Saturday, February 2, 2002
Steamboat Springs When U.S. Women's Hockey player Krissy Wendell was growing up, her role models were her brother Erik, a former player at the University of Minnesota, and Mike Modano of the NHL's Dallas Stars.
The 20-year old, who led the U.S. Team in scoring last year, could have never picked a female Olympic hockey player, because when she started playing, there weren't any.
But she and the rest of her teammates are quickly becoming the role models for many girls in Steamboat Springs, where they spent Saturday afternoon together at Howelsen Ice Arena. Almost 100 females from the under 15 Braves team to the veterans of the local Chix with Stix team were on the ice for a free clinic Saturday.
"I'm just excited to see so many players," Wendell said. "It just shows how fast (women's hockey) is growing. I never expected this turnout."
Wendell was not the only one surprised by the enthusiasm Ski Town USA showed for the women's hockey team during its three-day stay before heading to Salt Lake City. Friday and Saturday's practices drew more than 350 fans each day, and today's scrimmage against Steamboat's Midget boys team is expected to see a crowd of 750.
The team chose to come to Steamboat because it was close to Denver the last stop on the team's 31-game exhibition tour. Steamboat is also just a bus ride away from Salt Lake, where the team will defend its 1998 gold medal.
Steamboat's upgraded ice rink, which holds an Olympic-sized ice sheet, is a must for a team that has been skating on NHL-sized rinks during its tour.
"It's a tremendous facility, a great-sized sheet," coach Ben Smith said. "The quality of ice is as good as any we skated on the whole way across North America."
Staying relaxed and solid practices are keys to the team's three-day stay before heading over to the frenzy that will greet them in Salt Lake.
"We didn't want to go to the Olympic Village too early," defender Tara Mounsey said. "And without going on vacation, Steamboat, knowing there's a hockey interest here, was the right place to come."
After Saturday's practice, Mounsey planned to relax at Strawberry Park Hot Springs but also said the team just wanted to stay conditioned and maintain its skills this weekend.
Even though the team has won its past 31 games and has an 8-0 record against its top competition and archrival Canada, the gold medal favorites are far from complacent.
"This group is very motivated," team captain Cammi Granato said. "We're staying pretty focused with one game at a time. The (31-0) record doesn't mean anything now because there is more ahead."
Smith said that with crowds gathering at the ice rink for every practice, Steamboat fans have also given the team a little bit of motivation.
"I have to say it's a great motivator when every shot is cheered and goalie saves get cheers from kids," Smith said.
But Smith also does not want all the public attention to distract the team from its main goal to prepare for the Olympics.
"We didn't come here for a clinic," Smith said. "It's to prepare and rest and get set to go into the biggest event of the team's life."
But the Saturday clinic was one way, Smith said, to repay Steamboat for its hospitality, which provided lodging and meals for the team. The clinic also made it possible for the girls who lined the rink to pick up tips from the U.S. Team about wrist shots and stick handling, which was invaluable, Smith said.
"They're role models," said Angela Palaniuk, a member of Steamboat's under 15 Braves team. "I thought I didn't want to play hockey, but they inspire you to be like that, to be in the Olympics and do something with it."