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Smith’s U.S. team always on his mind

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PARK CITY — Ben Smith can't stop thinking about it.

Everywhere he goes, no matter what he is doing, the mind of the U.S. Olympic women's ice hockey coach doesn't wander far from his responsibilities.

"There's always something there about your team and what your players are up to," Smith told a media gathering Friday at the Park City Marriott.

After he wakes up, Smith said, it isn't long before he starts thinking, "What are those Finns doing today? You know, they're seven hours ahead of us, maybe nine out here (in Utah). And what about that red team up north?"

Finland and Canada (the red team) have shared the international spotlight with the U.S. since the first World Championship for women's hockey was held in 1990. But the Americans are the defending Olympic gold medalists.

Even relaxing on the golf course, Smith said, he dwells on things like player injuries and

training schedules.

Some people might say he has a one-track mind or a narrow focus, Smith admits. But that's just the way he is — obsessed by the sport and profession he loves.

This week in Park City, Smith felt right at home.

Wednesday through Friday, he hung out with more than two dozen other American Winter Olympics coaches and program managers who share his tendency to fret over every little detail and event that could make the difference between winning and losing in 2002.

"I think we all have the same type of thought process," Smith said of the U.S. coaching fraternity.

The theme of this week's USOC Winter Coaches Summit was "Optimizing the Home Field Advantage in 2002."

One of the goals was to help coaches prepare for and minimize the distractions inherent with being the host country for the 2002 Winter Games. The USOC wants that to be an advantage, not a disadvantage, when the world comes to Salt Lake City.

For Smith, the Games present a formidable challenge.

He and his charges rightly see themselves as ambassadors for a growing sport who want to do all they can to promote the spread of women's hockey in the United States and abroad.

On the other hand, Smith and his players want desperately to win a gold medal on home ice. They have finished second to the Canadians in each of the six World Championships held so far.

"When we come in January 2002 I think we're going to be pretty focused on what the job at hand is," Smith said prior to Friday's summit meeting.

"I think there will be windows (for public access to players), but as important as something like this (the Olympics) is, and spreading the word on the sport, I hope we can do a lot of that before we come in for the final tournament."

One of the best chances for Utahns to meet, greet and mingle with some of the best female hockey players in the world will be this Nov. 6-11 when the U.S., Canada, Finland and Sweden compete in the Four Nations Cup at The Peaks Ice Arena in Provo.

"That's going to be a good time for all four teams to reach out and attempt to create some awareness of our sport," Smith said.

Smith, 54, said the Summit has been particularly invigorating for him, one of the older coaches in the U.S. ranks.

"These coaches are so young and so dynamic and so excited about their teams and their quests and it is certainly infectious," said the Massachusetts native. "You're never too old to learn and it's fun to be around people who are outstanding coaches and teachers."

Max Cobb, program director for the U.S. biathlon team, said one suggestion he picked up at the Summit was to sit down now and plan out the athletes' and coaches' schedules for every day of the 2002 Winter Games.

"That is something I had not thought of doing this far out, but all the ski team coaches are doing that and I thought, 'Wow, what a great idea,' " Cobb said.

Thursday, the coaches heard from University of North Carolina-Greensboro exercise and sports science professor Dan Gould, who has conducted research on what makes Olympic athletes successful. In almost all cases, he said, the coaches play a critical role.

"To me, coaches are the unsung heroes of the Olympics. They're pretty amazing in what they do," Gould said.

Coaches must play the roles of parent, psychologist, physiologist and long-term planner, among others, he said.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com