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Smith's swan song

U.S. women's hockey coach likely to step down

Posted: Monday February 20, 2006 3:19PM; Updated: Monday February 20, 2006 5:49PM
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Ben Smith may have coached his last game with the United States women's hockey team.
Ben Smith may have coached his last game with the United States women's hockey team.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Ben Smith, who led the United States women's hockey team into three Olympics, almost certainly has coached his final game for the national team.

After the convincing 4-0 win Monday over Finland in the bronze-medal game, Smith hinted broadly that he would give up a job he has held for the past 10 seasons.

"I don't know what my role will be with USA Hockey in the future," Smith said during a press conference in which, at least once, he fought back tears. "I've certainly enjoyed everything up to today and hope to continue in some form. But I've said before ... I think we need more women in our leadership positions with this program. That day is coming and I hope it comes soon. I hope to have a continuation in an advisory capacity or assisting in some role."

When he returns to the United States, Smith said he plans to continue to scout NCAA women's games and also prepare the under-22 team for its next tournament.

Although the Turin Olympics completed an across-the-board sweep of medals for Smith-coached team -- gold in Nagano in 1998, silver in Salt Lake City in 2002 and bronze in Turin -- the 2006 Olympic team was under the microscope long before it opened the tournament with an ominously sloppy 6-0 win against overmatched Switzerland. Last August, in an effort to ice a stronger and faster team to better compete with rival Canada, Smith unceremoniously cut 34-year-old captain Cammi Granato, the doyenne of American hockey, and Shelley Looney, veterans of two Olympics. The decision to dump Granato, the best player in the still embryonic history of women's hockey and the only readily identifiable player outside the immediate hockey world, caused a storm. Asked after the game if Granato's presence in the Olympics might have made a difference, Smith replied, "I don't think so."

Earlier in the tournament, Granato, in Turin as a hockey analyst for NBC, declined to discuss Smith with SI.com.

Clearly the American program had reached a plateau under Smith, slipping a notch behind Canada. Unlike the dominant performances against hockey's other superpower prior to the 2002 Olympics -- Canada's 3-2 win in Salt Lake City actually qualified as an upset -- the U.S. slouched to a 2-8 record against its North American neighbor in the run-up to Turin. According to a prominent American player, the program had started to slip. Certainly the U.S. seemed to lack its customary swagger for much of the Games, falling behind Finland 3-1 late in a round-robin game before letting its talent flow with a five-goal outburst in the third period to secure a 7-3 win. After taking an early 2-0 lead last Friday in the semifinal against Sweden, the Americans seemed to back off, gift-wrapping scoring chances for the underdogs and finally losing 3-2 in a shootout -- the first time a North American team ever had fallen to one from Europe.

"If he wants to [continue as national team coach], I think he should," said Sarah Parsons, the budding 18-year-old star forward. "I think he's a great coach. A lot of people don't give him the credit he deserves. A lot of people blame him when things go wrong and don't give him any credit when things go right. I definitely think he knows what he's talking about."

But Parsons' was the only ringing endorsement of Smith among a handful of players interviewed after the match. Several declined comment when asked if they thought Smith, who joined the national program in 1996 as its first full-time coach, should lead it going forward.

"I haven't thought that far ahead," captain Krissy Wendell said. "I'm just a player. Whoever's the coach, as a player, you just go out and play. We don't have any control over that."