It has been lots of fun watching the U.S. Women's Hockey Team in action in the first three games at the Vancouver Olympics. It has been especially enjoyable because I know so many of the players (and their moms) and have been following them for the past eight years.
It was fitting that Angela Ruggiero, along with Jenny Potter the only four-time Olympians on the team, scored the first goal of the tournament (unassisted) for the U.S. in the opening game, a 12-1 rout of China. Angela also scored the first goal eight years ago in Salt Lake City, the last Olympics I attended. Before the game, she exchanged pins with the Chinese captain, who she had met while working with Project Hope, a non-profit founded by New York Islander owner, Charles Wong, which built 15 rinks in China.
It was also great to see three-time Olympian, Julie Chu, do so well. I met Julie, along with her mom, for the first time after a game against the Hockey East All-Stars at Northeastern's Matthews Arena in the run-up to the 2002 Games. She has always been a strong player but she really has become so much stronger. Her goal and two assists on Sunday were special for a number of reasons: first, they came on Chinese New Year, second, they came against China, the birthplace of her dad, and third, they were cheered by a large contingent of Asian-Canadians.
The second game, a 13-0 blowout of Russia, was more of the same. Another goal from Angela (shot from behind the goal line off the back of the goalie and into the net!), with Julie chipping in with an assist. I liked how, when the U.S. scored a goal early in the third period to go ahead by a baker's dozen, it took its foot off the accelerator and refused to run up the score, settling instead for cycling the puck around the Russian zone instead of putting more shots on goal. A sign of really good sportsmanship! The final game in group play, a 6-0 win over a scrappy team from Finland, put the U.S. into the semi-finals against Sweden on Monday.
How good are the U.S. and Canada? Clearly, they are head and shoulders above the rest of the field. It should all come down to the gold medal game, although I am sure Angela, Julie and their teammates will make sure that they won't look past Sweden to a final against the Canadian so they won't suffer the same fate as four years ago, when Sweden beat them in a shocking upset to deprive them of the chance to play Canada for the gold.
If all goes according to plan, I will be in the stands with Angela Ruggiero's mom, Karen, and other friends and family of Team USA to see them battle Canada for the gold medal showdown on Thursday, February 25th.
I am hoping that a US v. Canada matchup will do for women's hockey what the 1999 Women's World Cup in soccer did for women's soccer. I was fortunate enough to be in the stands at Giants Stadium for the opening ceremonies that day. Until surpassed by the 100 thousand fans that packed the Rose Bowl for the Cup final between the US and China (highlighted by Brandi Chastain's famous celebration of the winning penalty kick), the crowd in the Meadowlands was the largest to ever see a women's sports event, and the Cup led to a women's soccer pro league the next year.
Women's hockey is a great spectator sport. It has all the speed, stick handling, great goaltending, and sharp passes of the men's game. The only real difference is that, while body contact is allowed, body checking isn't. As a result, women's hockey is actually more wide open and more fun to watch in many ways than the men's game, where all those crunching body checks tend to make the game a lot more choppy - and chippy.
The smooth-as-silk stick handling and goal-scoring moves of players like Canada's Haley Wickenhauser and America's Jenny Potter have been on full display at the Olympics. It would be hard to say that the goals they scored weren't just as pretty as those scored by the NHL's top scorers, like the Penguins' Sidney Crosby.
Not only are they great athletes, but the women who play hockey, as I have found out over the years, are really, really nice people, and work very hard to give back to people in need (more on this later). Because they aren't playing for money, they are playing for the love of the game. In this era of ultra-commercialism in all things sport, they are a breath of fresh air!
Here's hoping for a spine-tingling, edge-of-the-seat game for the gold next week. Stay tuned to this space for reports from Vancouver.