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    Wednesday, February 18, 1998

    Spirit willing, flesh needs work

     NAGANO -- On the red plastic discs the members of the Canadian women's hockey team wore throughout the Olympic tournament here on a string around their necks, one side was reserved for the team slogan ("Whatever it takes to stay in the circle"), the other for the words that each player found inspirational.
     Captain Stacy Wilson had written on hers, "No one is coming," and when I asked her about it a few days ago, she explained it meant, in a nutshell, that you have to count on yourself and that in hockey, as in life, there is no white knight.
     This probably captures pretty fairly the message the winners of what CBC soundman Eric Foss properly called "the saddest silver medals ever awarded" might like to get out to the little girls of the world -- that self-reliance and femininity are not mutually exclusive.
    Team Canada players (left to right) Manon Rheaume, Lori Dupuis, Hayley Wickenheiser and Vicky Sunohara wipe away their tears after losing the gold-medal game 3-1 to their American rivals.
    Photo: Greig Reekie, SUN

     "What do you think of women's hockey?" someone asked me early yesterday morning after the Americans had won the first-ever gold medal by beating the Canucks 3-1.
     "Well," I said, "I sure like the women."
     The athletes, in other words, are already as terrific as the men who have traditionally worn Canadian colors into battle; the women's game has miles to go before we'll know how it keeps.
     The gold medal match between the two best women's teams in the world was, for the most part, a stodgy business and, on the Canadians' part, a sometimes sloppy one; the dreary second period offered fleeting insight into why it is that sometimes people climb tall towers and begin shooting.
     For all the talk about the women being speedy and talented (much of it patronizing, in my view, because it came from men who damn well know better), neither team was terribly skilled and the Canucks had difficulty even with the fundamentals. Was it merely an off-night, which happens to the best of teams, male or female? Possibly, but with a few exceptions, this game is nowhere close to the men's; I have seen ordinary triple A peewee teams in the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League who could give these women a game -- and good ones who'd steal any number from them. This isn't surprising. Despite the phenomenal growth of women's minor hockey in the past decade, the sport still doesn't have the numbers it needs to produce a decent talent pool.
     The women who played in this tournament, particularly the Canadians because of their hockey roots, are genuine pioneers, just like the first women who went to medical or law school, the first women who ran for office and were elected, the first women to get into cozy men's clubs. As with all those women, the chief task before the hockey players is to convince the rest of us that what they're doing is reasonable, which, of course, it is. That shouldn't mean we ought to pretend they've got it right if they don't; it shouldn't mean they're not to be questioned. Building from scratch, whether country or game, takes time and missteps.
     As an example of the learning curve at work, the organization, headed by Shannon Miller, appears to put inordinate stock in motivational aids.
     The night before the gold medal game, the players watched an inspirational video set to Celine Dion music. What were they supposed to be inspired to do, I wonder -- not eat?
     And at various times yesterday, they were given warmup T-shirts that read "Disciplined and dangerous, Simply the best"; handed crystal snowballs, the size of a large marble, to hold between periods; exposed to an inspirational song called From Pink to Gold, written by former player Heather Ginzel, and, finally, shown another motivational video, to the theme song of Simply the Best, featuring shots of the players training all year. Good grief; did the poor dames have time for a little water or a quiet thought? What if they'd just wanted to talk about the game?
     And for all that, they came out flat, and flat they remained until the third.
     "We didn't play our best game," defenceman Therese Brisson said later. "We didn't have much emotion or intensity. We weren't able to be the best on the night it mattered most.
     "I remember watching the Albertville Olympics, when the guys were saying they lost the gold, and I told myself I'd never feel like that. But here I am. I do. We didn't win silver, we lost the gold."
     The gold medal dream is gone, but the gold medal lessons aren't. "I hate to hear people say hockey isn't feminine," she said. "What, it's not feminine to sweat? To be aggressive? To dedicate yourself to success? To me, this is feminine. I wish the girls would take this message out of it, and hockey is just a part of that."
     Karen Nystrom, she of the dear homespun face, said after the game that it is always very special to be able to give back to the sport you love. "I'll be sitting on a couch some day," she said, "watching other kids wearing this sweater. It will be the proudest moment of my life."
     For Christmas last year, Brisson and Kathy McCormack gave Stacy Wilson a lovely little music box with a maple leaf on the cover. When you open it up, it plays the national anthem. When the Canucks came off the ice at the Big Hat rink for the last time, The Star Spangled Banner still ringing in their ears, they went into their dressing room, and Stacy opened up the music box, and there, weeping, their great adventure over, like the bunch of good Canadian girls they are, they sang O Canada.
     Therese Brisson has met some of the National Hockey League stars who are playing for Canada here this week. She had written them off in her head as spoiled professionals and noted, with delight, how wrong she was. "What's so astonishing is that they're just like us," she said, "and they know they're just like us." Vice versa, and therein, I suppose, lies my point; all that's left is for the game to catch up.