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OLYMPICS / HELENE ELLIOTT

Women's Hockey Takes Another Step

January 26, 2003|HELENE ELLIOTT

As Canadian Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser continues to make history playing for a second-division men's professional hockey team in Finland, Cammi Granato is cheering enthusiastically.

"It was good to see her get a point," said Granato, a pioneer of the women's game in the United States and leader of the U.S. teams that won a gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games and silver last year at Salt Lake City.

"She looks comfortable. The physical aspect of the game was a big question, but in her first game she took some checks and she seemed to be OK."

Wickenheiser, 24, signed with Kirkkonummi Salamat after a three-game tryout. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound center was credited with one assist, the first point recorded by a female player in a men's game, and has helped draw a few thousand people to the small rinks in which Salamat plays.

The level is probably low-minor league and most of the players have other jobs to support themselves, but it's still a step up for Wickenheiser, who ran out of challenges playing against women. Granato understands Wickenheiser's motivation to play in Europe and might have considered it herself a few years ago, but Granato is 31 and has too many family and career ties to think of picking up stakes.

"Anything like this is good for our sport," said Granato, who plays for the Vancouver team of the National Women's Hockey League, a senior-level league that includes most of Canada's Olympic players. "I don't think Hayley's plan is to be in Europe for the next four years. She went there because she wants to improve. It's good for her as an athlete and great for women's hockey."

Several female goalies have played in men's leagues, but only Wickenheiser and Germany's Maren Valenti were position players. Valenti played 25 games for teams in Berlin and Freiburg in the German second division in the 1998-99 season but never scored a point.

Granato could have beaten them to those distinctions. She was invited to the New York Islanders' training camp in 1996, not as a publicity stunt but as a serious gesture on the part of General Manager Mike Milbury, whose daughter played hockey. Granato declined, and she has never looked back.

"It was a situation where I didn't want to get sidetracked from where I was going," she said. "I wanted to play on the [1998] Olympic team and I didn't want to get injured.

"I have no regrets at all. It was a big honor to be asked. My goal wasn't to make the Islanders. For a small player like me [5-7, 140 pounds] it would be tough. Even in the women's game, size is becoming an issue. You have to keep on your game all the time. I don't think I could have been able to withstand the body checking. The guys are a lot stronger."

Granato remains hopeful a women's professional hockey league will take root in North America, but she's realistic. "You need someone with money and vision for growth, and that's tough," she said. "The quality of play is always getting better. We have a few players from the rest of the world, and the more players from other countries the more awareness there will be."

With three years to go before the next Winter Games at Turin, Granato is taking her career a year at a time. But she's tempted to go for another medal.

"This year has been a nice change to be up here and play for the fun of it, with not a lot of pressure," she said. "It's made me want to keep going.... It's a long way away and a big commitment, and I've been thinking about other things, like working with athletes as a trainer or nutritionist. But I love that I can still play. It's a place where I'm very happy, and I don't feel I'm ready to stop playing."

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Judging the Judges

Two-time Olympic figure skating gold medalist Dick Button, never shy about saying what he thinks, called the anonymity given judges under the International Skating Union's interim system "an absurd, criminally negligent and morally deficient means of judging a sport. I find it dishonest and very unfortunate."

Under the system, introduced this season to minimize the chances for judges to make deals and stack the outcome, 14 judges are selected from a pool. The scores of nine judges are randomly chosen to determine each skater's score. Marks are displayed in ascending order, without correlation to a specific judge.

Button criticized the ISU for not punishing judges severely enough for malfeasance, citing the three-year suspension levied against Sviatoslav Babenko of Russia and the two-year sanction against Alfred Korytek of Ukraine for communicating via glances and foot tapping during the 1999 World Championships in Helsinki. Both men appealed, and each got his sentence cut in half.

"The ISU can't control it because the Russian federation controls them," Button said recently. "It's not the system. Any system in the world can be circumvented by dishonest people. You allow that to happen, you lose credibility, in my book."

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