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Majority of U.S. women’s squad hopes to return

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Sixteen of the 20 players who won gold medals in 1998 as part of the U.S. women's hockey team hope to play on the Olympic squad again next year in Salt Lake City.

Those 16 women — including longtime team captain Cammi Granato and gold medal-game goaltender Sarah Tueting — are among 45 players who have been invited to participate in USA Hockey's 2001 Women's National Team Festival.

The training camp and competition will be held Aug. 13-22 in Lake Placid, N.Y., and will feature five split-squad games that will help Coach Ben Smith determine which players to bring with him to Utah for the 2002 Winter Games.

The day after the festival, the 45-player roster will be trimmed to 25.

Those players will be members of the 2001-2002 U.S. women's national team, which will compete in a 32-game tour of the U.S. and world including an Oct. 20 game against defending world champion Canada in West Valley City.

From that roster, 20 players will be selected to play on the 2002 U.S. Olympic team.

And while the 16 gold medalists clearly hold the edge in experience, Smith said he wouldn't be surprised if a few younger players oust some of the veterans on the road to Salt Lake City.

"I think that's a strong possibility," Smith said in a telephone interview from Boston.

"The game has made great progress. I don't think it's being played at the same level that it was three or four years ago."

That means gold medalists like Vicki Movsessian, Stephanie O'Sullivan and Laurie Baker will have their work cut out for them in trying to make the national and Olympic team rosters.

Movsessian, a 28-year-old defenseman from Lexington, Mass., has not played on a national team since the Nagano Games in '98.

O'Sullivan, 29, and Baker, 24, both also Massachusetts natives, played on the 1999-2000 national team but not on the 2000-2001 national squad.

Smith said he isn't surprised that 16 of the 23 women who made the 1998 Olympic roster are back for more, 3 1/2 years later.

"These athletes really love the game, way before there was even a thought about being on an Olympic team," he said.

"I don't think it subsides, and I think there's excitement about trying to make a team that's going to play on its home ice because it's probably going to be another 20 years before that happens (in the Olympics) again."

Granato and Karyn Bye, both 30, are the two oldest players invited to the festival. But the two Olympic medalists are arguably among the top five women's hockey players in the world.

Many of the younger players invited to the festival have national team experience, even if they don't have gold medals.

Forwards Krissy Wendell, 19, and Natalie Darwitz, 17, both of suburban Minneapolis, and 19-year-old Connecticut native Julie Chu are the best of the new breed of young American talent. Wendell, who skated on the same forward line with Granato, was second in scoring at this year's World Championship.

The youngest festival invitee is defenseman Lyndsay Wall of Syracuse, N.Y., who turned 16 in May.

Most of the 45 players, not surprisingly, are from the Northeast and upper Midwest, where girls' and women's hockey programs at the high school and collegiate level are most prevalent.

Only four festival participants are from the western U.S. — 2000-2001 national team member Angela Ruggiero, a 21-year-old defenseman from Simi Valley, Ca.; 18-year-old forward Kelly Stephens of Seattle; Brooke Whitney, a 21-year-old forward from Snohomish, Wa.; and 22-year-old Ambria Thomas of Fairbanks, Ak., who plays for the University of Minnesota.

"We've been tracking all of these players for the last four or five years," Smith said of the festival invitees.

The 45 players will be divided into two separate teams for the five-game festival competition. Smith plans to announce the rosters for the two teams In early August.

PRE-OLYMPIC TOUR: USA Hockey continues to fine-tune a schedule for the 2001-2002 women's national team, but some details are known about the tentative, 32-game schedule.

The Americans, who will be seeded second behind Canada in the Olympic tournament, will play the arch-rival Canadians about eight or 10 times, a few games less than in the 1997-98 pre-Olympic tour.

The U.S. will play most, if not all, of the other seven teams in the Winter Games tournament on the pre-Olympic tour, starting with two games each against fifth-seeded Russia and sixth-seeded China, in China, this September.

China will travel to the U.S. for a series with the Americans in January, including games in San Jose, Spokane, Boise and possibly Denver.

Fourth-seeded Sweden will visit in mid-December for four games against the U.S. team in yet-to-be-determined American cities.

The Four Nations Cup, held last year in Provo, will be staged in Helsinki this fall. Finland will have the third seed in the Olympic tournament and will be in the same preliminary grouping with the U.S., China and Germany.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com