Former Gophers Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt helped Team USA capture its first Olympic gold medal since 1998. Photo: Susan McPherson
Over the past three weeks, my work for KARE 11-TV took me to the winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. I had the chance to watch a LOT of Olympic hockey, both the men and the women. Both tournaments were good and exciting to watch. However, I came away with a few, of what I believe are, undeniable truths.
1. The NHL players will be back in the next Olympic Games. That’s not because Team USA didn’t have a good showing, but rather because men’s hockey didn’t have a very good showing. Other than the gold medal game, which was quite exciting, the caliber of play was just not very crisp. Eventually, Team USA looked like a cohesive unit, but it took too long and was eventually too late. The error was in the amount of time they were given, not in the evaluation of their talent. In fact, they were just one shootout away from moving on. (I’d normally take some time here to talk about why shootouts are a terrible way to end a hockey game, but … Team USA women. That’s all.)
2. USA Hockey should have scoured the college ranks for more players. It’s not that we didn’t love some of the storylines – Brian Gionta’s last run for glory (or at least it was his last before signing with the Bruins this week) or former Gopher Ryan Stoa who told me he’d never even thought about playing in the Olympics before last summer. Those sentimental tales were great for journalists like me, but they don’t win hockey games.
However, guys like Ryan Donato (who led Team USA with five goals), Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway do win games and there should have been more like them. There are many players out there in the NCAA who could have made an enormous difference. What if they could have had Casey Mittelstadt, Kieffer Bellows, Brady Tkachuk or Riley Tufte?
Please don’t give me the size or age argument because every other team in the tournament dealt with the same thing, except maybe the Olympic Athletes from Russia. Garrett Roe of Team USA said it best and so many others reiterated it: People thought the young guys weren’t going to be able to carry their own weight and they ended up carrying the whole team.
3. The Team USA women were truly the stars of the Games. I attended or watched nearly every single U.S. women’s hockey game at the Olympics. They were remarkable.
Robb Stauber should have a statue put up in his honor. His system of letting the players have freedom within his offense system worked perfectly. Team USA was in perfect sync when the games started. Other than narrowly beating Finland in their first game and their prelims loss to Canada, the women’s team was very sharp. It was obvious that they had worked tirelessly to perfect their game.
Goaltender Maddie Rooney was outstanding in every game she played, and in the moments that she wasn’t, her team helped her greatly. Because that is what good teams do.
In the last moments of the gold medal game I, like the rest of the U.S., was stressed. But I just had a feeling that this was their moment. As one player told me, “When Gigi Marvin scored while falling, I knew that we had this.” At one point in the shootout, Rooney had a huge smile on her face – she’d go on to say that she also knew that this was their time.
I can’t quite explain the happiness I felt in seeing these young women full of jubilation and joy as they strolled through the mixed zone after the game. It was such a stark contrast to four years ago when the guttural screams of disappointment echoed throughout the cavernous basement of the venue in Sochi. But Marvin put it best when she walked up to me, with a smile from ear to ear, following her gold medal win: “This is already a better interview than four years ago.”
Also, let’s not forget where we are in the world of women’s sports. The U.S. women’s team had a battle, which they ultimately won, with USA Hockey to receive better, more equal wages as they train to represent the U.S. at various international competitions. In return, they won both the world championships last year and the Olympics this year. It’s no coincidence that girls’ youth hockey numbers are up in this country when you look at the success of Team USA over the course of the last 20 years. And with this most recent gold medal, that is sure to increase.
Regardless of the end results, good and bad, it was a pleasure and an honor to watch Olympic hockey. Like it does every four years, it reminds us of just how much fun it is to be a member of Team USA as they take the ice.