The U.S. women’s hockey team hasn’t won gold since 1998; will the spell be broken in Pyeongchang?
Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
The USWNT last won gold 20 years ago in Nagano. Since, they’ve won silver three times (2002, 2010, 2014) and bronze once (2006).
Passion forming with every tighten of the lace
Years of the same routine perfected today
Rituals that are practiced and shared behind locker room doors.
— Kacey Bellamy
It could have been a disaster.
Hurricane Irma was on a path toward the Tampa, Florida, area on Sept. 9, and authorities were bracing for a direct hit. As it happened, the best women’s hockey players in the United States had just begun training in Wesley Chapel, a few miles north of Tampa International Airport.
Even though the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning had decided to evacuate its players, Team USA decided to shelter in place at the Saddlebrook Resort, where they were staying. One agent who was worried about his clients told USA Today, "Why isn’t the women’s team evacuated? Is it because they are just girls … to me this is stupid, they are our Olympic team."
But Reagan Carey, the general manager for the team, had thought it through, even going so far as to find out the number and the strength of the steel trusses in the shelter area at the Saddlebrook Resort. So on Sunday morning, Sept. 10, the team members abandoned their apartments for the shelter, joining other evacuees to wait out the storm, which lost steam from its original designation as a Category 4. Still, 80 mph winds howled outside the building as Irma passed over. The women played cards, visited with Hilary Knight’s bulldog puppy, Winston, in a separate pet area, and made hockey fans out of their fellow refugees. Captain Meghan Duggan later called it "a big sleepover," and by the next morning, they were able to return to their quarters and their lives.
"We were kind of scared," said Kacey Bellamy, the veteran defenseman and one of six players who are in Pyeongchang for their third straight Olympics. "But the negative turned into a positive. It was a great bonding experience for us, the kind of thing that brings a team closer together. Plus, I learned how to play [the card game] euchre."
By Tuesday, they were back to practicing and helping out in the community. Irma faded into a metaphor for a team that has had to weather a lot of storms over the years.
There was the crushing loss to Canada in the gold-medal game in Vancouver eight years ago. And the devastating 3-2 overtime loss in Sochi in 2014 that gave Canada its fourth straight gold medal. And the battle with USA Hockey last spring, when the women threatened to boycott the 2017 IIHF world championships if they weren’t given living expenses, travel accommodations and medal bonuses befitting representatives of the United States of America.
Not only did they win that battle, but they also went to Plymouth, Michigan, for the world championships and beat Canada 3-2 in overtime in the final — earning the team’s fourth consecutive title. "We’ve been through a lot together," said Bellamy, now an assistant captain on the team. "I think that’s made us stronger."
Resilience is part and parcel of hockey, but for female players — who often start out playing with the boys, who give up the comfort of home, who fight off waves of challengers and adjust to a succession of coaches all to pursue their Olympic dreams — well, you just bounce off the boards.
You might even write a poem about the sport you love.
AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File
World champ and Olympian Kacey Bellamy (22) watched the gold medal slip away from her team to archrival Canada in two consecutive Winter Olympics. She’s looking for gold in Pyeongchang.
Actions that are defined as the norm within the team
Replaying the past of one game, one play, one second
That has triggered one year of training against that one team.
It was a disaster.
What happened in Sochi’s Bolshoy Ice Dome on March 6, 2014, is excruciating to watch, even four years later. Team USA had a 2-0 lead on Team Canada late in the third period of the gold-medal game. But with 3:26 left in the game, Canada’s Brianne Jenner fired a shot that would’ve gone wide had it not ricocheted off Bellamy’s right leg and past goalie Jessie Vetter. Coach Katey Stone clapped her hands and told the team not to panic, that they were OK.
As time wound down, Canada pulled goalie Shannon Szabados, and Team USA’s Kelli Stack got off a clearing shot that headed for the empty net … and bounced off the left side of the left post. "When those things start to happen in the game of hockey," Stone later said, "you start to wonder if it is your night."
It wasn’t. Just 55 seconds away from finally beating Canada for the gold, Marie-Philip Poulin tied the score at 2-2 to send the game into overtime. Team USA had its chances in OT — the left-handed Bellamy almost ripped one past Szabados — but then the refs made some questionable calls, leaving the U.S. short-handed at just the wrong time. At 8:10 of overtime, Poulin fired the game winner past Vetter.
Imagine what it was like watching the Canadians celebrate and then waiting around to accept your silver medals.
"All that work, all that hope," said Bellamy. "Gone just like that. It took me five months to get over it. March, April, May, June, July. I’m big on watching videos of games, but I didn’t look at that one until August. I needed to get my motivation back."
Part of that motivation has to do with the team that beat the Americans, the team that always seems to beat them. USA vs. Canada in women’s hockey is one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. It started way back in 1916 and captivated the world when women’s hockey debuted as an Olympic sport at Nagano in 1998. The U.S. won that gold-medal game, but the Canadians have won every Olympics since.
The rivalry is so intense that 10 fighting majors were handed out in one 2013 game, resulting in six U.S. players and five Canadians crammed into the penalty boxes. But they are also friends who share a love of the sport and often play on the same collegiate and pro teams. Caroline Ouellette and Julie Chu, one-time captains of Teams Canada and USA, respectively, first met at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and are now coaching at Concordia University in Montreal together while raising Liv Chu-Ouellette, born to Caroline last November.
