Koznick, women's pucksters head list of Minnesota medal hopefuls
By Dave Campbell
As a state forever associated with snow and ice, the Land of 10,000 Lakes really ought to have a presence in the Winter Olympics.
Sure enough, Minnesotans will have plenty of ways to connect with the Salt Lake City Games, which begin with tonight's opening ceremonies.
The best bet for an individual medal by a Minnesotan is slalom superstar Kristina Koznick, who got her start on the bunny slopes of Burnsville's Buck Hill.
And don't forget the U.S. women's hockey team, which includes Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz, who weren't alive the last time the United States hosted the Winter Games.
Beginning this weekend, dozens of athletes with ties both loose and strong to the state will go for the gold. Given the Games' proximity, there'll be a lot more Minnesotans in Utah for the 15-day event than just the athletes.
Bill Robertson, for instance, the vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Minnesota Wild, is handling media relations for the U.S. men's hockey team.
But the athletes are certainly the most important part. So let's start, appropriately, with hockey.
Twenty-two years since the "Miracle on Ice," St. Paul native Herb Brooks is back behind the U.S. bench -- this time coaching multimillionaires instead of the college kids who toppled the Soviet Union in 1980 in Lake Placid.
With the NHL taking a 12-day break to again allow the pros to play, the Americans -- including South St. Paul native Phil Housley and ex-Minnesota North Stars forward Mike Modano -- will find medaling an arduous task. Canada, Russia and the Czech Republic are the favorites.
On the women's side, however, the 1998 gold-winning U.S. team is the one to beat. Fourteen players are back from the Nagano Games, including Eagan's Jenny Potter -- who had five points in six games in '98.
Former University of Minnesota standout Courtney Kennedy will play defense for the Americans, and the two prep stars from the Twin Cities -- Wendell and Darwitz -- make up the top line with veteran Cammi Granato.
Wendell, 20, and Darwitz, 18, are two of the team's top playmakers. Wendell was twice named the state's player of the year by The Associated Press and set a Minnesota high school record by scoring 110 goals in 27 games her senior season for state champion Park Center in 1999-2000.
Darwitz, who with Wendell will play for the Golden Gophers next season, is the team's second-youngest skater.
The mountainous European nations often hog the skiing medals, but Koznick, 26, is one of the world's top competitors in the slalom. After a disappointing 1998 Games -- she wiped out on her second run in the slalom in Nagano, Japan -- Koznick is primed for a top-three finish.
Koznick, who trains apart from the U.S. ski team with her coach (and boyfriend) Dan Stripp. Koznick, who took second in the slalom in last week's World Cup competition in Sweden, became in 1998 the first American to win a World Cup slalom in six years.
Here's a rundown of some of the other sports with a taste of Minnesota:
• Two-thirds; of the singles spots on the men's luge team belong to Minnesotans: Tony Benshoof of White Bear Lake and Nick Sullivan of Oakdale.
Benshoof, 26, won his first World Cup medal last month and finished third in the 2001 World Championships, which is a long way from the grassy incline along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis where he learned the sport at age 13.
He was a top candidate for the U.S. team in the Nagano Games in 1998 but left off at the last-minute by the discretionary pick of a coach. Instead of giving up the luge altogether, Benshoof spent the past four years training in Park City, Utah, and will be the Americans' top racer in Salt Lake City.
• The; curling teams are dominated by Wisconsinites and Minnesotans. Bemidji's Mike Liapis coaches the women's team, which includes daughters Kari Erickson and Stacey Liapis.