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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.

"I think it will really legitimize our sport for people who have no idea that women play," said forward Sandra Whyte, who played four seasons of hockey at Harvard while earning a degree in bio-anthropology. "The biggest thing, I think, is that they'll be surprised how aggressively we play, how intense the game is, how rough." She narrowed her eyes and smiled. "This is a hockey game. Just like the men. The main difference is that we rely a little more on finesse and passing, whereas the guys try to power the puck a little more."

For Merz, Nagano is the pinnacle. Now 25, she first picked up a stick at the age of five in her hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, tagging along with her brother when he got up a game with neighborhood kids. "I was hooked," she said. At the University of New Hampshire, she amassed 50 goals and 53 assists and was a member of the first-ever U.S. National Team in 1990, at the tender age of eighteen. She's also played for SC Lyss of the Swiss National League. But the Olympics are the ultimate.

"I can't wait to get there," she said. "This is what we've all been waiting for, what our lives have been all about. If professional hockey comes along in the next couple of years, I'd love to be a part of it. But if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. It will be great for the younger girls coming up--something to shoot for."

Is it enough, right now, to play for love?
"Absolutely," said Sue Merz.
"Absolutely," said Sandra Whyte.

Then co-captain Karen Bye told a story. "You can't believe how exciting it is to see all these young girls at our games. Afterward they come and ask us for autographs, and they say, 'Wow, I can't wait until I can wear a USA jersey like you're wearing right now.' And that always reminds me of when I was twelve years old and I wrote a letter to the United States Olympic Committee asking when women's ice hockey was going to be in the Olympics. And they were kind enough to respond. In fact, they sent me a huge packet on field hockey."

She laughed, then said, "Things have changed. The other night we beat Canada 3-1 up in Calgary, in front of 15,000 people. And now we're going to Nagano, representing our country. We've come a long way."

I don't know about you, but I've never seen a luxury box kick a field goal. Or a ladies' room run a punt back for a touchdown.

New stadiums don't win Super Bowls. Good football players do. Is there a blue-chip free agent in the Western Hemisphere who wouldn't right now want to play for the Broncos in supposedly decrepit Mile High Stadium?

Pat Bowlen and his stormtroopers know all of this. So does Paul "The Mouthpiece" Tagliabue. And Wellington Webb. They know better than ever, in the wake of the Broncos' world championship.

That's why Bowlen, his assorted factotums and his shills in the state legislature are so desperate to shove a May stadium election down the voters' throats. Clearly, they're hoping Denver's Super Bowl euphoria will still be so rampant three months from now that citizens here will not only be glad to cough up $225 million worth of corporate welfare to Bowlen, but, if he so desires, build him his own Berchtesgaden on the slope of Mount Evans.

The pro-stadium forces also know they can win a hurry-up May vote.
November--not May--is the time most people take the trouble to go to the polls. In May, proponents of any questionable issue have a leg up, because it's easier for them to muster their strength from a limited voter pool than it is for opponents. Witness the vote on Denver International Airport: May 1989.

Anyway, before we open our wallets to the fellow in the black leather overcoat, let's cool our heels--and his--long enough for the merits of the Bowlen Bowl to be thoroughly examined.

November will be soon enough. If by then it has been determined that fat cats in skyboxes can also double as all-pro wide receivers, or that Terrell Davis will run faster on some new patch of grass than in what for 38 years has been the loudest, most enjoyable, most visitor-hostile, most consistently sold-out stadium in the NFL, then maybe The Owner should get his way.

Until then, enjoy that championship season. You paid a lot more for it with your decades of sweat and tears than Bowlen did.


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