The United States women's ice hockey team is again one of the favorites for the gold medal at next month's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Since women's ice hockey became an Olympic sport at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, the United States and Canada have faced off for the gold medal.
The United States brought home the first-ever women's Olympic gold medal in ice hockey by defeating Canada 3-1 in the 1998 final in Nagano. But Canada got revenge on American ice in 2002, taking the gold medal with a 3-2 win in the final at the Salt Lake City Games. Then in April 2005, the U.S. women outlasted Canada in an overtime shootout to win the World Championship.
The United States and Canada again appear to be the teams to beat in Turin. Team USA defenseman and two-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero says she is looking forward to playing the Canadians again in Turin.
"You know I always say I live to play Canada, because that is when all the little things really come out," she said. "All the little things you did in the gym and all the extra things you did on the ice really shine, and where your team has to come together at that right moment. So it is great to have them. They are our rivals, yet at the same time they are our best friends because they help the game elevate that much more."
Along with Ruggiero, Tricia Dunn-Luoma and Katie King, forward Jenny Potter is the fourth two-time Olympian on the U.S. squad. Potter, who is also the only mother on the team, says the rivalry with Canada improves both teams.
"We bring out the best in them, they bring out the best in us," said Jenny Potter. "And it is always a battle on the ice, a fierce competition. We are always scrapping every minute of the game because we want to come away the winner. It is the biggest rival I have ever known and it is pretty intense."
But there have also been major changes to the American squad. Former-captain Cammi Granato, the face of women's hockey in the United States, and fellow-veteran Shelley Looney were dropped from the team in August by coach Ben Smith. He says making the cuts was not easy.
"In the process of getting down to the roster we have now, it has been a very, very difficult task," he said. "It has been very demanding for the athletes - for the players that are still standing and the players that had to go sit on the sidelines."
Without Granato and Looney, the team has hit some patches of rough ice, struggling at times with defensive coverage and still trying to find its scoring touch before heading to Turin. Jenny Potter says the American squad will have to continue to improve if it wants to keep winning.
"The competition has gotten better," said Jenny Potter. "I think the players have gotten better. The skills, the abilities, the skills that we worked on over the past four years to want to win back that gold medal. I think fans would be impressed with the skill level and the finesse of the play. Everyone I talked to after their first game, they come back and say, ' Wow, that was an exciting game. I would love to come watch more.'"
Forward Krissy Wendell, a member of the U.S. silver medal team in 2002, will captain the 20-player 2006 squad. She says the American squad has the talent it needs to win the gold.
"With this team we are going to be together a lot between now and the time we head over there," she said. "So I think it is our own fault if we do not get together and find a way to mesh."
Kelly Stephens, who will be making her first Olympic appearance, talks about what it means to her to represent the United States at the Olympics.
"I am just living a dream, I am having an absolute blast," she said. "And it has been an honor, this whole ride to wear this jersey. I mean, even in practice. Our jerseys say 'USA' on the front, and for me it is just such an honor to have this opportunity and to be able to go out and have all these new experiences and be playing a sport that I love. I mean, this is what I want to do and I absolutely love it every day."
Angela Ruggiero, who will be on Team USA for her third time, echoes Stephens' sentiments.
"The entire team is so excited," she said. "It does not get old. And people always ask, 'oh you have been there two times already' but putting on the jersey and knowing that you are playing for your country and having the opportunity to compete in the Olympics and knowing you have a good shot at winning a gold medal is nothing you ever get sick of doing. And like Coach Smith said, we are looking for gold."
While other teams are catching up, women's ice hockey is still dominated by Canada and the United States, and the two teams are a good bet to meet for the third straight time for the Olympic title February 20.