February 17, 2006

Team USA captain Krissy Wendell talks
to NBC commentators Ray Ferraro and Bill Clement


Figure skating is one of the most popular spectator sports in America – its fan base is huge, its television audience is enormous.  And it is one of the rare sports in which women outshine the men, taking center stage on the ice.

However, figure skating is not the only place where American women compete on the ice in Torino.  On the speed skating oval, there are women like Chris Witty and Jennifer Rodriguez. In curling, sisters Cassie and Jamie Johnson lead one of the youngest teams in the Olympic competition.  And in the hockey arena, American women join forces to square off against the world as a team.

For some, the idea of women’s hockey is still relatively novel.  But its history belies that notion, dating back over a century.  In 1891, for example, women’s teams faced off in Ontario, and in 1916, Ohio held the first international (or at least North American) competition with teams from Canada and the U.S.  In the 1920s, women hit the ice in collegiate competition, both in Canada and the U.S., for the first time.

When I was in high school in Massachusetts, there wasn’t a girl’s hockey team, but our rival, PHS, had a girl who played with the boys.  My friend Mark was a captain of our team, and I remember when he first played against her.  After the game, he sat at the after-party on a couch, his head in his hands:  “I body-checked a girl,” he kept saying.  “I body checked a girl.”  But with women’s hockey increasingly becoming the norm – especially in Massachusetts and Minnesota (where the first varsity high school team debuted in 1995) –his angst likely would not occur today.

The International Olympic Committee welcomed women’s hockey onto the Olympic program in 1992, and it made its Olympic debut in Nagano in 1998:  the U.S. defeated Canada to win the first gold medal.  It was a seemingly perfect inauguration (especially for the Americans) as the U.S. and Canada had a long rivalry – one that started almost a century ago – in the sport.

That rivalry continues today, similar to the one on the men’s side of the ice.  At every World Championship and each Winter Games, the U.S. and Canada have faced off for gold, with Canada winning nine times, making the Nagano victory a bit of an upset.  In Salt Lake, Canada – who hadn’t beaten the American squad in their previous eight encounters – took gold, 3-2, in a devastating loss for the Americans.

Here in Torino, things look like they are going to be familiar, at best, with only Sweden and Finland likely threatening the hold of the North Americans in the hockey arena.  But come February 20th, when the gold medal is up for grabs, likely the two old rivals will once again meet on the ice.  And hopefully team captain Krissy Wendell, who led the University of Minnesota to its second consecutive NCAA title, will lead the way to gold.

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