The two titans of women's ice hockey, the United States and Canada, resume their long-standing rivalry at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The U.S. team features six new players, and its leading goal scorer from the 1998 Olympics, forward Karyn Bye, has moved to defense.
The first international women's ice hockey tournament was held in 1916 between the United States and Canada. Both teams have dominated women's ice hockey since. The same figures to be the case in Salt Lake City as the U.S. looks to defend the gold medal it captured four years ago over Canada in the Olympic debut of women's ice hockey.
U.S. defenseman Karyn Bye says that while the USA and Canada expect to be the top contenders in Salt Lake City, several other teams could factor into the mix.
"I think U.S. and Canada are definitely the favorites, but I don't think you can rule out somebody like Finland," she said. "They have always been knocking on our door, right there, having one or two-goal games with us and Canada. And, you know I don't think Russia and China are too far behind."
The eight-team team field also includes Sweden, Germany and Kazakhstan. However, nearly 80 percent of the world's 55,730 registered women hockey players are from Canada and the U.S.
But Karyn Bye won't be the primary focus for opponents anymore. After leading the team in goals in Nagano, the forward switched to defense so that she could be on the ice for more shifts. A forward is on the ice for about one-quarter of the game while a defenseman plays about one-third of the game. U.S. coach Ben Smith hopes this change will not affect the team's scoring attack and will allow Bye to continue to showcase her many talents.
If there is any player who could make the transition from offense to defense, Bye's skillful background suggests she is capable. The Wisconsin-native played at the University of New Hampshire for four years and scored 164 points in 87 games. Bye won USA Hockey Women's Player of the Year in both 1995 and 1998.
Bye, as well as captain Cammi Granato, are the USA women's ice hockey team's top veterans and vocal leaders. Bye understands that she is a role model for not only America's children, but also for her youthful teammates, six of whom have no Olympic experience.
"It's great seeing them come up and the talent they're coming in with," she said. "And, I just want to teach them as much as I can because they're going to take over the team some day. You know they're going to be the leaders out there, they're going to be the captains and the assistant captains and it's exciting to see them come in at a time like this where they can be in the Olympics at age 18, 19, 20. You know, I wasn't in my first Olympics till I was 26."
When the 30-year-old Karyn Bye was growing up, she did not have any women's ice hockey players to idolize. Now the USA women's ice hockey team, much like the gold-medal winning U.S. women's soccer team at the 1999 World Cup, is trying to win over its county's hearts.
"I think women's hockey has the potential of taking off," she said. "I don't know if it will ever be where women's soccer is today. I don't know the exact numbers, but I know it's pretty easy for a kid to go in the backyard and kick a soccer ball around whenever they want to. You know, to play hockey, obviously you have to have equipment and you have to have some ice and it's obviously a lot nicer if you have some other players to play with, so it's a little more difficult."
Bye said she thinks as women's ice hockey becomes more publicized, more young girls will start to play. The U.S. team is doing everything it can to demand the spotlight. It comes into the Olympics riding a 31-game winning streak, including eight straight victories over Canada.
In Nagano, the U.S. women won all six of their games and outscored their opponents 36-8. But the only numbers they cared about were three and one. Those were the number of goals that the USA and Canada scored, respectively, in the gold medal game.
For the United States to repeat its gold medal-winning performance, the team is going to need a scorer to step up and replace some of Bye's offensive firepower. That scorer could be forward Katie King.
King, who scored four goals and had four assists in Nagano, netted three first-period goals January 6 in a 7-3 Olympic tune-up victory over Canada in Detroit. The game was played in front 10,158 fans, the largest crowd ever for a women's hockey game in the United States. In its next game, the USA rallied to beat Canada 3-2 as the offensive-minded Bye notched a power-play goal and an assist.
Bye said she thinks the team will continue to thrive in Salt Lake City because of some young legs and savvy veterans.
"There is no question about it. There are some players on this team who can fly out there," she said. "And, that's definitely an asset to them and to the team. And, I think just overall being smarter. As you grow older, you learn what makes your body tick. And I think with experience, that knowledge comes along. And I think that is how our team has gotten smarter. And, I think as you become smarter, you become a better team."
Karyn Bye's switch to defense makes the USA a better hockey team. Even though Bye tallied a team-leading five goals in Nagano, her move to defense helps shore up one area of the team that would have been a glaring weakness. And Bye has settled in nicely. During the 2000-2001 season, when Bye made her switch to defense, she racked up 27 assists in only 34 games for the National Team. At the World Championships last April, Bye was named the tournament's best defensive player.
Bye has had experience with adjusting to new roles for a long time now. When Bye was seven years old, she first started playing hockey after her brother got sick and was not going to be able to attend practice. Bye's father dressed her up in his hockey equipment and sent her off to practice in his place.
Bye went on to make her high school hockey team, where she was listed in the program as K.L. Bye, so as not to make it clear that she was a girl. Now, Bye is once again back in the spotlight, but not because she is a girl playing an almost all-male sport. Bye is now recognized because she is a member of the gold medal-winning USA women's ice hockey team - a team that is favored to win gold once again in Salt Lake City. But, most importantly, Bye will be listed in the Olympic program as Karyn Bye. That will symbolize not only how far Bye has come, but also how far women's ice hockey has come.