be surprised that since the 1970s, women's ice hockey has been quietly developing--in high schools, on college campuses and in rec programs--in the U.S., Sweden, Finland, Japan, China, Korea, Norway, Germany and Switzerland. Of course, hockey-crazed Canada already had a breakaway on everybody. In a photograph long cherished by coed puck folk north of the border, you can see a bundled-up little girl wielding a hockey stick on an ice-caked lawn in Ottawa. The year is 1890, and the girl is Isobel Preston, daughter of Lord Stanley of Preston. Lord Stanley. As in Stanley Cup. The first newspaper account of a game between two women's teams appeared in the Ottawa Citizen of February 11, 1891. The first U.S.-Canada women's game was played in 1916.

Here's something more current most people don't know. Since early September, the U.S. women's team has put together a 22-5-1 record on its international pre-Olympic tour, playing before crowds of up to 15,000. And Canada, the dominant women's team for eight years, split its series with the U.S. at six wins each. Here's something else to show the growth of a game a lot of people are about to discover: In 1990, just 5,800 American girls registered to play youth hockey with teams sanctioned by USA Hockey, the Little League of the game. Last year, 24,000 girls signed up.

"It was bound to happen," Sue Merz said last week. "But it seems like it's taken forever."

The five-time member of the U.S. Women's National Team was talking about the whole thing. The phenomenon in the making. First, the Olympic showcase, which is certain to boost a women's sport most people don't even know exists. Next, the life-giving partnership Chevrolet has just forged with USA Hockey. It's the newest of the carmaker's sponsorships: U.S. skiers and snowboarders, soccer players and figure skaters also get Chevy support. Merz was talking, too, about the girls who will become the next generation of hockey Olympians. And about the day--maybe three weeks from now--when strangers in airports no longer mistake the team for gymnasts or volleyballers or field hockey players.

"We're still a little misunderstood," Merz said. "Women's soccer, basketball and softball all came to the forefront, and that's what we expect the Olympics to do for our sport. Because of television, we'll be seen everywhere, even in the southern countries that don't know much about the game, and great things may come from that."

Because the international talent pool is still thin, the Olympians believe women's professional hockey is five to ten years away. Only six teams will compete in this first Olympics. But acknowledgment and respect are likely just around the corner: CBS Sports (including Denver affiliate KCNC-TV/Channel 4) will cover women's hockey three times (February 7,8 and 14) leading up to the Gold Medal Game on February 17, which will air in the CBS This Morning time slot, from 7 to 9 a.m. MST.

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