SALT LAKE CITY -- Team orientation was over a week ago. All the sticks were taped and the skates sharpened with plenty of time to spare.
But the most rote formality of the 2002 Winter Olympics finally began for the U.S. Women's hockey team Tuesday.
They started beating people.
That's what America's most overwhelming medal favorites at these Olympics will do. They will give teams as little chance as Germany had yesterday in the first game of the women's hockey tournament.
That one ended 10-0. And if you're wondering who won, you haven't been paying attention to women's ice hockey for the last four years.
The U.S. and Canada are to this two-week tournament what Dow and Jones are to financial monitoring. It's as if they play on skates and everyone else is in socks. Against anyone but each other, they will own the exclusive Olympic rights to the puck in Salt Lake City.
But they won't play each other until Feb. 21, in the gold medal game, a matchup that can scheduled with the same certainty as the closing ceremonies.
Until then, the Americans will play with teams more than they will play against them, just as they did Tuesday when Germany was their toy du jour.
The first goal of that game was the last sign anyone needed to know where it was all going.
On a simple dump-in, Jenny Potter started a full 15 feet behind a German defender, but out-skated her to the puck, circled the net and centered a pass to Karyn Bye, who had beaten somebody else just as badly and banged home a shot from the goalmouth.
Then play got one-sided.
From that point forward, play stayed in Germany's end as if there was a security checkpoint at the blue line. Meanwhile the German goaltender faced more pressure than Kenneth Lay, the U.S. finishing with a 57-8 advantage in shots on goal.
And it wasn't that close. It usually isn't when the U.S. women play an opening act.
Since winning the first gold medal awarded in women's hockey at the Nagano Olympics four years ago, they have lost only three games, all to Canada and all in the finals of the World Championships. They have beaten the only other competent women's hockey team every other time they have played during that period, including eight times in an exhibition series leading up to these Olympics.
This year, the Americans are 31-0. They would be the Duke of women's ice hockey. If Duke played in the SIAC.
And in Salt Lake, they're as much a lock to be at the medal ceremony as the stand is.
But the challenge here is not for this team to continue its Globetrotteresque dominance. It's to maintain what has been an elusive position for women's sports teams, to double as darlings at the Olympics.
Repeating won't be as tough as renewing the wonderful feeling that developed around this team the last time it played such a meaningful tournament.
These are not the ice queens of the Olympics. That role belongs to the figure skaters.
But, in 1998, the U.S. women's hockey team was the breakout story of the Games, the group that was easiest for America to embrace because it was new, genuine and successful. All of a sudden, chicks with sticks were the hottest thing going. And U.S. women players were showing up on talk shows, reading the Top 10 List on Letterman, generating interest in their sport.
All the things other women's teams had done before them.
Doing it all again has been difficult so far.
The U.S. softball team stole the 1996 Games from better-known teams. But by the time 2000 came around, they struggled to defend their gold medal, becoming ordinary along the way.
The women's basketball team got the "next'' out of Atlanta the advertisement said it would with a professional league for ladies. But in Sydney they had already gotten old, as predictable and uninteresting as the Dream Team.
Even the soccer team that started a revolution in girls' sports by wining the World Cup one summer was a disappointment the next, losing in the Olympic finals.
It's kind of like golf. Hitting a good isn't the hard part. Following it with another one is.
The most unassuming of America's effete champions is on the tee now, starting a pre-shot routine Tuesday that will continue right up until its final shot in Salt Lake. And it is nothing new that they can do everything right and still not end up in the same place twice.
Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at 652-0352.
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