Golden Legacy

As The 1998 U.S. Women’s Team Celebrates The 25th Anniversary Of Winning Olympic Gold, Their Accomplishments Off The Ice Propel The Game Forward

 

It’s a tale of two of the greatest moments in USA Hockey history wrapped by a common symbol. 

In one frame stands Jim Craig at center ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., after winning Olympic gold in 1980 searching for his father while clutching an American flag. 

Halfway around the world and 18 years into the future, Karyn Bye wraps herself in the Stars & Stripes as she triumphantly skates around the Olympic ice inside the Big Hat arena in Nagano, Japan. 

The U.S. had just won the first gold medal in women’s Olympic hockey history and the River Falls, Wis., native was in a rush to celebrate with her teammates.

“I needed that flag around me because 20 members of this team represent this country, and I’m so proud to be an American,” Bye said shortly after the celebration shifted gears from center ice to an auditorium where the U.S. women would finally get their moment in the media spotlight. 

“I don’t know if it’s sank in yet, but I guess we’re making history right now.”

Little did Bye or her teammates know in that moment that the group’s gold medal in Nagano was only the beginning of its impact on the game for future generations of girls and women. 

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, USA Hockey Magazine caught up with several members of the 1998 team to get their thoughts on what their historic accomplishments on the ice and their achievements in the years since have meant to them and thousands of young girls across the country.

There’s No Disguising Talent

Like many of her teammates, Karyn Bye grew up playing hockey with boys’ teams. And similar to many other girls, she had to conceal her sex to avoid ridicule from parents and opposing teams.

“I put my initials in the program as K.L. Bye so that they didn’t really know there was a girl on the team,” recalled Bye, whose Olympic teammates still refer to as K.L. “I think Stephanie O’Sullivan went as Steven and Kelly O’Leary was known as Kevin. We kind of went under the radar and played as ‘boys’ so we could play. Nowadays girls don’t have to do that, which I absolutely love.”

Bye and her teammates are proud of what they’ve done to make things better for the next generation of female players. That started for many when they watched that first gold-medal hockey game.

“There were a lot of people who had no idea women’s ice hockey existed, especially at that level. All of a sudden they turned on the TV at the Olympics and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, women’s ice hockey, and they’re pretty good,” recalls Bye.

“That was a huge eye-opener, and it validated girls can play hockey because there were a lot of girls back then who wanted to play hockey and their parents or their local association wouldn’t let them.”

A Win For The Ages

There are times when Colleen Coyne can’t believe it’s been 25 years since she and her teammates cried joyful tears as they lined up on the blueline to receive the first Olympic gold medal in women’s ice hockey. But then she thinks about how far life has taken each of them personally with families, careers and how far the game has progressed. Then it feels like an eternity.

“That’s the coolest part of it all, because we didn’t see it coming,” recalls Coyne, who is in her second season as the president of the Boston Pride of the Premier Hockey Federation. “We were just doing our thing, playing the game that we love, trying to compete and win, and staying focused on that without any thought of what will this lead to or what impact could this have. 

“Then obviously you look at the USA Hockey registration numbers, and after we came home with that gold medal you saw them take off.”

Those USA Hockey registration numbers show the growth of the women’s game over the past two and a half decades. Prior to winning Olympic gold, there were 28,346 female participants in the U.S. Every year since has seen an uptick in the number of females playing the game, including 87,971 during the 2021-22 season.

More than just the numbers, Coyne saw it with her own eyes when she walked back into a rink back home in Massachusetts.

“My most vivid memories are what it felt like the first time that I walked into a rink that was hosting a youth girls hockey tournament,” says Coyne. “I remember walking in and seeing girls with hockey bags and uniforms, which was something that none of us on that team had the opportunity to do at their age. 

“That was when it really kind of hit me, ‘Wow, that’s the impact. That’s the legacy.’”

 

When Quality Meets Quantity 

Shelley Looney has had a front row seat to see that legacy in action. In fact, she’s played a pivotal role in helping it flourish.

Even before she hung up her competitive skates, the Trenton, Mich., native launched a coaching career that has impacted boys and girls at various levels. Looney, head coach of the Lindenwood University women’s hockey team, says those rising registration numbers tell only part of the story.

“It’s amazing where the talent level is today, not only at the top level but in youth hockey,” said Looney. “The women’s game has evolved, and it’s really picked up at the highest level, just the speed and their ability to handle the puck and see the game. I would look back and watch our game and it’s kind of funny how much it has changed.”

