Winter Olympics: Canadian women light torch for ice hockey

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The Independent Online
There were no surprises as women's ice hockey took its Olympic bow yesterday, just a run of thrashings for the underdogs in the first round. Yet Mike Rowbottom in Nagano, finds the sport's supporters happy to defend its inclusion.

As the puck was thrashed into her net for the 13th time yesterday, the crestfallen Japanese goaltender, Yuka Oda, looked at best ambivalent about the merits of introducing women's ice hockey to the Olympics.

Many have criticised the International Olympic Committee's decision in 1992 to grant the sport Games status, and one of the main grounds for that criticism - insufficient depth of talent - was borne out by the results of the first round of matches: Finland 6 Sweden 0; Canada 13 Japan 0; United States 5 China 0. Not, on the face of it, evidence for the defence.

But the case was taken up energetically by Cassie Campbell, a member of the last two World Championship-winning Canadian sides. "When the men's game was brought into the Olympics, the same thing happened. There were matches ending up 8-0, or 13-0. We have to start somewhere."

It is generally acknowledged that Canada, who have won all four world titles since that competition began in 1990, are favourites for the gold, albeit narrowly ahead of the United States and Finland.

It is also noted that none of the other sides are likely to get close to the top trio. Plenty more goals are going to be scored before the competition gets serious. "The Japanese team cannot match Canada's power and stamina," said the Japan coach afterwards with indisputable accuracy.

Sixty-four shots powered in towards the hosts' goal, 54 of them while Oda, a 24-year-old office worker from Tomakomai, was occupying the net. She did genuinely well to save 43.

Japan mustered just three efforts on goal, none of which were more than token efforts. It was all very frustrating for a boisterous full house at the Aqua Wing stadium. In the end, they had to be content to cheer whenever the breathless hosts managed to move play into the Canadian half. The Canadians, in Olympic fashion, were faster, taller and stronger - when the Japanese players visited the sin bin, you almost expected to see them writing out lines like naughty schoolgirls.

But if it was a struggle for the hosts, it has been more of a struggle for women's ice hockey to attain its new status. The first documented women's ice hockey game was held in 1892 at Barrie, Ontario - that part of the world appears to have maintained its sporting traditions, as eight of the current Canadian squad of 20 come from Ontario.

It took the game just under a century to create its own world championships, while the nod from the IOC came, fittingly, during the centenary of that landmark match.

The Canadians have been at the forefront of the lobbying, but their passage to these Games has been far from smooth. When Angela James, a veteran of three world title campaigns, was dropped from the final Olympic squad, she caused an embarrassing furore, questioning why she had been left out and claiming that selection had been influenced by a lesbian involvement between the head coach, Shannon Miller, and one of her players. An enquiry into the allegations in December by the Canadian skating authorities concluded that the charges were unsubstantiated.

Miller was composed and articulate after yesterday's victory. "When you watch the opening ceremony and that woman running up the stairs with the torch, that pretty much symbolised the struggle of female hockey. We talked about lighting our own flame tonight."

The Canadian on the hottest streak was Danielle Goyette, who scored the historic first Canadian goal and added a further two - a feat made more remarkable by the fact that she was still in shock after learning of the death of her father.

"Danielle is in tears," said Canada's assistant coach, Daniele Sauvageau. "She has dedicated this performance to her father."

At the other end of the rink, Goyette's colleague Manon Rheaume was conspicuously underemployed in her role as goaltender. "It's hard when that happens," she said, "because you never know when you are going to get the shots."

As it turned out, she did not get any. It was a very far cry from the usual day's work for a woman who has earned a living for the past six years playing for a men's team, Reno Renegades, in the West Coast League.

Rheaume created her own bit of history two seasons ago when she became the first, and so far only, woman to play for an NHL team, appearing for Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition game.

She may be able to wear padded clothing and a protective visor, but that has not safeguarded a woman who has turned down lucrative offers to pose naked in Playboy from numerous bumps and bruises.

She has been cut in the face, too, when the puck has broken through her protective visor. But the hardest part of being a woman in a man's game is the inevitable sense of isolation.

"You are on the road every year, and everywhere you go you have to have your own locker-room," she says. "You are on your own a lot of the time."

For this fortnight, at least, she can feel less isolated as she and her team-mates attempt to keep their Olympic torch burning.