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    Monday, February 16, 1998

    War for the gold

    By STEVE SIMMONS -- At The Olympics

      Sandra Whyte said something.
     Exactly what, she won't say. The words were angry, offensive, in all likelihood, ignorant.
      "I said something I regret,'' said Whyte, the Team USA forward. "I won't repeat it here, there's no point.''
     But she denied the charges being levelled by Team Canada.
     She denied she said anything about Danielle Goyette's late father.
     This is the backdrop to the single largest game in the very thin history of women's hockey. It is one game, winner take all, and it has come to this, a battle of she-said, she-said, or angry words and angrier finger-pointing.
     "We had a team meeting last night,'' said Shannon Miller, the emotionally charged Team Canada coach. "We put the issue right on the table. We dealt with it. I can't tell you what we said but I can tell you the issue is over with.''
     And then, she started talking about it again. So it isn't exactly over.
     It is all-talk hockey -- before the real action begins Tuesday -- the gold-medal game between the only two real teams in the women's hockey tournament. They have played 14 times before this, hacking and slashing their way to seven wins apiece. But it was the 14th game, the message game, when everything got out of hand.
     And it ended with Goyette, Canada's leading scorer in the tournament, running off the ice on skates, almost smashing the boards with her stick, and then collapsing in the dressing room in tears.
     "One of our players overheard what was said before the (post-game) handshake,'' Miller said. "She followed Goyette, and then a second player approached (Whyte). She made a comment about her father's death and then she laughed in her face.
      'OUT OF CONTROL'
     "They can try and brush this off but it's quite clear what happened.''
     After the game Miller had words with U.S. captain Cammi Granato. She then went on national television with the charges against Whyte.
     "She's acting like a coach out of control,'' one hockey person said. "She's acting like she's never done this before. Something like this you let go, you move on, you get ready for the gold-medal game.''
     It wasn't just the words that bothered Team Canada. It was the approach.
     "They weren't just trying to intimidate us, they were trying to injure us,'' said forward Jayna Hefford of Kingston. "They were high-sticking, spearing, hitting from behind, everything, none of that was necessary. A lot of us lost complete respect for that team. To take the cheap shots they did, there's no place for that. You don't try to injure someone.''
     Team Canada has enough of that trouble to start with. Yesterday, in their final practice, four players didn't practice. Hayley Wickenheiser and Karen Nystrom have knee injuries. Captain Stacy Wilson has a lower back problem and Fiona Smith has a charley horse problem. All of them will play tomorrow for the gold.
     "They'll alI start. I don't know if they'll finish,'' Miller said.
     But after losing 7-4 in the 14th game of this best-of-15, the Canadians actually hope the Americans come out intent on intimidation.
     "The best thing about that game was we never let our emotions get out of check,'' Miller said. "Our players wanted to fight back, but they didn't. I'm hoping for the final game we have an official with the courage to make the (right) calls.''
     Miller did welcome the possibility of a rough final game. She said if intimidation is the U.S. team's game plan, "they're in big trouble. If you do that, it feels to us that you fear the opponent, that you don't think you can win playing any other way.
     "If they do that, they're going to pay for it, big time.''
     It is odd how this has happened, how they needed each other to get this far, to raise the bar, to create interest in women's hockey.
     The tournament began more than a week ago and there was more talk then about who might have been sleeping with whom than there was about hockey.
     But now it is one game and rumors of sexual preferences have been replaced by old-fashioned animosity.
     "It's been a long road getting here and now all that matters is one game,'' power forward Wickenheiser said.
     "People who were watching the other night, they're probably thinking 'Wow, those teams are really going at it.'
     "If anything is going to put women's hockey on the map, this is it.''