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Young Americans Chasing Canada

January 29, 2006|From the Associated Press

For nearly two decades, the hierarchy in international women's hockey has remained the same: Canada and the United States sit on top in remarkable equilibrium, with the rest of the world far below.

Don't expect that to change at the Turin Games, where the Canadians and the Americans are strong favorites to face off in their third straight gold medal game.

But both teams have a new look this winter, with new players going after their first Olympic medals -- and, ever so gradually, the rest of the world is closing the gap behind them.

"We're pretty young as a sport," Canadian coach Melody Davidson said. "If you look at the men's game way back, it was just a one- or two-team tournament as well. It's a long process, but they're getting there. If we're not playing sharp, I could see Sweden and Finland stealing a win on us."

While Davidson heads to Italy with another powerhouse team lacking any real flaws, most eyes will be focused on the Americans, who deliberately took a step back last year to take further steps forward.

Coach Ben Smith cut mainstays Cammi Granato and Shelley Looney last summer, partly to provide experience for the next American generation of forwards. Longtime goalies Sara DeCosta and Sarah Tueting also left the program.

"There's no doubt it's a different time for us, but we're just focusing on the players who are still here," veteran U.S. forward Katie King said. "Everything changes. It's never going to be like it was before, but you have to move on and try to win."

Smith no longer is on speaking terms with Granato, who had been on every U.S. team since international competition began in 1990. She will be an NBC commentator instead of the U.S. captain -- and the controversy is just one reason Turin should provide the most intriguing competition since women's hockey became a medal sport.

"It isn't the same game it was four years ago, or even one year ago," said Smith, whose decision was the talk of the sport last fall, even among the perplexed Canadians. "We're a much different team, and the Canadians have made changes as well. The rest of the world is getting better every day. You've got to meet those challenges head-on, or you're going to get caught from behind."

Smith confidently put his team in the hands of younger players, including new captain Krissy Wendell and 18-year-old Sarah Parsons, his top rising star. Just four players -- forwards Jenny Potter, King and Tricia Dunn-Luoma and star defenseman Angela Ruggiero -- remain from the club that won the sport's first gold medal in Nagano in 1998.

The new goalies are West Coast products: Chanda Gunn, a Southern Californian, overcame epilepsy to earn her spot, and Alaskan Pam Dreyer was forced to postpone her wedding to recover from an injury in time for the Olympics.

Canada is loaded again behind forward Hayley Wickenheiser, generally considered the sport's top offensive player. Since the Americans stole the championship game at April's Four Nations Cup with a shootout victory, Canada has won eight of the clubs' 10 exhibition matchups leading to Turin.

Most of Canada's wins were convincing victories -- but the United States won two of the last four, including a game in Winnipeg on New Year's Day. Smith saw progress in December, when the young U.S. forwards finally began to click at the same time Gunn and Dreyer got comfortable.

"You can feel it coming together," U.S. defenseman Courtney Kennedy said. "All the exhibition games are where you get the team feel. Hopefully we'll be able to bring it all together right when we need to."

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