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U.S. Women's Hockey Team, After the Gold

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The U.S. women's hockey team is a favorite to win a medal at the winter games. Players and coaches say exposure from the Olympics has gotten a lot more girls playing hockey and that's creating a younger generation of very strong players. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

The U.S. women's team is skating through drills at an ice rink in Cromwell, Connecticut. With music thumping in the background, players dig their skates into the ice to race towards the goal and work on slap shots and passes.

(Soundbite of coach yelling)

ARNOLD: The head coach Ben Smith, puts them through drills and scrimmages. Unlike men's hockey, the women can't do full-on, open ice checking, but they can pin each other on the boards and knock each other around going for the puck. (Soundbite of skates on ice and yelling)

ARNOLD: Many of the women here grew up playing on boys' teams when they were little kids and since there weren't many girls' teams around back then, 24-year-old Krissy Wendell from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, says she's always wanted to play hockey.

Ms. KRISSY WENDELL (Women's U.S. Hockey Team, 2006 Winter Olympics): I think when I was younger it was one of those things I wanted to do 'cause my brother did it, and then the more I started playing and the more I got into it, the more I learned to love the game.

ARNOLD: But if the players are fired up, some parents on the sidelines here, are a bit more anxious.

Ms. MIRIAM CHU (Mother of Olympic Athlete, Julie Chu): Right now, I'm having stomach cramps (laughs) just thinking about it.

ARNOLD: Mirian Chu and her husband, Wa(ph) Chu, for years have been coming to every single game that their daughter Julie plays in, and you wouldn't guess it right away from looking at the couple, but the Chus are such big women's hockey fans, they have Olympic tattoos. Miriam Chu pulls up her pant leg to show hers, the five multi-colored rings with their daughter, Julie's number.

Ms. CHU: I have mine on my ankle. It's just the rings and number 13.

ARNOLD: Oh, that's awesome!

Ms. CHU: He has it on his arm.

Mr. WA CHU (Father of Olympic Athlete, Julie Chu): Yeah, we all have the same design so we all share the same symbol.

ARNOLD: The tattoos were their daughter Julie's idea. In a delaying tactic, her father said okay, but only if you make the Olympics.

Mr. CHU: We struggled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHU: Yeah, because we're both very conservative. Tattooing is not something in our plan. On the other hand, once we did it we were very, very glad.

ARNOLD: Twenty-three-year-old Julie Chu was in the last Winter Olympics. Her grandmother and father emigrated from Hong Kong with just $3 in their pockets when her dad was a teenager. Her grandmother worked in sweat shops on the lower east side of New York to put her kids through college.

Ms. JULIE CHU (Women's U.S. Hockey Team, 2006 Winter Olympics): Coming over as immigrants and just the difficult life that they led and I just look at myself and I'm just like, wow, I'm so fortunate for all their hard work, their sacrifices--to bring me all these opportunities I have now.

ARNOLD: Julie Chu's mother says she'd like to see more media coverage and fan attendance at women's hockey. The sport clearly has not become as popular as, say, women's basketball, but player Katie King says women's hockey is growing in popularity. The number of Division I college teams over the past decade has tripled to around 35 teams.

Ms. KATIE KING (Women's U.S. Hockey Team, 2006 Winter Olympics): To see the girls is unbelievable and to see the amount of college teams there are, but to also see the amount of little kids' teams, I mean, not only do you see four and five year olds starting to play hockey, you know, you also see 40-year-old women, you know, who my kids play so why can't I play?, you know. So, it's great to see that too.

ARNOLD: The talent pool is growing so fast that younger players are pushing out some veterans. The best known American player from the last Olympics, Cammy Granado, is not on the team this year. In a controversial decision coach Ben Smith cut the 34-year-old Granado. Instead of playing, she'll be reporting on the games for NBC. Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Arnold
NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.