By beating theU.S., Sweden did more than pull off the greatest upset in women's hockeyhistory. It gave a struggling sport a needed lift
THEY HAD witnessed a certified hockey miracle--Sweden parting the red, whiteand blue sea in a 3-2 semifinal upset of the U.S.--and as they exited PalasportOlimpico last Friday night, Walter Bush, the head of the International IceHockey Federation women's committee and patron saint of the women's game,turned to IIHF president René Fasel and said, "That was good forhockey." ¬∂ Bush was displaying an Olympic-sized generosity of spirit. Forhe is also the USA Hockey board chairman, a man conversant in extraordinaryevents dating to 1980. ¬∂ In Miracle, the 2004 film that recounts the U.S. men'sunlikely run to the hockey gold medal in Lake Placid, Bush's character is theman in the parking lot scene who warns U.S. men's Olympic coach Herb Brooks(portrayed by Kurt Russell) that, after picking the team without consulting theboard, he had better know what he's doing. If cinema is a circuitous route toexplain Sweden's wondrous shootout victory over the U.S., well, consider thatthe Swedes used that DVD as inspiration and template, making Brooks's infamous"Again" drill--in which the team repeatedly skates sprints--their own.Goalie Kim Martin said she has watched Miracle six times, in English withSwedish subtitles. "I have always imagined," she said, "that I am[U.S. goalie] Jim Craig."
Apparently thisis a case of life imitating art imitating life.
PredictablyCanada rolled past the drained Swedes 4-1 on Monday to win the gold, but as inLake Placid 26 years earlier, when the U.S. beat Finland for the gold afterupsetting the Soviet Union in the semifinals, the last match in Turin wasanticlimactic. Facing a fit, fresh-faced team (average age 22.9 years to theU.S. squad's 24.1) whose portfolio was so modest four years ago that Sweden'sOlympic Committee nearly yanked it from the Salt Lake Games, the Americans losttheir intensity, their power play and ultimately the game for the first time in26 meetings with the Swedes. After watching the first five minutes, MatsNaslund, the former NHL star and general manager of the Swedish men's team,gave the underdogs no chance. Yet the Swedes, led by Martin, forwards MariaRooth and Pernilla Winberg and defenseman Joa Elfsberg rallied from a 2-0second-period deficit. A team with an Elfsberg, a Lundberg, a Winberg ... maybethis was the Miracle on Ice-berg.
This was also,arguably, the most significant game in the history of Olympic hockey, men's orwomen's. The celebrated U.S. victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 was rifewith geopolitical import and gave impetus to a new generation of Americanplayers, but it did not save a sport. The Swedish women's win may have donethat. The victory, the first by a European team over a North American one,injected a dollop of suspense and hope into a tournament as predictable asMonday mornings. (After its 4-0 win over Finland in the bronze-medal game, theU.S. women's record jumped to 103-1-2 alltime against countries other thanCanada.) It also took a sport that had stuttered through its first two Olympicsand anchored it in the program. Not that the International Olympic Committee,which is shedding women's softball after the 2008 Games, necessarily hadwomen's hockey on the endangered species list. "Pretty safe" is how IOCmember Dick Pound described women's hockey in an e-mail to SI three days beforethe upset.
Still, there hadbeen too many lopsided games--after Canada had defeated Italy and Russia by acombined 28-0, American defenseman Angela Ruggiero accused the Canadians ofrunning up the score--and too many empty seats. During the round-robin Ruggieroeven suggested women's hockey would benefit if Sweden or Finland made a final."Eventually, not when I'm playing," she said. At the time she hardlyseemed like Cassandra with a slap shot.
Then theAmericans crashed into a concrete abutment in Martin (37 saves), a poisedgoalie with a face on loan from one of Raphael's cherubs, and the brilliantRooth. Martin was 15 in 2002 when she won a Nordic war against Finland for thejayvee title, also known as the Olympic bronze medal. Generously listed as5'6", she remains quick post-to-post and fearless, proving it during anextended U.S. five-on-three power play in the second period and again in theshootout, in which Natalie Darwitz hit a post but no another American had asniff. Martin, whose father is a goaltending coach and whose brother playsprofessionally in France, practices and occasionally plays with a boys' juniorteam in Malm√∂ but appears set to join the European migration next fall to theUniversity of Minnesota--Duluth, Rooth's alma mater.
"I want heron my line," Sweden's Peter Forsberg said of his nation's Babe Rooth. The26-year-old right wing, who won three NCAA championships at Minnesota-Duluth,scored both of Sweden's regulation goals, including a nifty, sharp-angledbackhand through the pads of U.S. netminder Chanda Gunn. For the shootoutwinner, Rooth picked the low corner, stick side. Moments after a giddy on-icecelebration, she declared, "I've always thought that a bigger heart willbeat talent. And I think today just proves it."
Ingmar Bergman,do you smell box office?
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Photograph by David E. Klutho
THE WINNER Rooth's shootout goal left the Americans (below) on the sideline for the final.
[See caption above.]
GOLDEN GLOW Though they ultimately had to settle for silver, the Swedes celebrated like champions after their semifinal stunner.