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    Saturday, February 7, 1998

    Miller rallys the troops

    By CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun
      NAGANO -- The Olympic flame roared to life last night.
     Canada's women's hockey team is hoping to light its own fire early tomorrow morning (2 a.m. start) when it starts the Olympic tournament against the host Japanese.
     "That's going to be my message before the game to the team. This should be like setting a small fire in a field," said Shannon Miller, Team Canada's head coach.
     "That fire is going to spread, it's going to spread and overtake everything when the time is right."
     Either that or run into somebody with a fire extinguisher.
     The challenge facing Miller in this tournament -- a round-robin format with the top two teams advancing to the gold-medal game -- is keeping her Canadian players from looking past teams such as Japan to a showdown with the arch-rival Americans.
     That's why Miller came up with her fire-and-brimstone speech.
     "Small steps. That's what we need to take," she said. "The Americans are not even in the equation right now."
     They might not be in the equation, but there's no escaping the fact they're in the conversation.
     The American-Canadian rivalry dominates talk. It is fueled by the teams' numerous meetings at world championships, at Three Nation Cups, and in the 13-game exhibition schedule played by the two clubs, won by Canada.
     It wouldn't be hard for the Canadians, and the Americans for that matter, to forget that there are four other teams in the Olympic tournament.
     But as seen in a 1-1 tie against the Swedes in an exhibition game earlier this week, if Team Canada isn't on its game, a disaster is not out of the question.
     "(The game against Sweden) was a good example of that," said Team Canada forward Vicky Sunohara, a Canadian of Japanese descent whose roots are in this area and who, therefore, has been besieged by the Japanese media.
     "We learned a lot about looking ahead against Finland one year at the world championship.
     "We got caught looking ahead to the final, and that game came down to the last minute. There's no team here that's just going to sit back and let us beat them. We've talked about it and I'm confident all 20 players believe it. We got the message."
     Since it was announced in 1992 that women's hockey would become an official Olympic sport, this is the week Team Canada has been building toward.
     "It's going to be nice to actually get going," said forward Hayley Wickenheiser of Shaunavon, Sask., who is recognized as the best women's player in the world.
     "It's finally here. For all of us, this is a dream come true."
     After playing the Japanese, the Canadians play China, Sweden, Finland and the Americans. The gold-medal game will be played at 4 a.m. on Feb. 17.