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U.S. women's hockey team ready to begin its quest for gold medal

After what Tonya Harding did to Nancy Kerrigan, is it any wonder that women were issued sticks for the first time in the Winter Olympics?

Members of the U.S. Women's Ice Hockey Team say they don't have to defend their game or themselves like their male counterpunchers, even if Olympic rules outlaw checking. Roughhouse play is limited to a subway sort of pushing and shoving. No gal goons allowed.I guess can you still call it hockey if there are more earrings dropped on the ice than gloves, although only time and TV ratings will tell.

"In women's hockey," forward Sandra Whyte said, "a real fight might be one swing.

"We had a scuffle along the boards and someone brought their arm back. That's a big deal. But we don't want the checking. Our's is a finesse game, showing our skills. It's a purer game."

Finesse is the only way forward Lisa Brown-Miller can survive at 5-feet-1, 128 pounds.

There certainly is no future in comparing their game to the men's version, especially this Olympiad. Better to separate yourself altogether from a debuting Dream Team of NHL stars who have derailed the lineage of amateurs, forever making the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad a memory.

It's about time we see women skating to their own drummer instead of Tchaikovsky, wearing pads and helmets instead of mascara and sequins. Best of all, their competitions aren't decided by some Mongolian judge trying to make political points.

"I think this is going to change how people see women," forward Jennifer Schmidgall said. "Women aren't wimps. We're going to show that little girls can be tough, physically tough."

Shelly Looney knows tough. On the same day, she had knee surgery and an operation to repair three broken bones in her face after being struck by a puck. She would have wobbled back into the game during the Women's World Championships last year, but it ended. "I broke my jaw," she says, tongue firmly in cheek, "when I blocked a shot."

Oh, she loves it so, ever since she pushed a chair across a frozen pound to learn how to skate. "My brother played and he realized he didn't like getting up so early, so I spoke up and told my parents that I would take his place," she said.

Looney's passion echos that of the other 24 women who are finally getting the chance to live an improbable dream. Goalie Sarah Tueting slept with her first hockey pads and proudly dressed up as a goalie for Halloween.

"It's crazy to think we're in the Olympics, but here we are," said Cammie Granato, whose brother, Tony, played for the U.S. in the '88 Olympics and stars for the San Jose Sharks. "When you're growing up, you sort of don't know if you should believe in yourself or not. I didn't understand why it was such a big thing that I played hockey because I was a girl."

Most have the same story: They tagged along to the rink with brothers or neighborhood boys, playing despite protests and double-takes. Goaltender Sara De-Cos-ta remembers playing on a boys' team in Warwick, R.I., and attending "sleepovers with all guys." Defenseman Kelly O'Leary once had to play in a Canadian tournament under the name of "Kevin."

But their careers ended when the teenage guys grew bigger and stronger, leaving them to explore other sports if high school or college hockey weren't options. "We didn't have any role models," Looney said. "Now, we thankfully can be role models for other girls."

They are now riding the League-of-Their-Own coattails of the women's softball and soccer teams, who won gold medals in their debuts in the Atlanta Summer Games. Female interest in hockey has more than quadrupled. In '90-'91, 5,533 women were registered with sport's national governing body. Two years ago there were 20,555, a more than 300 percent increase in the crease.

"We're still somewhat new. People are surprised women are playing ice hockey and not field hockey," forward Karyn Bye said. "After the Olympics, I think the door will just flood open."

Appearing on a Wheaties box as gold-medal winners would advance their game beyond an underground cult sport. The U.S. team begins play in the six-team field today against China. They will be looking to eventually oust the favored Canadians. Their rivalry has become rather heated, reminding each club that they must hold back for a game where there's no glove lost.