By Larry Wells
On Thursday, Feb. 22, the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team will battle Canada for the gold medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. In August of 1997, John Clark, prescient editor at Southwest Airlines’ Spirit Magazine, sent me to Lake Placid to cover the tryouts for the first U.S. Olympic women’s team. It turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the U.S. team’s historic win over Canada at Nagano. I interviewed star players Cammi Granato, Sarah Teuting—who made a crucial save against Canada in 1998—and Shelley Looney, who scored the first goal. All of them were determined to make the team but terrified that teammates would be cut. I was waiting outside the gym when Coach Ben Smith called their names.
Silence settles over the ice arena at Lake Placid. The practice game is tied and will be decided by a shootout. Somewhere in the shadows Coach Ben Smith sits alone, facing the torturous decision of which players will make the first U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey team. Fifty-four contestants have been competing, and this, the final scrimmage, has been especially hard-fought.
In a shootout each goalie must defend against five skaters taking one shot apiece. Goalies Sarah Teuting of the Blue team and Sara DeCosta of the White wait at the nets as a single shooter from each team alternately takes off from center ice and attacks, the crisp grinding of blades echoing off the ceiling of the Olympic rink where, in 1980, the U.S. men’s hockey team pulled off a “Miracle on Ice,” defeating the Soviets.
DeCosta and Teuting manage to deflect four shots apiece, but one player scores for each team. With the score tied, a second shootout begins. A Blue team forward skates to center ice. Goalie DeCosta crouches one hundred feet away. Disguising a pulled hamstring, DeCosta guards the net as if nothing is wrong. Seated alone near the rafters, Coach Smith is making notes. A single extraordinary deflection could make all the difference. Two hours from now, the players will meet at the Olympic Training Center where Smith will tell them who has made the team and who will be heading home.
“There has been a lot of hard hitting because people are trying harder,” says Shelley Looney, star forward of the White Team, who did not dress out due to a shoulder injury. “It’s all coming down to the last day.”
Bright-faced under a black Nike beret, Looney looks more like a dancer than a hockey player. But her smiles belie the tension she and her fellow competitors have been feeling all week. They are on the cusp of history as the first U.S. Women’s Olympic Ice Hockey team, though few would call themselves pioneers.
“There are a lot of older players who paved the way for me,” notes Looney. “If they hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have come this far.”
When the women hit the ice, they play with unquenchable enthusiasm, voices ringing out with encouragement or warning: “Go deep … go deep … I’m covered!” Every 40 seconds, the front line rotates, and players come hurtling out of the box. This frenzied but rigidly choreographed rotation is part of the spectacle. As time grows short, the competition for the Olympics tryouts has been growing in intensity. Though body-checking is prohibited, the defensemen playing in front of the net vigorously push and shove opponents to clear out the puck. Most of these athletes grew up playing on boys’ teams and are used to hard contact. Yet outside the rink, in street clothes, mascara and earrings, they are indistinguishable from any other group of females their age. What is striking about them is their self-confidence on and off the ice.
To position themselves to play on the inaugural women’s Olympic hockey team, these players have lived out of suitcases for six years and made do on tight budgets. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Looney. “You do think about the future. I mean, my other friends have real jobs. They make a living, but you just take it day by day, month by month. I wouldn’t change anything.”
In the U.S., the first women’s hockey game was played in 1892, featuring women playing men dressed as women. In 1997 there were only about eighty U.S. high school teams, mostly in the northeast and midwest. Women’s ice hockey was still so new that some of Looney’s role models played on the women’s national team with her.
“When I was in high school, Lisa Brown-Miller , who is on our team, was playing,” Looney recalls. “I used to go to watch her skate and said to myself, ‘Boy, I hope I can be that good!’ Another one that I skated with was Cammi Granato, when I came out in ‘92. She was a superstar. I can’t believe I’m on the same team with her. As far as being a role model, I can see it happening more and more. When I go home, the little boys and girls come out to watch. When I began playing hockey, I played mostly with boys. It was funny seeing people’s reaction to girls playing: ‘They can shoot, they can skate? Oh my God!’”
In 1993 the International Olympic Committee, together with the International Ice Hockey Federation, voted to include women’s hockey as a medal sport at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. For players like Looney, Granato and Brown-Miller, this was a chance to bring women’s hockey into the spotlight.
Coach Ben Smith gave up a head-coaching position at Northeastern University to coach the U.S. Women’s National Team. All of the players agree that their level of play improved dramatically when he took over. Under his tutelage, the U.S. women won a silver medal at the 1996 Three Nations Cup in Ottawa, Ontario, and took top honors at the 1997 Friendship Cup competition in China.
Smith, a former assistant coach for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey team at Calgary in 1988, agonizes over the cuts he is being forced to make. Having coached the U.S. Women’s National Team for over a year, he has formed the nucleus for the Olympic team but keeps an open mind. “We’re all alchemists, I guess,” he observes, “trying to get a little of this and a little of that. Stir it and add a little more and see what you’ve got. By December we’ll have to get it down to two goalies and 18 skaters.”
A talented young forward, Danielle Solari of Brown University, skates toward Teuting, keeping the puck on her forehand side until Teuting commits; then she flips a low backhand in and scores for the White Team. Her teammates cheer and noisily drum their sticks on the sides of the arena. The White team wins the shootout by a goal. Smith jots some final notes and reluctantly crosses out this name and that. The players return to the Olympic Training Center to shower and change.
