U.S. Women's Hockey Team arrives in 2 weeks

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— Before heading to the 1998 Nagano Olympics, U.S.A. Women's Hockey coach Ben Smith sent his players home to be motivated by family and friends.

But for the 2002 Olympics, it is Steamboat Springs that will be expected to give the U.S.A. Women's Team a hometown sendoff before it heads to Salt Lake City to defend its gold medal.

"(Smith) is sending the team to Steamboat. That's pretty cool. We're the last people they'll see before going to Salt Lake," said John Seymour, former director of coaching for the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association.

With two weeks left before the U.S. team rolls into town with an undefeated pre-Olympic tour, Steamboat is gearing up to host the 20 players in their last stop before Salt Lake. While the Howelsen Ice Arena faces the bigger challenge of completing upgrades to two locker rooms and bleachers, there are also the smaller tasks of providing towels for each practice session and meal preparation based around the team's menu.

Jim Gregoire, assistant manger at the ice rink, said two of the four new locker rooms are scheduled to be completed when the team arrives on Feb. 1, and the bleachers, which are already seating people, will have plastic caps added to them.

"(The upgrades) are on their way. Fox Construction and their subcontractors are working long hours. It's supposed to be done about the time (the team's practices) begin," Gregoire said.

For Gregoire and Tim Greene, an SSYHA parent who was instrumental in bringing the team to town, the rink's $3 million upgrade is largely the reason Steamboat attracted what is arguably the best women's hockey team in the world. Along with new bleachers and locker rooms, the ice rink installed a new refrigeration system that Gregoire said contributes to making some of the best ice in the state.

"Though we would have had an Olympic-size sheet, because our ice system was not always as productive, we didn't feel comfortable hosting such a prestigious team. New bleachers, locker rooms and (a refrigeration system) are things our community has done to attract teams like this," Greene said.

Although plans to bring the U.S. Team to Steamboat began in the early summer and cemented by October, an official announcement was not made until Jan. 7. But Gregoire said the ice rink has been preparing for its arrival since the team booked hotel rooms two months ago.

The community will fund the team's three-day stay as it provides food, lodging and top-rate ice facilities. Gregoire said the ice rink will probably put in 40 extra hours to prepare for the team in the next two weeks.

For three years, Seymour has been "bending the ears" of national hockey officials to encourage them to use Steamboat Springs as a place for top hockey teams to come. As a coach at the U.S.A. Hockey Festival, Seymour used Steamboat's familiarity with world-class athletes, high altitude and an Olympic-size ice rink as a selling point for hockey teams to train in Ski Town USA.

But it was not until Greene came into contact with Art Berglund, a senior director for U.S.A. Hockey, that plans to bring the women's hockey team to Steamboat really began to formalize.

"This summer, we played golf and I took him over to the rink. In late August, we just started putting it together," Greene said. "I think John made (the U.S. Team) aware and my relationship with Art helped out."

Both Greene and Seymour see the U.S. Team's arrival in Steamboat as the harbinger of many other partnerships between Steamboat and high-caliber hockey teams. Professional teams looking for high altitude training camps, junior national teams and top-rated youth camps are all on the list of potential programs the ice rink would like to court.

But the appearance of the country's best women's hockey players also adds fuel to an already growing female hockey program that has more than 80 participants.

"They have to be even more excited than the rest of us," Greene said. "I know that there are some girls that play hockey and are absolute fanatics. Nowhere have they played with some of their idols. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hopefully, it will help girls and women's programs to continue to grow."

While the team is in Steamboat, women and girl hockey fans will have a number of opportunities to interact with the players. On Friday and Saturday, the public is invited to watch team practices and a free clinic is also offered to females on Saturday from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m.

To help support the U.S. Team's trip to Steamboat, SSYHA will hold a fund-raising dinner Saturday night costing $75 per person. On Sunday, a $5 admission for the U.S. Team's scrimmage against Steamboat's high school-aged boys hockey team will also raise funds.

Gregoire said ticket sales for the scrimmage have been brisk since sales began on Tuesday. While more than 100 tickets sold on the first day for the scrimmage, Gregoire said the arena should be able to hold about 800 spectators.

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