"We have all the skills," U.S. coach Ben Smith said two weeks ago, as his team prepared in Denver for a final tuneup against China, "but do we have the intangibles to win the gold again?"
Mere tangibles will likely suffice. The U.S. team started living and training together in September, 2000, and won all 31 exhibition games they played leading to Salt Lake City. In six contests against China, a huge nation with only a few hundred female hockey players, the Americans scored 69 goals while giving up five. The U.S. lost to Canada at last year's World Championships, but Granato and company went eight for eight against their unhappy and outclassed neighbors to the north in this year's exhibitions, outscoring them 31-13. Hockey experts who say win-starved Canada will rise up at the Olympics should probably be driving the Zamboni instead of making predictions.
As for Finland and Russia, the only teams in this year's eight-team field customarily described as "improving" or "pesky," they have the same shot at the gold medal in Salt Lake as an Iraqi Muslim would running for mayor. On Tuesday, the U.S. team won its opener against Germany 10-0 and faces poor China again on Thursday. The Gold Medal Match is scheduled for February 21. Book it: U.S. v. Canada.
Between now and then, the only thing that could stop the U.S. women -- short of a New England Patriots-style upset by the Canadians -- is their own lassitude. "They need to stay focused," coach Smith said in Denver, "and that isn't always easy, given the level of some of the competition." Andrea Kilbourne, a 21-year-old forward from Saranac Lake, New York, was also willing to question motivation, if only for an instant. "Nobody seems to know why we are playing so well," she said, "but we sure need to keep it up and to stay sharp. Certainly, we don't want to do anything to jinx ourselves. But some nights, it was a little hard to concentrate because the games get so out of hand."
A.J. Mleczko, a 26-year-old veteran of the Nagano team and a standout defenseman, remains slightly astonished at the present team's accomplishments. "In the last Olympics, we were pioneers," she said, "and that was a lot of the fun. This team has even better individual talent. What we have to do now is make good on it. I think we can, but we'd better watch out. Nothing comes too easy."
Before the 1998 Olympics, Canada beat the U.S. in seven of thirteen exhibitions but wound up settling for the silver medal in Nagano. The Americans clearly don't want to suffer a similar letdown.