A Boston native, Smith speaks in staccato bursts, as if his thoughts are piling up too fast to give voice to them. An avid golfer and sailor, he is a 1968 graduate of Harvard, where his father, a Massachusetts state senator, was the roommate of John F. Kennedy. What drew him to women’s hockey was their love of the game. “They come to the rink every day with a smile on their faces,” he says with fierce admiration. “There’s a special excitement that comes from the joy of playing a beautiful sport.”
Besides energy and passion, another trait which women bring to hockey, according to Smith, is the ability to relax and unwind. Leaving past mistakes on the ice, he says, could prove crucial during the Olympic games at Nagano: “Their ability to get ready for the next game and not spend time harping on something they no longer control is a pretty good asset.”
The main difference between men’s and women’s hockey is that body-checking is not allowed for women. In place of power hockey, skill and speed are emphasized. Smaller, quicker players have a chance to compete.
From a goalie’s point of view, however, women’s hockey is as demanding as the men’s game. Goalkeeper Erin Whitten ought to know. She made TV network news as the first woman to play on a men’s pro hockey team. “Women’s hockey is really more challenging in some ways,” she says. “We can’t use the body as much as men, and it’s more of a finesse game, a tight-in passing game with a lot of close play around the net. Where men take a shot and crash, women take more shots. There’s tighter play around the net with more people around you. In the men’s game, usually they clear the puck out right away.”
Whitten grew up in Glens Falls, not far from Lake Placid. When the U.S. men’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Russians took place in 1980, she was eight years old. Playing outside in the snow, she heard the final score announced on a TV set blaring inside. “Every little kid picks a player and pretends to be him in a fantasy game,” she says. “I pretended I was Jim Craig in street hockey games.” Now her dreams of playing on an Olympic gold medal team are within her grasp. The U.S. women’s team came close to upsetting Canada the previous spring.
“We lost to them by one point in overtime,” Whitten recalls. “We’re right there with them. It’s more of a mental than a physical hurdle. We haven’t hit our peak yet. You have yet to see the best women’s hockey team play.”
Women’s hockey owes a great deal to big brothers who took time to teach younger sisters how to play. The leading scorer on the women’s national team, Cammi Granato, grew up in a hockey-playing family. Her brother, Tony, played with the San Jose Sharks. Before she was in the first grade, Grenato was skating after her brothers, one of whom, Don, taught her how to handle the puck by playing keep-away. “He wouldn’t let up,” she remembers fondly. “He’d try as hard as he could. He’d keep sticking it to me until I got it. He was very hard on me. And by the end of the summer I could take it away and keep it for a little while.”
At ll p.m., Granato and her fellow players silently file into the gymnasium at the Olympic Training Center and take their seats. Coach Smith enters the gym holding a sheet of paper containing the list of the players who have made the cut. All eyes go to the list. Though members of the women’s national team have good reason to believe they’ve been selected, all the players sit hugging each other and rocking back and forth. Even star players like Granato, who have gone through similar selection processes many times, are so nervous they can hardly wait for Smith to finish his preliminary remarks. “We’re thinking, Get on with it!” Granato told me later. “Just tell us who made the team.”
He begins reading the names, starting with the goalies: “Sara DeCosta, Sarah Tueting, Erin Whitten.” As each player’s name is called, she gets up and quietly leaves. The remainder lean forward intently, each waiting to hear her name being called. Smith continues, “Chris Bailey, Colleen Coyne, Sue Merz, Tara Mounsey, Angela Ruggieri…”
“I’m thinking if I don’t hear my name, there’s nothing I can do,” Granato said. “It’s a scary feeling not to have any control. You’re just waiting. And when you hear your name, you’re so relieved that you don’t hear anybody’s name but yours. It’s weird. When everyone walks out, it’s so quiet. You can’t remember who made the team. Nobody wants to look anyone in the eye. The minute you get chosen you’re so relieved, and yet you have this ache in your gut for fear that one of your friends didn’t make it. So at the same time it’s a sad day. Tonight’s the worst it’s ever been because this is so big. It’s the big dream that everybody has.”
When Smith finally calls out Granato’s name, she files out after the others, head bowed, legs weak. The ones who have been cut have not moved, in a state of shock. Smith searches for the words to thank them for participating and somehow lift their spirits. Many are young enough to make the next Olympic team in 2002. Others won’t get that chance.
The following day, representatives of the media gather at the hospitality suite at the Olympic Training Center. Coach Smith comes to the podium to introduce the first U.S. Women’s Olympic team. Struggling to keep his emotions in check, he pays tribute to the girls who did not make the cut. Several times he stops to clear his throat. Outside in the corridor, twenty-five players silently wait to be introduced.
“There are 25 people here that I know are kind of cautiously joyous today,” jokes Smith. “They know what the battle has been like over the last ten days.” He stops and excuses himself, blinking rapidly and regaining control. For a few seconds, there is total silence in the room. “Some of their … excuse me … teammates are on their way home. It’s been very … emotional for all of us. I know you’re going to enjoy meeting this team.”
As Smith calls out the names, the players file through the door. They are wearing navy blue Olympic windbreakers over shirts and slacks, each beaming self-consciously, struggling to suppress their excitement, young and vulnerable yet at the same time confident. DeCosta is on crutches, but her ailing hamstring does not stop her from smiling. The photographers and TV cameramen call for a group picture. The players cluster together, automatically shifting tallest to the back row, everyone laughing when the smaller players are told to kneel in front.
It doesn’t seem to have hit them yet.
They are Olympians.
Larry Wells is a frequent contributor to Hottytoddy.com. This story originally appeared in Southwest Spirit Magazine in February, 1998.