- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Glory can be found everywhere at the Winter Olympics, in the obvious and the unlikely places. It can arrive with a gold-medal performance. Or with one shot and one goal.

Especially when you are the Italian women’s hockey team playing in your first Olympics and have been outscored 27-0.

It happened the other day against Russia. After losing 16-0 to Canada and 11-0 to Sweden, Italy scored its first goal ever. Sabina Florian took a sweet pass from Maria Michaela Leitner in the first period and wristed a shot high to the glove side of the goalie. The puck caromed off the back of the net.

The fans, many of whom were waving and wearing flags and chanting, “I-tal-ia! I-tal-ia!” went crazy. Florian asked for the historic puck, but the referee told her no. It remained in play until someone shot it into her bench, where it was safely hidden. She said she plans to display it in a glass case.

“It was a dream to make a goal in the Olympics, and now that dream is a reality,” Florian said.

Not only was it Italy’s first goal in three games, it gave Italy a 1-0 lead. It was 1-1 after the first period, and Russia led 2-1 after the second. The Russian coach later said his team was playing tight and was affected by the pro-Italy crowd.

Do you believe in miracoli?

No. Russia’s superior strength and skill eventually prevailed and Italy lost 5-1. But it was a lot better than the previous two defeats, and no one seemed to mind, not the fans, the players or the coaches. This was the ultimate moral victory, though Russia had been outscored by its first two opponents 15-1.

“I am surprised how well we performed in the first two periods,” Italy’s coach, Markus Sparer, said through an interpreter. “But I knew our strength was decreasing.”

Sparer said his team prepared well for the Olympics, but that only goes so far.

“We have a very strong emotional and mental force,” he said. “But the girls are small and not strong enough in most cases.”

Italy’s roster lists nine players at 120 pounds or less and four who weigh at least 140 pounds. Russia has no players 120 pounds or less and 11 who weigh at least 140.

Sparer said Italy had to recover “physically and psychologically, very quickly” after the first two debacles. “We arrived here ready for the game.”

Afterward, the team celebrated goal numero uno with a bottle of bubbly, as if it had won the gold. In a way, it had.

“Against Canada it was impossible. Against Sweden, we played better, and today it was a very, very great game,” said Leitner, the team’s best player.

Now the Italians think they can win tomorrow.

Along with veteran captain Evelyn Bazzanella, the 24-year-old Leitner and the 22-year-old Florian form the heart of the team. Both are of German descent and have played together on and off for about seven years. Florian’s mother, Angilika, was watching in the stands. Everyone in the family plays hockey, including Angilika, who belongs to a group called the Power Mothers Club, the Power Mammis, in German. These are your real hockey moms.

But few women play the sport in Italy, although the numbers are slowly growing. The sport is young here, and so are the players. Less than 400 women reportedly are registered to play hockey in Italy, compared with 66,000 in Canada. Whereas other countries import some of their players, no foreign nationals play for the Italian team.

Canada probably has the best women’s hockey team in the world, and it showed no mercy in the biggest rout in Olympic women’s hockey history. With a crowd of more than 8,000 looking on, Caroline Ouellette scored three goals in the first seven minutes and the great Hayley Wickenheiser added two more. The Italians were outshot 66-5.

But something strange happened during the game. With each goal, the Italian fans cheered louder. Rather than being embarrassed or discouraged, the players, grateful for the chance to share the ice with players many of them had idolized, actually relished the moment. They considered it a privilege.

“We won the support and sympathy of the crowd, and we are very proud because they call us the team of our heart,” Sparer said. “And we feel the same emotion because we play with a lot of heart, and I think that shows on the ice.”

Some of the Italian players were so overcome with emotion after playing Canada that they cried. Even a couple of days after that, the game still had left some of them speechless.

“It was a very, very interesting experience,” Leitner said. “We played for the first time against Canada and I hadn’t … I hadn’t … I can’t say anything.”

Her smile said it all.

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