The 2002 Canada women's Olympic ice hockey team
One in an occasional series.
By Al Mattei
Imagine, for a moment, you were a member of the Canadian women's ice hockey team the evening of Feb. 21, 2002.
Your team is wearing the white jersey of the home team, but, playing Team USA on American soil, the crowd definitely did not have that hometown feel.
Your team had lost 10 straight games to an archrival which has gotten under your skin. They were playing well from their first line to their fourth, their first defensive pairing to their third.
And, before the game, you knew that Wayne Gretzky would be in the press box.
Pressure? What pressure?
The Canadians were tired of all of the talk since Nagano of how the balance of power had shifted towards the USA when it came to women's ice hockey internationally.
History was on the Leafs' side. Heck, wasn't it the team that blitzed the USA 10-0 in the inaugural 1990 World Championship wearing those garish pink uniforms?
Didn't Canada win just about every world championship since, including a 3-2 win in the 2001 title game in the United States?
But noooo, all of the talk was about how Cammi Granato, Sarah Tueting, and the rest of the red, white, and blue would take a star-spangled victory, all smiling for the cameras after the flags had waved and the national anthem played.
Canada, however, had an answer for Team USA on that Thursday evening in 2002. The answer?
Team Canada seized the advantage from the opening faceoff, scoring seconds into the first period and forcing the Americans into a position with which it was not familiar. The U.S. women not only had to play from behind, it found that its usual scoring plays and chances were cut down by tremendous team defense on the part of the Canadian team.
There was plenty of motivation on all sides for this gold-medal match. But Canada played with an emotion, initiative, and, yes, pluckiness that the Americans did not have in 2002.
All you had to see was the Canadians scoring in the final second of the second period to take a 3-1 lead.
Just like Mark Johnson on Vladislav Tretiak in 1980, Jayna Hefford streaked up the ice, not giving up as the click ticked down, and scoring off the crook of the arm of U.S. goaltender Sara DeCosta.
Team USA, though given numerous power plays by an American referee, managed to answer in the third period off a long shot from the deep wing. The Canadians simply would not allow enough room for the Americans to move.
The Canadians had a number of great stories that you might not have heard through the American media.
You had Angela Botterill, giving up a year at Harvard to skate for her country.
There was the ageless Vicky Sunohara, called the Wayne Gretzky of women's ice hockey (The Great One, it is rumors, was honored by the comparison).
There was Hayley Wickenheiser, daughter of an NHL veteran, who is a good enough athlete to compete for a slot on the Canadian Olympic softball team.
But the most interesting story coming out of the 2002 Olympics may not be of the time these two teams meet in Turin, Italy.
Instead, it might turn out to be how the players spend their time between Olympiads.
You see, professional women's sports leagues cropped up between 1996 and 1999 to capitalize on the success of American women's national teams and their gold-medal successes on national soil.
Certainly, any potential American backers of a pro women's ice hockey league now have more than just a flagging economy as an excuse to not go forth with a pro league.
However, it may turn out that any pro league will have a distinctively Canadian flavor to it. There is already a low-budget circuit in Canada -- the National Women's Hockey League -- that plays a five-month season from Vancouver to Montreal.
You get the feeling that the NWHL will not only attain respectability, but perhaps some marketing muscle now that Team Canada is the Olympic champion.
Perhaps the NWHL -- or WNHL, or whatever pro circuit comes out of the 2002 Olympics, may even deign to have an American franchise or two.
Given the flow of NHL dollars and franchises out of Canada since 1990, wouldn't that be a switch?