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Team ‘kids’ ready for Games

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When America won the first Olympic gold medal in women's ice hockey four years ago, New Yorker Lyndsay Wall was just 12 years old.

Natalie Darwitz was 14, playing on her varsity girls' high school team as an eighth-grader and on her way to winning the Minnesota Player of the Year award.

Julie Chu was a 15-year-old in Connecticut who was "in absolute awe" that her great passion in life ? hockey ? had become an Olympic sport.

And Krissy Wendell was a 16-year-old high school sophomore and hockey phenom who watched the Olympic tournament on TV but had difficulty believing that could be her some day.

Next month, "some day" will arrive for Wall, Darwitz, Chu and Wendell. All four girls have grown into young women and blossomed into some of the best hockey players in the world.

They are the youngest members of Team USA and four of just six women on the 20-player roster who are not veterans of the '98 Olympic squad.

But U.S. Coach Ben Smith stresses that playing on the Olympic team "isn't a tryout session." All four will wear the USA jersey in Salt Lake, he said, because they've earned it, deserve it and most importantly can help the team reclaim the gold medal.

"Skill is the ingredient that we're working on. We're not counting candles on birthday cakes. We're looking for kids who can contribute offensively and defensively," said Smith, whose team will begin its quest for gold Feb. 12 against Germany, 11 a.m., at the E Center. "Their on-ice abilities speak volumes."

And so do their wide eyes.

Wendell is the oldest of the four and a national team veteran, but the Brooklyn Park, Minn., native gushes with youthful enthusiasm when she talks about her first Olympic experience. She says she can't imagine what it might feel like to be on the Olympic medals stand.

"I was so excited that women's hockey was going to be an Olympic sport and the fact that the U.S. got the first gold medal, it was just unbelievable," said Wendell, the team's leading scorer last year as a 19-year-old.

"It's just awesome being able to hang out with Cammi (Granato) and Karyn (Bye) and people who have been there."

Wendell participated in the tryout camp for the '98 Games as a 15-year-old, then made the national team the following year and has competed in three Women's World Championship tournaments.

The sturdy forward is known for her keen passing ability and is already among the best players in the world. She could conceivably be the team's captain, as a 24-year-old, when the 2006 Games come around.

"From an offensive standpoint, she's in a class by herself," Smith said of Wendell, who in 1994 was the first girl to start a game in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

Wendell's brother, Erik, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals in '98 and is playing his senior season for the University of Minnesota. Krissy will begin her playing career at Minnesota as a 21-year-old freshman this fall.

Darwitz also has been on the national squad for three seasons, becoming the youngest player ever named to the U.S. women's team at 15 in '99. The speedy, hard-charging forward from Eagan, Minn., has nifty moves and is always a threat to score.

"She's pretty unique," Smith said of Darwitz, daughter of hockey coach Scott Darwitz, now the head girls' varsity coach at his daughter's high school.

Darwitz spent much of last year away from home, participating in USA Hockey's first-ever residency program for the women's team in Lake Placid, N.Y. She lived and trained with 25 other players who hoped to make the Olympic squad. She completed homework assignments and communicated with her teachers back in Minnesota via a laptop computer.

Chu, who started out as a figure skater, is in her second season on the national team. She always has been regarded as an intelligent player, but when she began to increase her strength and confidence, she caught Smith's eye.

"Coach Smith really stresses that passing is an absolute key to women's hockey since there's not a lot of checking and you can move the puck a lot more," said Chu, who was born in Manhattan and raised in Fairfield, Conn.

Wall has shown improvement at every step along the way toward making the Olympic team.

Last season, the defenseman played on the boys varsity team as a high school sophomore in Churchville, N.Y. She was invited to the Junior National camp for 16- and 17-year-olds, and impressed Smith enough to earn a spot at the 18- and 19-year-old camp. Wall progressed enough there for an invitation to the national tryouts in August. Despite being the youngest player, she made the 25-player national team roster, then survived two cuts to make the Olympic squad.

"The one that's come along the strongest has been the younger one, Wall," Smith said, speaking of his four youngest players. "She's new to the program and so I think it's been a crash course for her, but she's standing up to the test."

With nine players who are 23 or younger and five players who are 29 or 30, there is a bit of a generation gap on the team. But it has not been a problem, players say, and is hardly noticeable on or off the ice ? except when the music is turned on.

"Some of the groups they're playing in the locker room, I've absolutely never heard of," said Bye, the 30-year-old assistant captain. "So, I'll play a little joke on them and I'll go put somebody like Karen Carpenter in. I look at Lyndsay Wall and I say, 'Do you know who this is?' And she says, 'No, I don't have a clue,' and it goes back and forth.

"What we had to do was everybody got to pick out their two favorite songs and we made a couple CD mixes so when we put those in, everybody gets a taste of everybody's music."

Bye and her older teammates say the youngsters also keep them on the edge from a competitive standpoint. While many of her friends and family members assumed Bye's selection to the Olympic team was a sure thing, Bye said she knew it was no lock after a few days in training camp ? that's how good the newcomers were playing.

"The young kids bring a fresh perspective that maybe some of the older kids forget, like, we're really lucky to be wearing USA, we're really lucky to be having this opportunity," said goalie Sarah Tueting, who's in the middle at age 25.

"I think it's a really good mix. I really like the fact that there's some young kids on the team, shaking things up a little bit."

Tueting is particularly impressed with how Wall has handled herself.

"Lyndsay is not a typical 16-year old. I don't know if I could leave home and step into a situation like this the way she has," said Tueting, who first competed on the national team as a 21-year-old. "She's just handled it with so much maturity, it's really amazing sometimes.

"I look at her and I go, 'My God, you just learned how to drive and you haven't even gone to college yet. You're half a decade away from being able to have a beer,' you know? I mean, it's kind of interesting to think about. But on a day-to-day basis, I don't think Lindsay the 16-year-old, I just think Lindsay. We've kind of gotten past the age thing."

The feeling is mutual among the younger players.

"The older girls, they've been through it before so they made us feel welcomed," Darwitz said.

It's the mix of veteran savvy and youthful potential Smith hopes will combine for a second-straight Olympic gold medal for Team USA ? and this time, on home ice.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com