Funding for women’s hockey pays off for Canada, U.S.Posted: Friday February 22, 2002 12:03 AM
Updated: Friday February 22, 2002 3:56 PM
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- In case you missed the women’s hockey medal ceremony, you missed more than just the ebullient Canadians whooping above their gold, and the weepy U.S. women reluctantly inspecting their silver. Also on hand, dressed in what resembled prep school suits, were the upstart Swedes, who had shocked Finland 2-1 in the bronze medal game earlier in the day.
Think this was an upset? Finland won the bronze in 1998 and Sweden lagged so far behind them (and other potential contenders) that a last fall they weren’t planning to come to these Games at all. "Then we got a little bit better," said Stefan Lindberg, president of the Swedish Olympic committee, "so we figured, ‘Why not?’"
If you did see the medal ceremony you saw Rickard Fagerlund, President of Swedish Ice Hockey Federation, hanging the medals around the Swedish women’s necks. This is the fellow who four years ago declared that he didn’t think women should play hockey in the Olympics. He was caught yawning a lot during the Swedes’ women’s games in Nagano.
Sweden owes this medal to Stockholm sensation, goalie Kim Martin, who is 15 years old and in her second career (she figure skated from ages 3-9). Martin’s the youngest Swedish medallist ever and the youngest medallist at these Games. She makes ice dancing pixies look middle-aged. Martin wasn’t just along for a ride, either. She was driving. A ninth-grader barely eligible for a learner’s permit, Martin stopped 32 shots, denied the Finns on eight power plays and now gives Sweden reason to think they might medal again four years from now in Turin.
Of course no Scandinavian team claims to be prospecting for gold just yet: In this sport, that’s strictly a North American metal. The main reason the U.S. and Canada are so far ahead of all other countries in women’s hockey -- but only about even with the other men’s powerhouses -- is that they’ve got funding for the women. Nations like Finland and Sweden (with such dubious athletic supporters as Fagerlund) never get dough like that. Backing from USA Hockey enabled the U.S. women’s team to spend 18 months together as a team in advance of the Olympics. The Canadians were together for half a year. Finland? "We had three weeks," says Finnish coach Jouko Lukkarla. "If we had a year, two years together, maybe we could start to catch up."
Not likely to catch up until well after Provo freezes over, are the women from China, a country where there’s one hockey player for every 13 billion bicyclists. Still, they are better than someone. One of the women’s bracket’s genuine Olympic moments was seeing the Chinese spill out onto the ice and mob one another after forward Hongmei Liu (there are two Lius, a Li and a Lu on the team) scored with 1:49 gone in overtime to beat Kazakhstan and vault China into seventh place in the eight-team field.
As the women’s hockey Olympic experience ends, one last thing to contemplate. How was it that Canada won the gold -- convincingly -- and there were still four U.S. players of the six players the media named to the all-tournament team? I was one of the voters and I had four Canadians on my ballot. Looks like some of my fellow Americans were bleeding a bit too much red-white and blue. Maybe that protesting Russian Olympic committee is onto something.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.