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WINTER OLYMPICS | COMMENTARY

This Hockey Game Wasn't One for the Ages

February 22, 2002|JEFF JACOBS | HARTFORD COURANT

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — As time expired on the American women's hockey team's dream of a golden repeat and chants of "USA!" dissolved into a dull roar Thursday night, the Canadians rushed their crease and bowled over goalie Kim St.-Pierre.

It was the hardest anybody got hit all night at the E Center.

As the Canadian hockey team hugged, kissed and crawled on the ice with delirious glee, an observer couldn't help scanning the ice rink to see if referee Stacey Livingston had her armed raised for one last penalty on the Olympic champions.

It would have been a fitting ending to one of the worst-officiated hockey games on a major stage.

Thank the Olympic gods that Canada won, 3-2, or Jamie Sale and Wayne Gretzky would be marching arm-and-arm, leading the True North back across the border today.

Women's hockey got a free pass at the Nagano Games. It was new to the Olympics in 1998. The U.S. victory was heralded as a second "Miracle on Ice" in some circles, a misguided notion.

The truth is women's Olympic hockey makes women's college basketball look like NFL parity. There are two teams: the United States and Canada. Critics who claim women's college basketball is only Connecticut and Tennessee can be shouted down. Not here.

Neither country has ever lost an international game to a third nation.

Entering the championship game in the Olympic tournament, Canada and the U.S. had combined to outscore their opponents, 63-4. Sweden had given serious consideration to not even sending a team to Salt Lake City because it didn't think it was competitive enough.

For the record, Sweden won the bronze medal.

A lack of other competition aside, two splendid teams took the ice Thursday in front of a crowd itching to see greatness. Those teams played a close game, but nothing close to a great game. Livingston didn't allow it. The rules of the women's game, barring body checking, didn't allow it. It became a game of power-play frustration and penalty-killing exhaustion. Flow was lost. These two teams clearly are skilled and strong enough not to be treated like delicate little flowers.

Asked about the officiating, Canada's captain, Cassie Campbell, said, "Atrocious."

"It was atrocious," added Hayley Wickenheiser, the best women's player in the world. "An American ref, we didn't get anything called our way. I've never seen anything like it."

Oh, I don't know.

I thought Madame Le Gougne called a nifty game. Or was that American coach Ben Smith's wife with the whistle?

Livingston gave the Americans eight successive power plays at one point, including two five-on-three situations. Hockey is not an easy game to officiate, but believe this: No team of equal skill deserves eight power plays in a row.

Livingston called phantom trips.

Livingston called cross-checks that were love taps.

Both American goals came on the power play. They were two for 11 on the power play.

"She couldn't have been worse if she was wearing their jersey," Canada's Geraldine Heaney said.

The hilarious thing is Jayne Hefford's breakaway goal, which proved to be the winner, with one second left in the second period, may well have been offside.

And in this sense, the game was not so different from a Connecticut-Tennessee game. When the play is elevated to a terrific level, the officiating lags behind.

There shouldn't have been an American or Canadian referee, but beyond nationality there should have been elite officiating for this game. Heck, they would have been better off using an NHL referee from the men's tournament.

"The problem is women's hockey has to be played at that level more often in order to get the referees some experience," Canada Coach Daniele Sauvageau said. "Or else they'll have to go to the men's side."

Wickenheiser claimed she saw fear in the U.S. women's eyes.

She is clearly wrong. This morning, the fear is in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee, because too many of its judges and referees cannot see clearly, cannot see fairly.

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