Looney’s impact on the game extends to the U.S. Women’s Team program where she has served as the head coach for two World University Games teams, several women’s select teams and as the chief evaluator and coaching director for USA Hockey Player Development Camps. 

“I’m just happy that the game has grown the way it has and that girls have female athletes to look up to,” said Looney. “When I was growing up, we idolized NHL players, now they have female professional players to look up to.”

Talk Isn’t Cheap For Trailblazing Broadcaster

AJ Mleczko’s teammates like to joke she found the perfect job to stay connected to the game. 

“My teammates give me a hard time because I love to talk so I got a job where they pay me to talk,” Mleczko laughed prior to a New York Islanders broadcast for the MSG Networks.

Mleczko’s broadcasting resume rivals what she did on the ice during her illustrious playing career. She has covered five Olympic Games, including the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, where she called Team USA’s dramatic shootout victory in the gold-medal game.

“I can’t describe the feeling of excitement and the pride, and I hate to say a little bit of relief,” she recalled. “We are unbiased broadcasters, but in that moment, it was just red, white and blue pride.”

Sharing her love/knowledge of the game is more than just a labor of love for the trailblazer.. In 2018, Mleczko became the first woman to work as an in-booth analyst for an NHL postseason game, and she is proud to pave the way for other females to step in front of the camera.

“Being one of the first and few women in this job has been a privilege. It’s something that I don’t take for granted and I don’t take it lightly,” said Mleczko. “But at the end of the day, I also know the pressure I feel is a good pressure. It motivates me to work harder and be better so that the next generation of women coming along has a better opportunity than I had. They can walk through the door that I left open and blow what I’ve done out of the water.”

Carrying The Coaching Mantle Forward

The apple doesn’t fall far from the coaching tree. Just ask Katie King. 

The head coach of the Boston College women’s hockey team will be on the ice for practice when a familiar command will spring forward and echo across the ice, prompting a curious glance from assistant coach Courtney Kennedy, who was King’s teammate on the 2002 U.S. team.

“Be a good receiver,” the three-time Olympian will shout before realizing it was one of the many coaching cliches she learned from Ben Smith, her Olympic coach in Nagano. 

Smithisms are what King and her teammates would call their coach’s homespun New England sayings. The impact the iconic coach had on King as a player, and now a college coach in her 16th season, can’t be understated. 

“Coach Smith was my coach for almost 10 years, so we’ve been through a lot with him leading us,” said King.

“I thought he was tremendous. I’m still close with Coach and have conversations with him occasionally about the team or different things.”

Now it’s King’s turn to pay it forward to her players and other female coaches. For a little girl who grew up dreaming of being an NHL player, she is happy to see how far women can go.

“It’s been awesome to see that growth,” said the Salem, N.H., native. “Not only do you have a chance to be a coach or whatnot, but you can work in all different levels, whether it’s the NHL or the PHF or the PWPHA. There’s so many different avenues that you can go within hockey if you don’t want to be a coach.”

Passing The Torch To The Next Generation

Not long after retiring in 2011, Angela Ruggiero channeled the passion and intensity she demonstrated on the ice as a four-time Olympian to push for change at home and abroad as a member of the International Olympic Committee’s executive committee and as the former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation

Ruggiero continues to change the landscape for women’s sports as the co-founder and CEO of Sports Innovation Lab, a Boston-based market research company, but one of her proudest moments was serving as an IOC representative during the medals ceremony for women’s ice hockey at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang.

As the crowd struggled to catch its collective breath after Team USA’s dramatic shootout victory over Canada, Ruggiero marched onto the ice to award the United States its first gold medal in 20 years.

It was a passing of the Olympic torch, so to speak, as a new generation of young girls and boys had new hockey heroes to look up to.

“I felt like things had come full circle,” recalled Ruggiero. “I knew what was about to happen for these players that their lives would be different, the impact they would make on American hockey and women's hockey in general. Just having a new generation of young women to look up to them as opposed to referencing the ‘98 team. That's just the natural course of life.”

Even in her official IOC capacity, Ruggiero struggled to contain her pride for a group of players who grew up idolizing her.

“To be able to hand that medal out and see that flag being raised, part of me was getting to relive what I got to do 20 years prior. That was really special for me,” concluded Ruggiero. “But this was their moment. This was their opportunity. 

“Now they’re the ones that are bearing the flag for USA Hockey and women’s hockey in general.”

Issue: 
2023-03

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