Winter Olympics Preview, February 1998
Actually, yes. During an exhibition loss to Canada in November, U.S. captain Cammi Granato was smacked in the face with a stick and took three stitches in her lip. The next night, in another loss to the Canadians, U.S. forward Karyn Bye had to limp off the ice after being illegally leg-checked. Seconds later, Ruggiero, known to her teammates as Rugger, went after a few of the Canadians, landing a couple of good punches before being hauled away to the penalty box. "It's getting a little physical," admits the five-foot-nine, 175-pound Ruggiero, the youngest player on the U.S. team. "But they drew first blood with Cammi. And especially against Canada, we have to stick up for our teammates."
When women's hockey makes its Olympic premiere in Nagano, don't expect it to live up to its billing as the nonviolent alternative to the pugilistic men's game. The early rounds should be tame enough, with lesser powers such as Finland and China trying to position themselves for the bronze. But when the U.S. and Canada meet for the gold — which barring a point-shaving scandal is all but guaranteed — it will be The Grudge Match of the '98 Games, a contest lacking only the political punch of the men's American-Soviet rivalry of yore.
At all four women's world championships held since the tournament's inception in 1990, the U.S. has faced Canada in the finals and lost every time. Last year in Kitchener, Ontario, the U.S. had a 3-2 lead in the third period before eventually succumbing, 4-3, in overtime. "That was devastating," says 26-year-old Granato, one of three players on the U.S. team who played in all of those games. "There's definitely some bad blood — the games can be really dirty because the teams just don't like each other. But that loss in Ontario feeds into now. We're so hungry to win a gold medal. We don't know what that feels like, and we'd like to."
In exhibition games since the 1997 worlds, the teams have been trading victories fairly evenly — as well as barbs, salvos, and occasional jabs and hooks. But the seven-year war has taken such a toll on the U.S. players that they've been training for Nagano as if they were a traveling in-patient recovery group. Bonding sessions have become as important, and frequent, as practice. On every road trip, the players switch roommates so that they can get to know everyone equally well. In November, they bused down to Massachusetts for a day of team-building drills with a wilderness-skills instructor. And once a week they meet as a group with a "sports science consultant," who has been giving them "team unity" exercises in which the players are asked to draw their feelings with crayons. "It's hard to explain," says Granato. "But it seems to help."
You'd probably benefit from therapy, too, if you'd gone through what these women have just to play hockey. All of them played on boys' teams growing up, enduring taunts, name calling, and cheap shots, because no girls' teams were offered. Two players had to pretend to be boys just to make the roster in Canadian tournaments: Forward Stephanie O'Sullivan went by Steven; defenseman Kelly O'Leary was Kevin.
But as they prepare for their sport's debut, they are doing their best to heal and hide the scars. Even Rugger had her tooth capped. But not before she put on her uniform and took a few snapshots. Just a reminder of what it would look like to be a gap-toothed goon in women's hockey.