The tears were flowing as freely at one end of the ice as the celebratory beers were at the other.
There may be no crying in baseball, but in Olympic hockey, where women spend four years counting the days until they get another kick at the can, the sting of coming up short can be a bitter pill to swallow.
The Olympic odyssey was over for these 21 women, and the finality of it all was starting to sink in. The journey that began in a training rink in Blaine, Minn., had reached its chilly conclusion in front of a record crowd at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
This was a team that had done everything it could since coming together in August. They had climbed mountains, literally and figuratively, worked hard on and off the ice, won championships and lost nail biters. Through it all they came together as a team, ready to take a run at the gold.
Now it was nothing more than memories for the mental scrapbook. That, coupled with watching the gold medal they coveted being hung around the necks of their archrivals to the north, for the third straight time, turned on the spigots and let the tears flow.
Then, as if ordered by the hockey gods, over the boards popped Jenny Potter’s kids to join in the festivities. There was 8-year-old Maddie, wearing a floppy Uncle Sam hat she sweet-talked off the head of Angela Ruggiero’s sister, and 3-year-old Cullen, who walked the carpet high-fiving mom’s sisters in arms.
The power of a child’s smile provided the perfect remedy to the pain of the moment, and a fitting reminder that what made this team special transcended what took place on the ice. The tears dried in their tracks and smiles gleamed brighter than the silver medals that hung around their necks.
And that was something that the marvelous Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados couldn’t snatch away with her amazing glove hand.
“This is one of the best teams I’ve ever had an opportunity to play for. We all get along, we all enjoy playing with each other,” four-time Olympic veteran Angela Ruggiero said before the gold-medal game.
“We are enjoying the moment and have just loved being part of the Olympics. We were sad today that it was our last practice. We love hockey right now.”
The run up to the gold-medal game posed more questions about the future stability of women’s hockey as an Olympic sport as the U.S. and Canada ran roughshod over the competition on their road to destiny.
The Americans outscored their opponents by a combined score of 40-2, while the Canadians were equally impressive, blasting through the field 46-2, including an 18-0 whitewashing of Slovakia, the largest margin of victory in women’s Olympic hockey history.
“There is a discrepancy there, everyone agrees with that,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said on the eve of the gold-medal game.
“This is maybe the investment period in women’s ice hockey. I would personally give them more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement. We cannot continue without improvement.”
As unspectacular as the preliminary round games may have been, the gold-medal game showed the world, and the record crowd of 16,805, women’s hockey at its best. The end-to-end action kept the fans on the edge of their seats as the teams battled for 60 minutes. Every inch of ice was fought for, every shot was contested, every scoring chance earned.
U.S. goaltender Jessie Vetter, who got the better of the Canadians in the last two IIHF World Championships, was on top of her game. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old phenom tending goal for Canada was impenetrable.
“I have to take my hat off to Shannon Szabados because she played unbelievable,” two-time Olympian Caitlin Cahow said of the Canadian’s 29-save shutout performance. “Some of the saves she made I already had my arms in the air but she came up with the puck.”
After watching the Canadians celebrate on their home ice in 2002, the Americans couldn’t return the favor this time. Still, it was a celebration of women’s hockey as local fans joined their red, white and blue-clad outnumbered counterparts in cheering the American effort.
“It was a pretty special environment that we had an opportunity to play in front of,” said Julie Chu, who will take some time to contemplate her future after competing in her third Olympics.
“It’s tough when you lose a game, but the crowd’s reaction at the end of chanting U-S-A was pretty special, so you can put that in perspective and be appreciative to be a part of this game and winning a silver medal.”
That appreciation is part of the process that head coach Mark Johnson talked about every step of the way. Not just the appreciation for winning an Olympic medal of any color, but living in the moment, peaking at the right time and coming to the rink every day with a smile on their faces.
And as usual, the 52-year-old coach led by example.
“He comes to the rink with a smile, and I think that’s contagious,” Ruggiero said. “We come to the rink for the joy of the sport and we love being out there. It’s great when you can have a coach with the enthusiasm and the love of the game. It naturally passes on to the players.”
Only time will tell if the baton will be passed to the next generation of women’s players. Just as the gold-medal run in 1998 inspired a new group of girls to dream their Olympic dream, including Hilary Knight, Erika Lawler and the Lamoureux sisters who were among the 15 players making their Olympic debuts in Vancouver, this group of players will be the wind beneath the wings of tomorrow’s stars.
“The end result is that we’ve exposed our sport to a lot of areas around North America and hopefully in the next six months we’ll see a lot more young ladies coming to the rink,” said Johnson, who returns to his coaching duties at the University of Wisconsin.
“That puts a big smile on my face.”