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Women’s Hockey Debuts in Olympics

February 7, 1998

NAGANO, Japan (AP) _ Does a 10-0 exhibition victory suggest that the United States is a lock to win the first Olympic women’s hockey tournament? Does top-seeded Canada’s 1-1 tie with lowly Sweden mean the anticipated champion is faltering?

There are six teams in the inaugural tournament, and just as many question marks in a sport hard to handicap because of its decided lack of history. The first world championships weren’t played until 1990.

``Obviously the talk around says it’s going to be Canada-U.S. at the gold medal game, but there’s no guarantee,″ U.S. alternate captain Karyn Bye said Saturday. ``These are the Olympics. Anything can happen, just like you saw the other night with Sweden and Canada.″

Canada, the United States and Finland have finished first, second and third in every women’s world championship. But the scores, and the level of talent, have grown closer each time.

The outcome is even more chancy because of the format. The six teams play round-robin to eliminate just two teams, with the other four advancing to the final round.

Ties in the standings will be broken by head-to-head play or, if needed, goals for and against.

That means a first-round upset by Finland _ which tied the United States in the world championship first round and at the Three Nations’ Cup in December _ or by Japan or Sweden could knock either the U.S. or Canada out of the gold medal game.

Finland, which is small but fast and aggressive, is the most likely candidate to disrupt the first round if an opponent plays carelessly.

``You’ve got to really work on staying out of the penalty box,″ U.S. coach Ben Smith said. ``Their power play is really dangerous.″

He praised Finnish forwards Sari Fisk and Riikka Nieminen, who starred at the world championships last spring, linemate Tiia Reima and hard-shooting defenseman Kirsi Haenninen.

The exhibition tie came as a shock _ and something of an embarrassment _ to the Canadians.

``In the dressing room before the game, people were pretty loose. Maybe a little too loose, I’m not sure,″ Canadian captain Stacy Wilson said. ``We’ll take Japan seriously when we play them (Sunday), and after that we’ll look at the next game.″

Japan, which earned its Olympic berth by virtue of being the host country, is being watched warily despite the one-sided loss to the United States.

One reason: Canadian coach Shannon Miller’s friend and colleague, longtime Canadian system coach Wally Kozak, is assisting Japanese coach Toru Itabashi.

``They spent most of the time in the defensive zone against Team USA and (Kozak) really had them play with a lot of courage ... and they had great success. It was 1-0 after the first period even though the U.S. badly dominated,″ she said.

``Japan is here to compete the same as we are. That medal is up for grabs and they’re going just as hard as we’re going to be going.″

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