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Commentary: How the U.S. women’s hockey team turned courage into gold

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 22, 2018, 6:13 p.m.

The United States team celebrates winning the women’s gold medal hockey game against Canada  in Gangneung, South Korea, on Thursday. (Frank Franklin II / AP)
The United States team celebrates winning the women’s gold medal hockey game against Canada in Gangneung, South Korea, on Thursday. (Frank Franklin II / AP)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Four years ago, USA Hockey unveiled the Nike-designed jerseys that its men’s and women’s teams would wear at the Sochi Olympics. They paid “homage” to past gold medals by stitching the years into the rear inner neckline: 1960 and 1980.

It forgot that the women won gold in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. Or maybe it didn’t forget.

The women’s players learned this in the official news release, another show of disrespect by their male-dominated federation, another slight, another puck to the gut. But take enough daggers to the heart, and eventually you’ll start yanking them out and fighting back.

And that, as much as anything that happened between the blue lines late Wednesday night at Gangneung Hockey Center, is why the next time USA Hockey pays homage to Olympic gold medals on the rear inside neckline, it will have another year to overlook:

2018.

“There was,” defender Cayla Barnes was saying with a gold medal hanging from her neck following a 3-2 shootout victory against rival Canada, “never a doubt.”

“There’s something unbelievable about this team,” forward Monique Lamoureux-Morando said. “We just knew that we were going to get it done.”

“No doubt in anyone’s minds,” forward Gigi Marvin said. “It was just a matter of how and when.”

The how was Hilary Knight’s equalizer with 6 minutes, 21 seconds left in the third period to force overtime. The when was a shootout after 20 minutes of scoreless overtime, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson scoring in the sudden-death sixth round and goalie Maddie Rooney getting a pad on the ensuing attempt by Canada’s Meghan Agosta.

Rooney looked to her left and swept away the puck spinning just inches from the goal line, then looked to her right and saw the entire U.S. coming over the boards toward her, sticks and helmets in the air, screams echoing across the ice.

Hugs. Tears. Flags. Pictures. Medals. The anthem.

Maybe this all happens anyway. Maybe it was just their time, and shootouts are sport’s coin flip. Maybe it just came up heads.

Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe the difference between this U.S. team and the ones that hadn’t won a gold medal since 1998 – the ones that won when no one was watching and lost when everyone was, the ones that regularly beat Canada at World Championships but had lost six consecutive games on Olympic ice and three finals, the one that blew a 2-0 lead with four minutes to go in Sochi and lost in overtime – was what it did 11 months earlier with the click of a send button.

“It bonded our team,” forward Briana Decker said a few months ago. “It made us unbreakable.”

They had talked about it in the early 2000s. Then Cammi Granato, their captain and their conscience, inexplicably was cut before the 2006 Olympics and the team lost in the semifinals to Sweden, the only time it has failed to reach a final. Lost its nerve.

The next generation of players talked about it but never quite summoned the courage.

But the slights kept building, the inequities, the lack of resources, the absence of youth development for girls, the coach plane tickets when the men were flying business class, the jerseys without “1998,” and last March they decided, finally, enough was enough.

The World Championships started in two weeks in Michigan. The players announced they were boycotting “unless significant progress has been made on the year-long negotiations with USA Hockey over fair wages and equitable support.”

USA Hockey shrugged and started assembling a replacement team.

Captain Meghan Duggan and her teammates tirelessly worked the phones, calling parents and players and coaches and whoever else they could think of, explaining that this was about them as much as the national team, that this was about two decades into the future and not two weeks in March in Plymouth, Michigan. That solidarity was strength.

USA Hockey reportedly found six players.

Three days before their first game, the two sides magically reached an agreement.

The four-year contract was brokered by John Langel, the same Philadelphia attorney who represented the U.S. women’s soccer players in their historic labor fights with a similarly sexist federation. They went from a $1,000 per month stipend in the run-up to an Olympics to salaries of $70,000 per year plus Olympic bonuses, something they didn’t have before, either.

It was about more than money, though. A Women’s High Performance Advisory Group was set up to advance youth development among girls. (USA Hockey has a national development program funded at $3.5 million per year, but for males only.) There are provisions for enhanced promotion and sponsorship as well.

They made the team’s conditions better. They also, unwittingly, made the team better.

Coach Robb Stauber said he sensed the difference immediately last March. Three days after reaching the contact agreement, they beat Canada 2-0 in pool play and then beat them again in the final. There was just something different about them, a purpose, a mission, a unity, a resolve.

Stauber was asked if he was worried, given their Olympic history, after surrendering a pair of quick goals to the Canadians in the second period and trailing 2-1 deep into the third. He shook his head. “Personally,” he said, “I never felt for one minute it wasn’t going to work out. Our players in the locker room, you could just see it.”

For the past year, they each wore a golden key around their necks with a single word engraved on it: FEARLESS.

Now they have something else to wear around their necks.

Never a doubt.

Note

The gold-medal game ended after the deadline for Thursday’s edition of The Spokesman-Review


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