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Women’s hockey race is about U.S., Canada

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Make no mistake — the 2002 Winter Games women's hockey tournament is all about the United States and Canada.

Finland, Sweden, Russia, China, Germany and Kazakhstan also will compete for the sport's second Olympic gold medal. But the two nations that have dominated women's hockey since the first World championship in 1990 — and played for the first Olympic gold medal in Nagano — are expected once again to meet in the finals Feb. 21.

Canada has won all seven World Championships, defeating the United States each time. But the Americans prevailed in the '98 Games and defeated the Canadians in all eight contests they've played against each other this season on the pre-Olympic tour.

"Obviously, the Olympics are a big, huge event, and with our disappointing result last time, we definitely want to change the color" of the medal they win, said Canadian forward and '98 Olympic veteran Cassie Campbell. "But we know how difficult that's going to be."

The seeds for the Olympics were based on the finish at the 2000 World Championships in Ontario, so Canada holds the top spot. And Canada always has played well in big games against the United States. Team USA, however, will be playing on home ice.

"We're the reigning Olympic champions, that's the way this team wants to keep it, and we're going to do whatever we can to get back there again," said U.S. defenseman and assistant captain Karyn Bye.

Sweden coach Peter Elander has watched his squad drop decisions to both Canada and the United States in pre-Olympic play. Team USA was more dominant against the Swedes, but Elander predicts the Canadians will win Olympic gold.

"The U.S. (players) have a brilliant passing game and good movability in all positions, but my personal opinion is that the pressure in a final, before a fanatic home crowd in a warm arena with probably not-so-good ice, will not benefit the U.S. style," Elander said.

"The grittier, little tougher and bigger Canadian team will be better suited for that kind of game."

The United States will play Germany, China and Finland in a preliminary round-robin. In the other pool, Canada takes on Sweden, Russia and Kazakhstan. The top two teams from each group will advance to the winners' bracket semifinals.

Here is a brief look at each team:

No. 1 seed, Team Canada — Canada is bringing virtually the same team to the Olympics that it took to Minnesota last April and won its seventh consecutive World Championship. Eighteen of its 20 Olympic athletes played in that tournament. Twelve of them are veterans of the '98 Games.

Deseret News graphicDNews graphicOlympic hockey primerRequires Adobe Acrobat.

And Hayley Wickenheiser, perhaps the best female hockey player in the world, is back. She was injured and missed the 2001 World Championships but is healthy now and an assistant captain on the Olympic squad.

Canada is 39-2 overall in World Championship and Olympic tournaments, with both losses coming to the United States in Nagano.

Odds to win gold: 2-to-1.

No. 2 seed, Team USA — The Americans have played extremely well over the past two seasons, despite losing once again to Canada at the 2001 World Championships in April. They are 27-0 so far on their pre-Olympic tour with five games remaining — four against China and one against Russia.

USA Hockey invested in a yearlong residency program for the national team last season, paying players to stay together as a team at the Olympic facilities in Lake Placid, N.Y. That move appears to have paid off in the form of team unity and cohesion.

Odds to win gold: Even.

No. 3 seed, Team Finland — Finland won six straight bronze medals in the World Championships before slipping to fourth place in 2001. The Finns have played close games with Canada and the United States but have never beaten them. In the 2000 Worlds, they held a 3-1 lead over the Americans with 10 minutes left but lost, 4-3. Finland hasn't shown as much fire since, but several veterans from past national teams have returned this season.

Odds to win gold: 40-to-1.

No. 4 seed, Team Sweden — After placing fourth or fifth in its previous six World Championships, Sweden slipped to seventh in last year's Worlds. The Swedes finished fifth out of six teams in the '98 Games.

Sweden lost all four games it played against Team USA in December and all six games it played against Finland in September and November. It was playing so poorly that in December, Sweden's Olympic Committee strongly considered pulling the team out of the Olympic competition.

Odds to win gold: 75-to-1

No. 5 seed, Team Russia — Russia was the surprise of the 2001 World Championships, finishing third with a 2-1 upset of Finland in the bronze-medal game. Its only losses were to Canada, 5-1, and the United States, 6-1.

The United States defeated Russia 9-1 and 6-0 in two exhibition games this season in Beijing, China. This will be the first Olympics for the Russian women's team.

Odds to win gold: 50-to-1.

No. 6 seed, Team China — China has finished no better than fourth and no lower than sixth in six World Championship tournaments. It placed fourth out of six teams in the '98 Games, losing 4-1 to Finland in the bronze-medal game.

The Chinese dropped two lopsided contests to the Americans in Beijing in September, 9-0 and 12-1, and are scheduled to play Team USA four times prior to the Games, beginning next Tuesday in San Jose, Calif.

Odds to win gold: 90-to-1.

No. 7 seed, Team Germany — The Germans had finished no higher than seventh in four previous trips to the World Championships before a fifth-place finish last year. Coach Rainer Nittel has one of the youngest teams in the Olympic tournament.

Three German players, all forwards, have North American playing experience: Maren Valenti and Bettina Evers have played for Canadian club teams, and Raffi Wolf played collegiately for the University of Maine.

Odds to win gold: 100-to-1.

No. 8 seed, Team Kazakhstan — Kazakhstan made its first appearance in the World Championship tournament in April, losing all five games it played while being outscored 29-5. Kazakhstan garnered its first Olympic berth last February by finishing first in a four-team qualification tournament with Germany, Switzerland and Japan. It defeated Japan, a '98 Olympic participant, 5-2 and then upended Germany, 2-1.

Odds to win gold: 150-to-1.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com