Tale of the Tape: The U.S. vs. Canada in women’s hockey
Both shielded by different armor
Separated by a simple borderline
Sharing the same frenzy for the sport and rivalry
Colors, countries, teammates
All united on the same ice
Bellamy, a women’s studies major at the University of New Hampshire, likes to write poetry in her spare time. "They’re mostly about nature and people," she said. "But I did write this one about hockey." In fact, USA Hockey used the poem for a video to promote the "Bring On The World" tour before the last Olympics.
That’s Bellamy’s voice narrating her words in the video, an ode to the challenges of the sport in general, and the rivalry in particular. There is a depth of feeling to the poem that explains why and how Bellamy and the other five three-timers have stayed at the top of the American team for so long, through three different coaches (Mark Johnson, Stone, Robb Stauber) and all the ups and downs.
"Eight years ago, I was just a rookie with my eyes wide open, in awe of where I was, who I was playing with," said Bellamy. "Now I’m 31 and still in awe of the responsibility. The Olympics is about more than the rivalry with Canada. It’s about representing the country. It’s about showing people how beautiful women’s hockey can be. It’s about the little girls with sticks, the little girls we used to be."
Two years ago, Bellamy wrote a powerful "Letter to My Younger Self" for The Players Tribune. Addressed to 15-year-old Kacey, she recalled leaving behind her family and friends in Westfield, Massachusetts, to attend the Berkshire School and how the first two weeks "are going to be the worst two weeks of your life." She told her about the friends and coaches who changed her life, about getting her heart broken when she was cut from USA Hockey’s under-22 team, about using the rejection as motivation to make the senior national team.
"You’re going to play for the U.S. team for a long time," she wrote. "But never take anything for granted. Make the most of the opportunities you have."
Each playing for the crest on the front of the jersey
And sticking up for every name on the back
Relax. Just like in Tampa, it might not be the disaster they’re predicting.
Some people who care deeply about Team USA worry that Pyeongchang will be as much a disappointment as Sochi or Vancouver or Turin or Salt Lake City were. They wonder why Stauber, a former NHL goalie who assisted Stone in Sochi, didn’t name any female assistants to his staff. And while he did coach the team to the world championship last April, and beat Canada 5-1 to win the Four Nations Cup on Nov. 12, Team USA has lost the past four games to Canada in its pre-Olympic warm-up.
A 2-1 overtime loss to Canada at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Dec. 3 was particularly painful because the tying goal was scored by Poulin and the winning goal by Jenner, their Sochi nemeses. And it happened in front of members of the 1998 USA Olympic team, who were honored between periods for the United States’ only gold medal.
Afterward, Stauber said, "For us, it’s not necessarily about the 20 years, but more about, ‘It’s time.’ We’ve got to bring home a gold medal. We’ve got a pretty good vision. We’re sticking with it, and we like our direction."
That direction included the addition of three players since Irma: defenders Cayla Barnes and Sidney Morin and forward Haley Skarupa. When the final roster was named after the second period of the Winter Classic at Citi Field on Jan. 1, veterans Bellamy, Duggan, Knight, Monique Lamoureux-Morando, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Gigi Marvin were on it, but forward Alex Carpenter, Team USA’s leading scorer in Sochi, and defender Megan Bozek were not — leading some to speculate that they did not buy into Stauber’s system.
Stauber stresses a controlled possession game that sometimes takes the puck back into the neutral zone. As for the lack of a female coach, he does rely on his veterans to help the younger players. Bellamy has been working with the 18-year-old Barnes, who had been getting ready to play for Boston College when she was asked to report to Wesley Chapel. "She’s wise beyond her years," says Bellamy. "Very poised … she’s just wonderful to have around the locker room."
While the recent results against Canada have been disappointing, it’s worth keeping in mind that in the American men’s last exhibition game with the Soviet Union before the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" game, Team USA was crushed 10-3.
In Pyeongchang, both archrivals beat Finland and the Russians in the first two games of Group A play — though there was some hand-wringing as the U.S. got off to slow starts in the first period of both games. It was Bellamy who broke the ice at 8:02 of the first period of the victory over the Russians, stepping into the attack off a pass from Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and firing a seeing-eye shot past Russian goalie Valeria Tarakanova. Team USA then put the game away in the second period, thanks to a more aggressive mindset and two goals by Lamoureux-Davidson within six seconds — an Olympic record.
By winning those first two prelims, Canada and Team USA assured themselves of a place in the semifinals, meaning that their game tomorrow means nothing… and their next one everything.
"We’re starting with a clean slate in South Korea," says Bellamy. "This time will be different."
Or, as she once wrote:
Mistakes lead to success
Errors lead to victory
Pride leads to gold
Senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
Around long enough to have written about athletes from Hank Aaron to Ben Zobrist and Super Bowls from VII to XLVI.
Joined ESPN The Magazine as a founding editor in 1998.
Also wrote for Time, Sports Illustrated, the Fort Lauderdale News and The Evening Sun in Norwich, NY.