After backstopping the University of Wisconsin to three NCAA titles and the U.S. Women’s National Team to back-to-back IIHF Women’s World Championships, Jessie Vetter knows a thing or two about staring down opposing shooters.
When it comes to the Olympic experience, the Cottage Grove, Wis., native doesn’t have a clue.
That’s why Vetter is leaning on her teammates to learn what life will be like in the Olympic Village, the thrill of marching into the opening ceremonies and the experience of competing on the biggest stage inwomen’s hockey.
“There will definitely be nerves, but I think there will bemore excitement just because I’ll be there in the net. I’ll be looking around seeing all the Olympic symbols and thinking, ‘Wow, I made it to the Olympics and I’m here with my teammates wearing the USA jersey,’” Vetter said. “It will definitely be a special moment.”
And she won’t be alone. Among the 21 women chosen to wear the red, white and blue, 15 will be skating on Olympic ice for the first time, including some players whose hockey dreams took root after watching the U.S. women win the first Olympic gold medal in 1998.
“I remember watching Angela [Ruggiero] and Jenny Potter in the Olympics,” recalled Jocelyne Lamoureux, who along with her twin sister Monique will make their Olympic debut in Vancouver.
“I was in the second grade, and that’s when the dream set in and became a reality. I remember watching and thinking that that could be me someday.”
That day is quickly approaching, and Lamoureux wants to be ready. That’s why she has spent the better part of the fall tour peppering Olympic veterans with questions about what to expect when the team arrives in Vancouver in early February.
“With experience you can help some of the younger players who haven’t been there and help them understand the atmosphere of being at the Olympics and the level of play there,” said Potter, who will be competing in her fourth Olympics.
“They pick our brains sometimes, asking us what the village is like or the crowds are like. I think if they hear about it they’ll have a bit of an idea and they won’t be so overwhelmed once they get there.”
While lacking in Olympic experience, this group won’t be overwhelmed when they hit the ice against China on Feb. 14 at the UBC Thunderbird Arena.
This will be Potter and Ruggiero’s fourth Olympics, followed by Julie Chu and Natalie Darwitz, who will be making their third appearance, and Caitlin Cahow and Molly Engstrom, who were both on the bronze medal squad in 2006.
Still, there’s a big difference between Olympic experience and international experience.
This team features 16 players who were part of the U.S.Women’s National Team that won back-to-back IIHF World Women’s Championships, and the Hockey Canada Cup in September.
“I like the makeup of our veteran players who have been in multiple Olympics. And there are a lot of young players, which I think is going to help us in the long run,” said U.S. Head Coach Mark Johnson, who knows a thing or two about competing on Olympic ice.
“When you have young players you have that energy and excitement. There’s also a little bit of naïveté because they haven’t been down this path before. I think with the mix of veterans, and even the younger players who have had the opportunity to play in past world championships and had success in those, that’s going to help themindividually.”
One thing that won’t be foreign to Johnson’s forces will be the play of the Americans’ chief rival, two-time Olympic champion Canada. The two countries have crossed paths 10 times on the road to Vancouver. While the Canadians hold a decisive edge, 7-3-0, Ruggiero will tell you that what happens leading up to the Games doesn’t mean much once the Olympic puck drops.
“I remember in 1998 we were dead even heading into Nagano, and we ended up on top,” said Ruggiero, who was the youngest player on the U.S. Women’s Team that won gold in Japan.
“The next [Olympiad] we were 8-0 against [Canada] and ended up in second. In Torino we didn’t get a chance to see them. So as far as the record goes, it really doesn’t matter. It matters who shows up in February.”
Another area in which experience will be a factor is avoiding the pitfalls of looking too far ahead to a potential gold-medal rematch. Such upsets, while rare in women’s international tournaments, do happen as it did when Sweden shocked the Americans in a semifinal shootout in Torino.
“Our team has experience in dealing with losses to both Sweden and Finland. That’s why our mentality really is to take it one game at a time,” Ruggiero said.
That cliché has become the mantra for this team. Johnson has played and coached in enough games to understand that it’s not how you start but how you finish that really matters.
“We don’t like to lose, but the process of developing a team is to make sure that you’re playing your best hockey at the right time and give yourself an opportunity to win a championship,” Johnson said.
“It’s like running a marathon. We’re in the middle of it right now and you can see the end because we’re getting close to opening ceremonies. But we still have work to do.
“This last phase is going to be themost challenging, the most difficult and the most demanding. But when we get off that plane in Vancouver we’re going to be prepared and we’re going to be ready to go.”