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    Friday, February 6, 1998

    Frankly, gay rumors a bust

     NAGANO -- When Joanne Gray, the agreeable media attache for the Canadian women's hockey team, introduced herself before the start of a recent press conference here and stumbled innocently as she said her name -- she almost gave it as "Joanne Gay" -- a sly titter ran through the conference room.
     "Freudian slip," a couple of reporters murmured sotto voce, and there in a nutshell you have it, the terrible pickle in which this team and these players have so frequently found themselves of late. In a dilemma where the accusers remain for the most part in the shadows, the currency is rumor and the rumors are spicy, even the most benign, nay downright banal, remark can become dangerous territory.
     The specific allegation against the Canadian team, in its current incarnation in the pages of Frank magazine, is that the coach, Shannon Miller, has or has had in the past an improper relationship with a player, identified by the magazine as captain Stacy Wilson; the general allegation is that this team is a veritable nest of lesbians.
     The Frank mention marks the third time the first rumor has surfaced, says Bob Nicholson, the senior vice-president of Canadian Hockey. The first time was before the last world championships, the second after popular veteran player Angela James was cut from the squad. By now, says Nicholson, he is as sure as he can be of the source, a disgruntled Toronto organization whose players used to dominate the national team and don't any longer.
     The first time around, Nicholson says, the association had their lawyers look into it and "they found nothing to the allegation." Then Nicholson and Canadian Hockey president Murray Costello met all the players and members of the coaching staff, eventually reporting "we felt confident there was nothing to it ... it was never real." Such a relationship between coach and player would be clearly wrong (and would, now, also break a Canadian Hockey policy) and making sure that wasn't happening, and that the environment was a safe one, was important.
     As for the second rumor, which in my opinion is the underlying one which fuels the first, it is really nobody's business. All but three of the players are in their 20s or 30s, and those three are all over 18. They're adults, in other words, and though it would be naive, if not preposterous, to imagine there aren't gay athletes or coaches in women's hockey, the issue wouldn't even come up if it weren't for all the other, unspoken doubts that roil just beneath the surface here: Can a lesbian be a good role model for young women and girls? If women's hockey is to grow, can parents feel comfortable enrolling their daughters in such a hard, rough sport as hockey? Can women be feminine and play hockey both?
     The answer to all three, it seems to me, is yes, but it isn't quite that clear-cut in the real world, and the burdens on these young women are as a result tremendous. In addition to shouldering the normal gold-medal expectations Canadians rightly place on all our hockey players, this lot are also consistently judged in at least equal measure for their success as women, and in the most narrow and traditional terms imaginable. Are they attractive? Do they seem feminine? The only male athletes who are subject to this sort of hard-nosed scrutiny about their sexuality and/or sexual preference are figure skaters.
     It took goaltender Manon Rheaume, who is slight and pretty and girlish (and with a darling French accent to boot), to say at the team's recent press conference, "All of us, we're not, because we play hockey masculine." The great unacknowledged benefit of the women's game now being an Olympic sport, Rheaume says, is that, "Maybe some parents now will not be scared to have their little girl play hockey."
     Well, parents ought not be fearful, if the Canadian team provides any yardstick. These are accomplished, smart young women, as different from one another as any other group of human animals (Vicky Sunohara, for instance, likes the game as it is now, without bodychecking; young Hayley Wickenheiser is chomping at the bit to see it reinstated), and with the same powerfully developed sense of responsibility to the nation which always so astonishes and pleases me in the Canadian men who play hockey.
     There is no better test of their individual and collective grace, in my view, than the way they have handled this latest resurgence of the crisis they likely believed was over.
     Stacy Wilson, for instance, simply says, her face still and serious, "It's sad that people write that when Shannon has the utmost integrity and so do I. But there's always people who want to tear you down when you're at the top, and we can't control that."
     As for coach Miller, who is rather a compact little punk, she says, "I find it (the stories) quite humorous now, but I didn't at first. I care about my players, and Stacy Wilson is a tremendous person. She doesn't deserve this. Neither do I, but I'm the coach and I have to take it ... This is so far from the truth, but those who don't know Stacy or me don't know that." Miller says she has thought about it, and has come to the conclusion that if someone else was captain, she too would be tarred with the same rumors as Wilson. "It wouldn't matter who the captain was, she would spend extra time with me, there would be that trust," and so anyone and everyone would be vulnerable.
     Stacy Wilson says, when the rumors first became public, "We talked about it, and everybody had a chance to say honestly what they felt, and then we closed it and said let's move on." The world would be much more amenable to letting them do so if only, as a reporter noted facetiously at the team press conference, they all wore dresses.