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U.S. LOSS A WIN FOR WOMEN'S HOCKEY.

Byline: MATT MCHALE

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah - Angela Ruggiero said there would be a moment, a scene for the U.S. women's hockey team that would define her sport the way Brandi Chastain did for women's soccer.

Ruggiero, the gritty defenseman on the U.S. team by way of Simi Valley and Harvard University, remembered the day three years ago Chastain threw off her top in front of 75,000 fans and brought soccer into the mainstream.

What Ruggiero forgot was that women's soccer hasn't been seen since Chastain graced the cover of Time magazine. Women's hockey needs to learn that lesson.

On the day Sarah Hughes won gold in women's figure skating there wasn't much room left for hockey on the ice. The U.S. women lost the gold to Canada on Thursday, and it was the best thing that could happen to the sport.

The building of women's hockey will be a slow process. A victory would have meant a little chest thumping. And turning off the TV.

The U.S. women's team wasn't the '27 Yankees. It was better. It was 35-0 entering the game, including 8-0 against Canada. By the way, when is NBC going to start showing ``The West Wing'' again?

Such dominance leads only to greater ambivalence for a sport people don't fully understand.

Winning the gold certainly would have spawned a professional league the way the women's World Cup victory did three years ago. It would die quickly and confirm to the radio sports-talk crowd that there is no place for women on hockey skates.

What would be good is if a handful of little girls ask their parents to take them to Iceoplex this weekend to see what all the fuss is about.

Women's hockey does not need a TV contract. It needs pick-up games on Tuesday and Thursday nights. It needs to show sequins are not standard equipment in ice skating. It needs to show fans that they can play this sport cleanly and safely. When the bully doesn't always win, you win fans for life.

If you prove it is not a sport of budding Sue Grimsons lurking behind every faceoff you eliminate a fear factor that keeps many kids off the ice.

The men's side of hockey at these Olympics has shown the game can be even more entertaining than the NHL version. Fighting and rough play are out, skating and passing skills are in. This plays right into the women's game that has preached nonviolence since its inception.

Even with the loss, the U.S. needs to continue its role as the sport's goodwill ambassador. Cammi Granato is a fine role model and so are Ruggiero and 18-year old Natalie Darwitz. There is too much work to do to sit home and sulk.

They need to hit the road and sell hockey overseas. As an Olympic sport, women's hockey is only eight years old. It shouldn't start gunning for higher office anytime soon. The U.S. and Canada are the only real teams in the field. But it was a good sign that Sweden, with its 15-year-old goaltender Kim Martin, gave the Americans a run in the semis.

When the U.S. beat Germany 10-0 in the opening round, the German women couldn't believe their eyes. They were secretaries and bar maids who played a little hockey on weekends. They were used to having their parents in the crowd and no one else.

The U.S. needs to go to China, where there are a billion people but only 80 women hockey players. If there are 200 by the time the Games return in 2006, that is a victory.

The problem with being the biggest kid on the block is most times everyone just walks away. The early games of the tournament were ugly. The U.S. team was putting up big numbers and the home crowd at the arena kept clamoring for more. There was little compassion for the underdog with China trailing 9-1 and screaming fans taunting the vanquished by counting off the number of goals like a walk to the guillotine.

Parity is not good for the NFL and it won't happen in this sport for a long time. But the sooner Slovakia can field a legitimate team, the better the sport will be.

Instead of thinking bigger, women's hockey needs to think smarter.

Thursday's loss was a step in the right direction. Even if it was not the moment we expected.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Natalie Darwitz (22) and Angela Ruggiero can do more to help promote women's hockey than just win gold medals.

Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 22, 2002
Words:774
Previous Article:E-MAIL FROM SALT LAKE CITY.
Next Article:MEN'S HOCKEY PREVIEW: MIRACLE MEMORIES AND TALK OF BOYCOTT U.S.-RUSSIA REMATCH PLAYS OUT AGAINST DIPLOMATIC CRISIS.


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