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Women stake claim to hockey

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Comedian Rodney Dangerfield once joked that he went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.

The sport of ice hockey has changed a good deal since the violence of the professional game in the 1970s prompted Dangerfield's comment and spawned the Hollywood satire "Slap Shot."

The extent to which hockey has cleaned up its act with regard to violence and fisticuffs can be debated. But in the past decade, an entirely new version of the sport has blossomed ? one with an emphasis on the skills, finesse and tactics of the game, not brutal checks and impromptu brawls.

Imagine what Dangerfield might say if he went to an Olympic hockey match in West Valley City or Provo next month and saw not a fight but a game played without body-checking ? the physical element of the sport that sometimes leads to an exchange of punches. Would this re-birthing of the sport get Rodney's respect?

It already has the respect of an estimated 110,000 people who play it worldwide. It is women's ice hockey, a passionate brand of the sport that has come a long way in a short period.

For the second time, women's ice hockey will be an official Olympic sport when the 2002 Winter Games are staged in Utah. That's major progress considering the first Women's World Championship was held just 12 years ago, and many Americans are still unaware the sport even exists.

"I think '98 opened up a lot of eyes to women's hockey. When I tell people I'm a hockey player, it's not so much of a surprise anymore," said Team USA forward Krissy Wendell, who was a sophomore in high school when the United States beat Canada in Nagano four years ago for the sport's first Olympic gold medal.

"I was always the one girl on a guys' team, so it was like, 'Oh, they have a girl, that's cool, but where's she going to go in 10 years? What's she going to do?' I think there are a lot more opportunities for players who are younger now. The participation level has gone up, and it's continuing to grow at a rapid pace."

Six teams played in the first Olympic tournament and eight will compete this time, including the co-favorite U.S. and Canadian teams. Twenty-six nations now have women's ice hockey programs, and there is even talk of a women's professional league in the United States, although that is likely a decade or more away. High school girls' and collegiate women's hockey programs are growing at a furious pace in America, particularly in the hockey hotbeds of the upper Midwest and Northeast.

"I work a camp out in Colorado every summer, and we're having a lot of 30-, 40- and even some 50-year-olds out there on the ice, wanting to learn the sport," said Team USA assistant captain Karyn Bye. "They've watched it and they want to learn it, and that probably is my most favorite group to work with, other than maybe the little kids, because they're so excited to learn.

"You can just see it in their eyes. They wish they were about 20 or 30 years younger and that they could be in the shoes that I am in right now."

The game Utahns and the rest of the world will see next month is similar in nearly all respects to the men's game. The big difference is that body-checking ? the tactic of slowing or stopping an opponent who has control of the puck by striking them with the hip or shoulder ? is illegal. That fosters a slightly different strategy, with a focus on the passing game, since a player cannot be taken out of the flow by an opponent's hit.

"You can't really retaliate by checking, and you want to sometimes," said 18-year-old U.S. forward Natalie Darwitz, who played with boys in a checking league through eighth grade. "I'm known for my skating, and so to have more room out there is great."

That does not mean there are no physical players or bone-jarring collisions in women's hockey. There are plenty. Wendell, a 20-year-old who is among the best players in the world, suffered two concussions last season in games against Canada. And players can use the body to "ride" another player off the puck ? a fine line that is sometimes crossed, resulting in a penalty for body-checking.

"But you're not going into the corner to get the puck thinking, 'I've got to watch my back because I'm going to get nailed.' It's not like that in women's hockey," said U.S. goalie Sara DeCosta. "I think we have an advantage in that sense. You actually have a second to think about what's the best play instead of just getting the puck out of the corner."

Fans are starting to respond to the women's game.

Last week, the United States and Canada played an exhibition game before a crowd of 10,158 in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. It was the first time more than 10,000 spectators had turned out for a women's hockey game in the nation. Prime-time television exposure during the Utah Olympics will give the sport its long-awaited moment in the American spotlight.

While its widespread popularity is recent, origins of the women's game stretch back to 1890, at least. That's when Isobel Preston, daughter of Lord Stanley Preston (namesake of the NHL's Stanley Cup), played the game on her flooded and frozen front lawn. The oldest newspaper account of a game between two women's teams is from February 1891 in Ottawa, Ontario.

But it wasn't until 1987, nearly 100 years later, that an international women's competition took place. That event, sponsored by the Ontario Women's Hockey Association, led to the first Women's World Championship, sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation, in 1990. Two years later, the International Olympic Committee made women's ice hockey a medal sport.

The number of girls' and women's hockey players registered with USA Hockey has increased from about 5,000 in 1990 to more than 40,000 today. The Canadian Hockey Association has seen an increase in girls' and women's players of more than 400 percent in the last decade, to about 55,000.

More women play hockey in those two countries, by far, than any other nation, which could have something to do with the fact that Team Canada and Team USA have dominated the sport. Finland, which consistently produces the third-best women's team in the world, is third in numbers, with about 2,200 registered players.

Team USA's gold medal was one of the highlights of the Nagano Games for America. Now, 14 veterans of the '98 Games are on the 20-player U.S. roster, and those women are anxious to defend the gold medal on home ice.

"Obviously, winning another gold medal, I can only imagine that it would be just as good," Bye said. "But the one in '98 will always be special, because that's the first time women's ice hockey had ever been in the Olympics. That was the first time a women's team had ever gone on tour like we did.

"We were the pioneers."

E-MAIL: zman@desnews.com