Facing Canada for the gold medal in the Pyeongchang Olympic hockey tournament should be easy for the U.S. women’s hockey team after players united during two harrowing experiences that had happy outcomes.
Last spring, intent on getting better treatment from USA Hockey as well as travel stipends and accommodations equal to those given their male counterparts, team members threatened to skip the world championships. More recently, the women were evacuated from their apartments at their training base in Wesley Chapel, Fla., when Hurricane Irma took an unexpected turn toward Tampa.
Both experiences went well for the U.S. women, who have won seven of the past eight world titles but haven’t won Olympic gold since women’s hockey made its debut in 1998. Their unity during contract talks got the women better training stipends for their six-month, pre-Olympic residency as well as promises that USA Hockey would support girls’ hockey programs. Their upbeat attitude during the storm helped them get each other — and fellow evacuees — through it unscathed.
“It turned into a giant sleepover, really. Everyone in the resort and 23 of us,” U.S. forward Meghan Duggan said Tuesday during the Team USA Media Summit. “We were in a hotel function room. We had snacks, played games and cards, and we had a massage therapist come in. We kind of embraced it together and went through it together and tried to look at the positives. We were very fortunate compared to some other communities in Florida.”
The Saddleback Resort, where they’re spending their residency, had been designated a storm shelter and took in people who had left Miami and other endangered areas. The U.S. team members had to move only from their apartments to a central location at the resort. They were grateful to have power, water, food and flashlights.
No one knew who they were initially. “But it kind of got around,” Duggan said. “We took a few pictures. You have to keep a positive outlook in things like that.”
They shared their snacks and their American flags, perhaps winning new fans for the sport in the process. “We might have,” Duggan said. “We actually created a little community there that night. I think it made everyone that was there feel safer.”
Forward Hilary Knight acknowledged she was scared during their time in the shelter, which lasted less than 24 hours. But she said by the time it became clear that the storm had veered in their direction, it was too late to get gas and mobilize everyone to evacuate.
“We were fortunate that all of us were safe. If anything were to happen, I’d be with the people that I love and my puppy dog,” she said of her bulldog, Winston. “I know other people are way worse off than we were.”
Knight was proud that their solidarity held firm, as it had during the negotiations before the world championships.
“If you put yourself in the players’ shoes, we would only get together four to six times a year. You’re always being evaluated. You’re on the cutting block to get cut at any moment in time. There’s no job security, right?” she said. “And so to put all of that on the line and say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to play in world championships,’ and then you have to trust everybody that they’re not going to take a step forward. Because selfishly it would be easy to say, ‘I want to be on that team,’ or, ‘This is a great opportunity for me.’ But that trust and that camaraderie that we formed, you can’t replicate that in any sort of team-building. That’s why I think this team is just innately so much stronger and different than any team we’ve had before.
“If anything, through our experience at world championships or whether it’s just sitting out through a storm, this team is resilient on all fronts. But I don’t want to say that light-heartedly to take away from the effects that it’s had on other individuals.”
Duggan said players raised funds for the local Humane Society to help pets that were affected by the storm and brought meals to a local Boys and Girls Club whose food deliveries were disrupted by the storm.
Knight said the U.S. women were the best team in the world in 2014 but weren’t the best team during the gold-medal game in Sochi, Russia. Canada scored twice late in the third period and prevailed in overtime, 3-2, for its fourth straight gold medal.
The U.S. women are hoping to be the world’s best team throughout the Pyeongchang tournament, thanks to a sharper focus and an emphasis on creativity promoted by their new coach, former Kings goaltender Robb Stauber.
“If we’d played a best of three, best of seven, we would have won. But that’s not how the Olympics are,” Knight said. “It comes down to a game, which is 50-50. You can sway the odds as best you can, but any great competitor knows it’s 50-50 on any given day and the puck just didn’t bounce our way. We had a couple of errors and mental lapses and those things tend to add up in critical moments.
“When I look at where we went wrong in 2014, it was the last five to eight minutes of the game. Now, having the experience we’ve had off the ice and the chemistry we’ve built, I don’t think we’re going to be in that same situation if it came down to crunch time in the last five to eight minutes of a potential gold medal game.”
Stauber said he has thoroughly enjoyed his experience coaching the women and enjoys their hunger to learn and improve.
“It’s been outstanding. I’ve been fortunate in the game of hockey to have a lot of great things and to be able to help other people achieve their goals and dreams and that be the singular focus, it’s awesome,” he said. “The players work so hard and they’re so dedicated and so focused that you’d just do anything for them. It’s been a great experience to give the best of yourself to them.”
Stauber said he has both coached men and women, “and what I would say is women are easier to coach. They’re more receptive to ideas, thoughts. With men, it takes a little more beating into. The women are just more open to new things. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have their challenges. Maybe they internally struggle with some of it but they’re going to put their best foot forward day in and day out and I think it’s a more fun environment to work in.
“They appreciate it. They’re thoughtful. They’re thankful. You don’t even feel like you’re going to work when the people you’re surrounded with want to get better, want to improve their skills and are open to it.”