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GOLDEN MOMENT IN WOMEN'S HOCKEY; U.S. DEFEATS CANADA IN TITLE GAME.

Byline: Ann Killion San Jose Mercury News

THE sticks flew high in the air along with the memories of tucking ponytails up into helmets and going by boys' names and hearing taunts from the stands.

The tears poured out and so did the tension over missed honeymoons and college degrees postponed and family vacations never experienced.

And then the women who had just become the first to win an Olympic gold medal for ice hockey turned to search the stands, to press their faces against the glass and find the people who never questioned.

The dads who took little girls by the hand to the rink and found hockey skates, not figure skates, that fit.

The moms who never said that hockey was really a boys' sport.

The brothers who let them tag along to practice and the sisters who put up with being body-checked against the bedroom wall.

When the U.S. women won the hockey gold medal Tuesday night, beating Canada 3-1, the moment was so big, so emotional, it even washed away the bitterness of defeat.

``When Cammi Granato had the gold medal put around her neck, a feeling of joy went through my body,'' said Canada coach Shannon Miller. ``An Olympic gold medal was hung around the neck of a woman hockey player. I couldn't believe the impact that had on me.''

That Miller - who almost started an international incident after Saturday's slugfest between Canada and the United States - could see the larger picture with such clarity tells you what a mission these women were on, on both sides of the border.

This was an Olympic moment for the ages.

A group of young women with no motivation other than a gold medal played an almost perfect game and made a nation notice.

Of all the sports that have brought women's teams Olympic gold in recent years, hockey had the hardest fight and the greatest stereotypes to overcome. Girls play basketball, soccer and softball, but for years little girls didn't play hockey.

The U.S. team's best defensive player, Tara Mounsey, led the boys team to a 22-0 record in the New Hampshire state championship and was named Mr. Hockey of the tournament. And she's only 19, born six years after Title IX was passed. Her teammates dreamed of being Wayne Gretzky, who just happened to be in the stands Tuesday. Defender Angela Ruggiero, who grew up in Simi Valley, idolized Marty McSorley.

There's no real dream of a professional league, no major endorsements lined up. Eight years ago, there wasn't even a national team. There is no NCAA championship. Only one state - Minnesota - sanctions high school girls' hockey as a varsity sport.

All hockey had going for it was a core of dedicated women who have sacrificed so much to get here. Goalie Sarah Tueting dropped out of Dartmouth for two years, postponing her neurobiology degree. Forward A.J. Mleczko put off her senior year at Harvard. Forward Gretchen Ulion resigned from a teaching job. Defender Vicki Movsessian quit a job with an insurance firm. Lisa Brown-Miller quit her coaching job at Harvard and postponed her honeymoon.

All to chase this dream.

To become the first women to push down a barrier. To give little girls a gender-correct image to remember, to match the ``Miracle on Ice'' scene that inspired so many kids. Just to do it, so no one can ever say again that it can't be done.

It wasn't easy. Brown-Miller, who has yet to take a honeymoon because of her commitment to the national team, thought about quitting at one point. But her husband, John, changed her mind.

These women - scrappy and virtually anonymous - are closer to the 1980 U.S. hockey team than they are to their male 1998 NHL-groomed counterparts. And most had the images from ``Miracle on Ice'' burned in their heads and knew instantly how to drop their gloves and hurl their sticks high when the buzzer sounded.

They had received encouragement from 1980 captain Mike Eruzione and goalie Jim Craig.

Tueting, the cello player and future medical student, was phenomenal in goal Tuesday night, stopping shot after shot, particularly in the third period when a frantic Canadian team could sense its world dominance slipping away.

Canada beat the United States in all four world championships, but the teams split the 14 games they played against each other since October. And the tension between the teams had reached a boiling point Saturday, after a physical game and a postgame press conference when accusations flew.

After the championship game, the silver medalists were devastated and watched the U.S. celebrate for what seemed like an eternity.

Ruggiero skated down the ice and found the game puck and put it in her pocket to give to her father. Her dad, a former goalie who taught her how to play hockey, couldn't be at the game.

Defender Chris Bailey climbed on the bench and reached above the rail, finding her mother's arms and breaking down sobbing. Bailey's father died of a heart attack when she was 13. Albert Bailey had always encouraged his daughter to dream. His memory was alive in the embrace.

Granato, whose brother Tony, a former L.A. King, went to a TV station to watch his baby sister play hockey live, bowed her head and felt the medal slip around her neck.

``Ten years ago people said, `You aren't supposed to be on the ice,' '' Granato said, rubbing a finger over the medal. ``This is the expression of everything we've worked for.''

They took off their helmets and shook their hair out. They hugged and cried.

They were women. They played hockey.

And they were the best in the world.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

PHOTO (color) U.S. women's hockey team member Karen Bye celebrates.

Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 18, 1998
Words:969
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