While the NHL labored well into overtime to decide whether their players would participate in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, there was no doubt the best women in the world will be in Sochi next February. One matter left to some chance, however, was just how Team USA’s top post-graduate women would prepare for the challenge.
For Olympic hopefuls in college programs, playing at a high level every day comes naturally. But if you’re a college graduate dreaming of Olympic gold in women’s ice hockey, preparation doesn’t come by accident. Or easily.
And while Team USA veteran Julie Chu goes to greater lengths than most – driving thousands of miles each winter between her day job as an assistant coach at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., to play games for Montreal in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League – USA Hockey is trying to bridge the gap with another bold initiative for the Women’s National Team.
Down along a chain of winding roads 20 miles northwest of Boston, this past winter’s Wednesdays were reserved for a training camp that might reasonably have been called Team USA East. Skating at The Edge in Bedford, Mass., the Team USA oasis gave a dozen or so players on the Olympic radar a place to practice under the guidance of the exceptional coaching and support staff.
“USA Hockey is continuing to push the envelope to provide more resources,” said Reagan Carey, director of Women’s Hockey. “We said to the player pool that we’re going to go out there and find who’s the best in each field and bring that to the group. And, in return, we’re expecting them to bring the best that they have.”
On a mid-February special weekend session, which USA Hockey occasionally arranged to expand the group, assistant coaches Hilary Witt and Bobby Jay, goalie coach Robb Stauber and skill development coach Kenny McCudden ran practice.
An onlooker who couldn’t help but notice the U-S-A on the players’ jerseys – and the elite skating and puck skills that continue to raise the bar in women’s hockey – wondered, with some awe in his voice, just what he was seeing.
To some degree, the answer was simple: The future. From this group will come the next wave of veterans that will lead Team USA’s women into Sochi.
“We've made great strides, but we know that we have a lot more work to do.”
Wednesday regulars Kacey Bellamy, Caitlin Cahow, Meghan Duggan, Molly Schaus, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin, Karen Thatcher, Anne Schleper, Kelly Steadman and Jen Schoullis, all of whom were living near Beantown while playing for the Boston Blades in the CWHL, were in attendance. They were joined by Sarah Erickson, Brianne McLaughlin and Jessie Vetter.
Only a few years ago, Knight was the youngest player on the Team USA roster in Vancouver, and, one “quad” later, finds herself in a very different spot.
“Moving out here was a big step,” said Knight, a California native who moved to Illinois as a kid, attended prep school in Connecticut, and played four years at the University of Wisconsin.
“USA Hockey has done a great job giving us practice time here. It’s all coming together, and I’m really happy most of the girls out of college ended up moving here.”
As hectic as life can be for the Massachusetts-based players – with twice-weekly practices and a 24-game Blades season, frequent off-ice workouts with trainer Mike Boyle and weekly commutes out to The Edge – there is an inescapable reality threaded through it all: The golden road to Sochi begins here and now.
“Every day, I come in and I know that’s where I want to be, on the ice in the gold-medal game,” said Knight, who added matter-of-factly that she wanted to be the best player in the world and to become a household name.
“The famous quote we have is that the Olympics aren’t every four years, they’re every day.”
And even if the Olympics were more than 300 days away at the time, playing in them was never far from players’ minds. Each of these hopefuls has put what Vetter called “big kid” jobs on hold, and they understand they've been given great gifts. USA Hockey considers this group among its best and brightest, deserving and capable of accepting the challenge of great expectations.
“This team is training to become gold medalists,” said Marvin, who grew up as part of a legendary hockey family in Warroad, Minn., and played for Team USA in Vancouver.
“There’s such a level of commitment and dedication to being the best at your craft and not being satisfied. Skills have improved, and there’s a reason for that. It’s just remarkable, the talent. But, also, there’s so much more to accomplish.”
Soon, the Games will become the sole focus for Team USA’s hopefuls, whose next test after the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championship will arrive in the form of trying out for the team coach Katey Stone will take to Sochi. That challenge begins this summer in Lake Placid, N.Y.
In other words, crunch time is coming.
“Everyone knows that it’s right around the corner,” said Chu, who is gunning for a spot on her fourth U.S. Olympic Team. “We’ve made great strides, but we know that we have a lot more work to do.”
USA Hockey, which hasn’t won a gold medal since 1998, hopes that getting a Team USA core together on a regular basis can only help pave the way.
“My dream and goal in life was to go to the Olympics,” said Bellamy, who wore the red, white and blue in Vancouver. “I was there, and that was amazing, but now I want to win a gold medal.”
James MacDonald is a freelance writer based in Sandwich, Mass.
Photos By Images on Ice