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Tuesday, February 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron Judd

Women's Hockey: For Stephens and U.S., a time for reflection

Seattle Times staff columnist

TURIN, Italy — The time to play it safe, Kelly Stephens figured, had long passed.

After a stunning, 3-2 shootout defeat to the Swedes on Friday, Stephens and her American hockey mates found themselves in an all-new position: playing for the bronze medal in a tourney in which they had never done worse than silver.

Nobody, not three-time Olympic coach Ben Smith nor any of the three-time Olympic veteran players, had a playbook for that one.

Stephens, 23, an Olympic rookie from Shoreline, put some of the onus on herself.

"I came in here saying, 'We've got to just own this and not leave it up to chance, not leave it up to bounces, not leave it up to overtime. Let's come out with a fast start and take care of it.' "

Monday's bronze-medal match with Finland was barely underway in Palasport Olimpico when she backed up her words.

She notched the first goal of the game — tipping in a power-play shot by teammate Julie Chu just 2:32 into the match. Later, her veteran teammate Katie King added three more to send the U.S. to the medal stand with a 4-0 drubbing of Finland.

It was a fitting end — and beginning — for the U.S. women's hockey team, which leaves Turin with its tail somewhat between its legs, watching Canada win its second straight gold, Sweden its first silver.

After the game, a tearful Smith made it clear he's likely finished as head coach, suggesting the U.S. team would benefit from a younger, perhaps female, on-ice leader.

A number of veteran players are likely to say goodbye, also. A couple of them, King and forward Kim Insalaco, said as much Monday night. More of them are likely to admit it in the coming days.

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But a solid core of veterans, supplemented by young players like Stephens and 18-year-old forward Sarah Parsons, are poised to lead the team toward Vancouver in 2010.

Stephens, still soaking in the emotions of her first Olympics, wasn't dealing with any of that Monday.

Her focus on the future stretched out about two days — deciding whether she'd be able to make it up into the mountains to take in men's aerials before the Olympics end.

"It's an honor to win a medal," Stephens says, even though up until this past weekend, she never dreamed it'd be some color other than gold.

Stephens is a refreshing Olympic story because she seemed sucked into the Olympics suddenly and irretrievably, with nothing driving her beyond her love of hockey. Unlike a lot of other Olympians, she has no memory of watching the Winter Games as a little girl, catching the bug and totally reorganizing her life to get here.

She played hockey in north Seattle against boys because she loved the game and they were the best local people playing it.

She played hockey in Canada against boys for the same reasons. And she was genuinely surprised when she got recruited for a full-ride scholarship to Minnesota. There, she quickly found that, playing against other young women, she excelled, helping her team to a national title.

When the U.S. Olympic Team came calling, it was pure gravy, and Stephens never pretended it was anything less. She was charmingly wired a few weeks ago when she started to realize these Olympics were actually happening — and she'd be in them.

And she's still on cloud nine from marching in Turin's opening ceremony.

"That was ridiculously cool," she says. "Awesome."

She doesn't hesitate to offer up a single-word description of what the Turin Games have felt like to her.

"Emotional. I think this is the most emotional event I've ever been part of. There have been a lot of ups and downs. For me, 2005 was a winning year. In college, we won everything. We won the national championship. Then two weeks later we won the world championship. That was like a ridiculous year.

"Obviously, I was kind of spoiled. You come here and it's like, 'Oh, it [the gold medal] is the next step.' Then you kind of choke."

Now, she'll let the future take care of itself.

"I'm going to relax," she says, smiling. "I want to go chill and have a good time and hang out, do different things — a sort-of 'welcome to the real world' kind of thing — then go from there."

A wise choice. Most of a week of sport remains to be watched at the Olympics. First-time competitors like Stephens usually come away with a different perspective on the Games, and what they mean to people, watching other athletes compete.

It makes a lot of them want to earn the right to come back and do it all again themselves.

Sometimes, when you catch the Olympic bug is less important than how long you keep feeding it.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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