SALT LAKE CITY — On this hockey team, like hockey teams everywhere, nicknames are standard equipment. "Schmiggy," "Bakes," and "Gordo" play forward. "Teeter" and "Whit" mind the nets. On defense, there's "Murphy," "Bails," "Rugger," and....
"I'm only called that by my [college] teammates," says Tara Mounsey, a former New Hampshire player of the year and a recent addition to this United States women's Olympic team. One day at practice, she explains, "my hair was fluffy."
In three months, when the Winter Olympics begin in Nagano, Japan, Mounsey and her teammates will vie for the first gold medal in women's hockey. Like female athletes in basketball and soccer, they will surely help recruit thousands of girls to their fledgling sport and demonstrate that men's teams don't have a monopoly on excitement.
But out on the ice, when their hair vanishes beneath helmets and their sticks start doing the talking, these athletes will have an opportunity other women's teams can only imagine: Their play might make some spectators forget, if only for a moment, that they're women at all.
"Sometimes in the middle of practice a player will pull a glove off to wipe away some sweat that might be in her eye, and I'll see fingernail polish," says Ben Smith, the women's coach. "It never ceases to surprise me."
Indeed, if last weekend's match here between the US and Canada is any indication, women's hockey won't seem like a novelty for long. After the two teams battled to a 4-4 tie in overtime, US Captain Cammi Granato ended the game in storybook fashion by scoring on the final opportunity of a 10-shot shootout. The mixed-gender crowd of 7,500 at the West Valley City E Center here was the largest American audience ever at a women's hockey game.
For Granato, the team's leading scorer, the drama of this exhibition match wasn't surprising. Neither were the sheepish questions fans and reporters asked her after the game. No, she explains, women don't resent the sport's ban on body checking. Yes, she adds, female players wear specially designed protective pads.
"I understand that people are curious about us, and I hope that will go away sooner or later," Granato says. "But we're at a stage right now where it's our job to tell people how we got started and why we love playing hockey so much."
The ban on checking results in a game that differs somewhat from men's hockey, producing fewer penalties and more shots on goal. The emphasis on finesse over brute force, some observers say, makes for a more graceful and cerebral style of play.
Lose the tutu
Granato, like many of her teammates, credits her brothers with giving her the confidence to pursue hockey. Growing up in suburban Chicago across the street from a pond, she says, skating was a family obsession.
From the moment she first took to the ice, despite her mother's efforts to dress her in a frilly pink figure skater's tutu, Granato preferred to watch her brothers play hockey. Two years later, with her parents' support, she picked up her first stick.
Throughout her childhood, Granato and her brothers and cousins would retreat to the basement after school and spend the afternoon wearing holes in the knees of their sweatpants as they batted a tape ball around with miniature sticks. Soon she was playing with the boys in youth hockey leagues and contending with opposing coaches who ordered their players to "take out the girl."
Today, her brother Tony plays with the National Hockey League's San Jose Sharks, and she is widely regarded as the most recognized, and perhaps the best, female hockey player in the world. She has already inked a sponsorship deal with Nike.
"Cammi is one of those players that's better than the sum of her parts," Smith says. "She's not the fastest skater on our team, she's not the strongest shooter, and she's not very big. But she has an inner quality that makes her our 'come-through kid.' "
As a seven-year veteran of the national team, Granato is one of the most senior players on a squad whose members range in age from 31 to 17. Most of the team members have played college hockey on the East Coast or in the upper Midwest. Like Mounsey, most of them did not play women's hockey until they reached college.
But the rising profile of the women's Olympic team has helped spark a boomlet in girls' hockey. Since 1990, the number of female players registered with USA Hockey has grown from 5,500 to more than 23,000 across the nation. As the increased demand for ice time strains existing facilities in Minnesota, Coach Smith notes, the state legislature has begun to weigh equal-access laws for female players.
In the months leading up to the games, the US and Canadian teams (favorites for the gold medal at Nagano) will play 12 exhibition games throughout North America. At the Olympics, CBS plans to televise at least three women's hockey games in their entirety.
Granato hopes this exposure will help pave the way for a women's professional league. At the least, she suspects she won't have to watch any more male goalies skulk off the ice after she scores on them in informal scrimmages.
But most of all, she says, the rise of the women's game should help bury the notion that hockey is a sport for men who aren't particularly fond of their teeth.
"Some people turn their backs on us and say we shouldn't be out there," Granato says. "But the Olympics has shown that there's a spot for women out on the ice, playing hockey with helmets on."