January 9, 1997

Women's Hockey's Fiercist Rivals Get Ready to Face Off Again


Hockey games are not supposed to last longer than "Braveheart." So, when the score remained Providence 1, New Hampshire 1 five hours into the ECAC women's ice hockey championship game last March, Joe Bertagna, the league commissioner, called the coaches into a conference. Bertagna had heard the methodical moan of the Zamboni seven times. It was time to stop the match.

"The quality of play had slipped," he said recently, recalling how exhausted skaters were leaning on opponents, struggling to remain upright. "The referees had skated too many miles. There was no provision except to play continuous overtimes, but I was afraid of injuries, and I didn't want to hide behind the rule book."

But the ECAC is the sole conference with a varsity women's hockey schedule, and the battle on the ice was for the national championship. Providence Coach Jackie Barto and her Wildcat counterpart, Karen Kay, looked incredulously at the commissioner, then demanded that the game continue. As the coaches stormed toward their respective locker rooms, Bertagna wrangled a promise that they would meet again if the eighth period did not produce a winner.

The trio never reconvened. At 5 minutes and 35 seconds into the eighth period, Brandy Fisher, New Hampshire's left wing, snapped a wrist shot that sailed over goalie Meghan Smith's outstretched glove, banged off the post and caromed into the net. After 145 minutes and 35 seconds of game time, the longest collegiate hockey game in history had finally answered the question of who was the best team in the land.

Or had it? Since the 12-team ECAC began tournament play in 1983, Providence has won six championships to New Hampshire's five, and Providence was aiming for its fifth consecutive crown when Fisher's goal ended the Lady Friars' quest. Members of both teams now consider last year's classic just one memorable battle in an ongoing war.

The next skirmish starts Saturday, when the Lady Friars return to New Hampshire's Towse Rink. "To play them and beat them means everything. That's what we look forward to," said Alison Wheeler, Providence's senior center.

Since both teams are currently undefeated in league play and league standings determine tournament seedings, the rematch figures to be especially hard fought. As Coach Kay said, "Women's hockey has no goons, but these girls like to hit, especially in the corners."

Checking is illegal in women's ice hockey, and while denizens of Madison Square Garden's blue seats might howl that hockey without checking is like non-alcoholic beer, several hockey experts believe the no-hitting rule enhances the game. Unlike National Hockey League contests, which have grown notorious for grabbing, trapping and holding techniques, women's hockey spotlights adroit stickhandling, alert passing and open-ice rushes.

"I hate to say it, but I'm falling in love with the way the game is played," said Ben Smith, former head coach of the Northeastern men's varsity and current coach of the USA Women's National Select Team. "The skating and the skill game takes you back to the hockey we old-timers remember."

Smith's team, which features six Providence alumnae and five New Hampshire graduates, will form the core of an American squad considered a favorite to win the gold medal when women's hockey debuts at the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998.

The 1996-97 Wildcats, led by the all-ECAC defensewoman Heather Reinke, skate even faster than they did last year. Their two most potent scorers, Fisher and the sophomore center Carisa Zaban, have returned, and have meshed so well with new recruits that Zaban recently said, "Our offense is stacked."

Don't cry for the Lady Friars just yet. Sarah Decosta, one of 11 freshmen, is a brilliant goaltender who supplanted Smith the instant she arrived on campus. Since New Hampshire's only goalie with collegiate experience, Dina Solimini, graduated last spring, the Friars now hold a decisive advantage between the pipes.

Providence coaches raked the Midwest for a bumper crop of freshmen, while New Hampshire tapped the pipeline in Alaska for a pair of first-year players who are just learning the significance of the feud.

"We didn't sweat the sweat the upperclassmen did, but we've had it explained to us pretty well," said Carrie Jokiel, a left wing from Anchorage. "There's a lot of tension between these two teams."

Along with the tension, mutual respect has developed. Kay was a teammate of Barto's when both skated for Providence in the early '80s, and they have remained friendly. Players on both teams praise the talent and toughness of their opponents, and not one player offers disparaging remarks about the rival team.

But deep down, little has changed since last March. While a tie is a conceivable result of Saturday's contest, to the participants it is unthinkable.

"It's going to be a duel," said Myia Yates, Providence's sophomore right wing.

The participants still believe that a hockey game should end with just one team standing.

Copyright © 1997 The New York Times Company

This page is maintained by © 1998 Andria Hunter (andria@cs.toronto.edu).

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