Until they won, they didn't get much coverage, at least nationally. The media wanted celebrities, and there weren't any on our women's hockey team. Mostly, they were kids no one had heard of. Amateurs among pros. So they didn't get much coverage.
Until they won gold.And helped remind many what the Olympics are about. Or were, back when most Olympic athletes were like these women: Kids no one had heard of. Kids who practiced in obscurity for years with their only payback a shot at a medal. Remember those Olympics? Those were the ones you looked forward to watching on television.
You might have seen echoes of that if you caught the American women's hockey team at work in Nagano, but you had to be dedicated. CBS aired only a few of their games, almost as an afterthought. They didn't promote the team much, at least the story of the team: Kids chasing a dream.
Until they won gold.
Before then? The national media seemed more interested in the pros, the high-salary NHL celebrities. You can't blame them for that.
That is, if you don't pause to think on what the Olympics once were about. If you don't think about the magic of wide-eyed kids arriving in the Village, marching in the opening ceremonies, waving to Mom and Dad in the bleachers.
All that perhaps seemed quaint to programmers trying to factor in prime-time ratings. They went with what they thought was the sure thing in hockey: The men. The superstars.
I went back through national newspapers like The New York Times and found something interesting. There was more coverage about the arrival of the NHL superstars in Nagano than about the victories of the women's hockey team. What makes that ironic is that it was around the same time.
See, most of the men arrived after opening ceremonies. They had pro games to play at home. You could almost say they squeezed the Olympics in - that for them, Nagano is a side trip, a thrilling one, but a side trip nonetheless, and win or lose, it's back to real hockey. Professional hockey. The business of hockey. TV needs its superstars back. Hundreds of games are still to be televised before the season ends.
The women have no such obligations. Until Nagano, they had only once played in a game television felt worthy of broadcasting nationally. That's what it's like when you're an amateur.
You practice, and play, and few notice. You practice and play for no money. Right now, there is no on-ice version of the WNBA, no professional women's hockey league. If you're a woman, there are no hockey-stick companies wanting to put your name on their products. There is no material reason to give your life to this sport. Except for the love of the game.
Early on, the oddsmakers were saying similar things about both the American men's and women's hockey teams: It was likely to be between them and Canada.
As it turned out, the American women never lost; the American men struggled from the start, and then they were out.
It's as if the love of sport proved a better performer than the business of sport.
I will remember two moments from the 1998 gold-medal women's hockey team.
First, a morning interview I saw with the two goalies, Sara DeCosta and Sarah Tueting. It was a few games before the finals, and both were saying things could go either way. But they weren't grim about it; they were like kids, thrilled to be where they were. They said there were a thousand memories a day, and they were working hard to take it all in. This was the high of a lifetime.
I watched that and thought, You would not hear the NHL superstars talk this way about being in the Nagano games.
The other moment came right after the women won the gold. The USA's Karyn Bye draped a flag over her shoulders and skated in victory. It was like 1980 again, when that other dream team filled with amateur kids no one had heard of beat the Russian superstars.
And reminded us what the Olympics are about.