SALT LAKE CITY -- It was only eight years ago when the temporary sign that welcomed visitors to her home town proclaimed River Falls, Wis., as "the summer
home of Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs.''
The sign is down now. The legendary quarterback has long since retired after spending all of six weeks over two seasons in the western Wisconsin community, a
Twin Cities commuter town.
In its place, the city limits of River Falls features a new sign, one honoring a local amateur hockey player who has brought the town more pride than hosting an NFL team ever will. River Falls now proudly proclaims itself to be "Home of Karyn Bye, 1998 Olympic gold medalist.''
That sign is permanent. Unless, that is, the town's road department sometime this spring, after the tundra has thawed, tears up the old sign and erects an updated one.
"Olympic gold medalist, 1998 and 2002" it might well read. Visitors to River Falls could have been forgiven for asking "Karyn Who?" when
the sign first went up. Today, they don't ask that question about a local legend, a celebrity who has thrown out the first pitch at the Twins home opener.
Bye was the leading goal scorer on the first U.S. Olympic women's hockey team that upset Canada in the 1998 Nagano Games and captured the nation's attention for -- well, as long as any Winter Olympics victory holds an American sports fan's attention. A week? A month? But now, Bye and her U.S. teammates have become a phenomenon, one that may well last beyond the Olympic closing ceremonies next Sunday.
Their 12-1 stomping of China Thursday was their 30th straight victory since they started their pre-Olympic tour. Included in that stretch are nine straight victories over Canada, the team that was to women's hockey what the Soviet Union was to the international men's game in 1980 when ... Oh-oh. Bye and her teammates know they now wear a bullseye. They are the Olympic favorite, and everyone in Canada and elsewhere is aiming at them. "Canada is a country that eats, sleeps and dreams hockey,'' she said.
"Americans aren't quite there just yet.'' And perhaps never will be. But the gap is closing.
The U.S. women know they are playing for more than a gold medal. They are pioneers in the development of women's hockey in America, and if an intense rivalry with Canada helps that growth, bring it on.
Today in the souvenir shops of Salt Lake City, the U.S. women's hockey jersey is a hot seller. And while Bye finds it amusing that she and Cammi Granato have their own bobble-head dolls, the stuff is selling. Not bad for a woman who grew up having to play on boys teams in River Falls because there were no programs for young girls. The young girl who once sought autographs from the Minnesota North Stars is now signing her herself for a new generation of female hockey fans.
Perhaps this is just Olympic fever. Perhaps the U.S. women's team is just the flavor of the month. Perhaps not.
"I'm extremely proud of what we've built,'' Bye said. "We're playing for ourselves and our country, of course, but we're also fighting for Suzie Snowflake who's just coming up at age 8 or 9. We want her to have a better opportunity than we had.''
"It probably took me a full year after the '98 Olympics to fully put things in perspective, to say, 'Wow, look what we did as a team.' It probably won't be until after I stop playing that I fully realize how big it was to be a pioneer.
"I just hope that someday during an Opening Ceremony, I can be someone who
skates in with a torch representing a big part of history.''
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