Yes, this game is big — but it’s not Canada.
That is the unspoken sentiment in the U.S locker room any time we’re not playing our biggest rival.
Every game for Team USA is important, and we don’t take anyone lightly, but our games against Canada are just on a different level. And they’re even more intense when we’re at the Olympics.
Women’s hockey is dominated by two nations, the U.S. and Canada. It’s always a heated matchup and no other nation has ever won a world championship or Olympic gold medal. At the beginning of a tournament the first thing we do is check our schedule, the second is check Canada’s.
Losing the Olympic gold medal game in Vancouver in 2010 was a blow to our confidence, but we still believed in ourselves. At the Sochi Games in 2014, we were so focused on winning, and seemingly in control of our destiny….
The record books show that the U.S. has won seven of the last 10 world championships. But Canada has won Olympic gold every year since 2002.
I wish I could answer that.
Is it as simple as the Canadians finding another level at the Olympics? I don’t think so. We work incredibly hard — including in the gold medal game in Sochi.
We were playing extremely well and winning 1–0 when the third period began. And two minutes in it was 2–0. After every shift, I would take my seat on the bench and look up and check the clock. My legs were aching like we were taking long shifts, but every glance at the scoreboard reminded me how short they actually were. The arena was hot in Sochi, and I felt like I was having a hard time getting air in my lungs.
And then, late in the period, Canada scored.
Our lead was 2–1 with 3½ minutes to go. We were close.
A few of the girls were yelling up and down the bench. “We’re O.K.! Let’s close this out! They have to get another! Let’s do this!” Now you could really feel the weight of the moment in the air. We were still confident — we still believed.
You probably remember what happened next, even if you don’t follow hockey.
The puck bobbled on the stick of a Canadian defenseman at the blue line. There were just 90 seconds to go and Canada had pulled its goalie, which meant that we were playing a lot of defense in our own zone. The referee sort of got in the way of the Canadian player, and I slapped at the wobbling puck — I was just trying to clear the zone.
That’s all I was thinking. It was never a shot.
The puck rolled the length of the ice towards the empty net, Holy s***, this might go in, I thought.
It didn’t. It bounced off the post.
We were that close to finishing off the game. But in the moment you don’t have time to think about things like that. We just kept going.
But of course, 20 seconds later Canada scored. We were tied and on our way to overtime.
Canada went on to win gold. We settled for silver. Again.
After the game, all I wanted to do was be with my teammates. But to get to the locker room I had to go through the media mixed zone. Every reporter, and I mean every single one, pulled out their phones and showed me pictures and videos of how close the puck had come to going in.
Look at this! What were you thinking? Can you believe it? They asked those questions over and over again.
I gave them each the same, simple answer: “I was thinking the same thing you were. And yes, I can believe it. It’s hockey — it happens.”
Nobody really knew what to say in the locker room. A few of the veterans spoke up — Julie Chu talked about how far we’d come and told us to hold our heads high. Some of the younger girls told us how much of an impact the older girls had had on them, and what we meant to them.
It hurt in part because everyone had their own aspirations. But the worst was feeling like you had let down the girls who had been to three or four Olympics and had never won gold.
It took a lot of time after that game for me to decide whether or not I wanted to continue playing. I’m not sure people realize how much goes into each Olympic cycle and the dedication it takes and the sacrifices you have to make. I took a year off after Sochi — and really didn’t know if I had it in me to commit to another four years. But in time, the passion inside me began to take over, and as I talked to my friends and teammates, I realized that I still loved the game and wanted to continue competing. It was around this time last year, at the 2015 Four Nations Cup, that I came back with a big smile on my face. I had a pretty good tournament. I felt rejuvenated and was fortunate enough to be named MVP on the way to Team USA’s first-place finish.
The past year has gone by quickly and we’ve continued to have success at some important international tournaments, including another Four Nations Cup victory a few weeks ago. Now we’ve turned our focus to our next game against Canada, on Saturday, and to the upcoming Women’s world championship, which will be played next spring in Michigan.
Still, the Olympic stage remains our ultimate goal and I have to admit, it’s a unique experience to have your life defined by what happens every four years. It can be very intense and satisfying, but on another level, we’re getting past that.
Our annual events with Team USA showcase the best of women’s hockey, but now we also have the NWHL, which gives players an opportunity to train and compete on a regular basis. Not a lot of girls grow up dreaming of playing in a women’s professional league. Now they have that — they have something to aspire to beyond college and the Olympics.
That’s the way it was for me. I mean, I didn’t even know there was women’s college hockey until I was 14 years old. I just assumed the girls I played with were going on to try and play on men’s teams, because that’s all I knew — I always played with the guys when I was young.
It’s a unique experience to have your life defined by what happens every four years.- Kelli Stack
In Cleveland, where I grew up, there was no youth girls hockey. But I wanted to be just like my older brother, Kevin, who played hockey. So of course I was going to try. I was on roller skates when I was two years old. Very quickly, the game was in my blood.
Since there was no girls hockey, I played on boys travel teams. Trust me, mine wasn’t a regular childhood. Every weekend we were traveling to Canada, Illinois, Michigan or New York to play in these tournaments.
I wanted to quit when I was in the eighth grade. All I wanted to do was kid stuff — birthday parties, field trips, sleepovers.
I went to the director of our hockey program and told him my story and it turned into one of the most important conversations of my life.
“You want to quit?” he said. “You’re the only girl playing at this level. Do you know what that means? You are one of the best female hockey players in the country, and you probably have no idea.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, but I got the message.
I don’t want other young girls to go through that conversation, because they should already know what the game means to them, and where it can take them.
It’s hard to sustain a women’s pro hockey league, but hopefully the NWHL can continue to lay a foundation for something that will take women’s hockey to a new level, and that will give girls something to look up to. In addition to aspiring to the highest honor in the game — of representing the U.S. in the Olympics — I also want girls to attend professional games and think, Not only can I be an Olympian but I can be a professional hockey player one day.
I really enjoy seeing young girls come to our games with their families and wearing our jerseys. That’s one of the reasons we play — to inspire the next generation. So if there’s a little girl in your life, I hope you bring her with you to one of our games.
Just make sure you know where the nearest ice rink is.
She’s going to fall in love with hockey.