Angela Ruggiero thinks back to those cold, compact Aqua Wing and Big Hat arenas in Nagano, Japan, where Olympic women's hockey was born 12 years ago, and her memories come in a vivid torrent.
She was only 18 then, the youngest player on the 1998 American team, but as the celebration erupted at the end of the 3-1 victory against Canada in the gold-medal game, the Harvard-bound kid had the clear-headed gumption to skate across the Big Hat rink and retrieve the final puck for her father, who couldn't make the trip to Nagano.
Jenny Schmidgall, meanwhile, was among those leaping into a massive pile of screaming teammates. The Minnesota native was just a few months older than Ruggiero, and neither one had an idea that their lives would remain entwined — all the way to now, as 30-year-old elder stateswomen in their sport.
Their version of Team USA had peaked at the perfect moment in the inaugural Olympic women's hockey tournament. Trailing Canada, a fellow unbeaten team, 4-1 early in the third period of the initial round-robin's last game, the Americans had scored six straight goals to pull out a thrilling 7-4 win, and that momentum carried them through to the gold.
At the time, Ruggiero and Schmidgall didn't think of themselves as pioneers or trailblazers. They weren't making the biggest headlines on a team whose leaders included Cammi Granato and Karyn Bye, though Schmidgall — who later married and since has gone by Jenny Potter — had two goals and five assists in Nagano, including a key goal in that wild comeback against Canada. But in the sport of hockey, where almost everyone (except for backup goaltenders) shares in the ice time, there are no benchwarmers.
All of them had played on boys' teams, in some cases dressing in full gear before going to rinks with inadequate locker-room facilities. It was a male-dominated sport, and the more talented young girls couldn't get decent competition unless they played with and against the boys. So that was how they pushed themselves to the max, physically and mentally.
At the end of that fulfilling Nagano experience, when they stunned world-champion Canada again for the gold medal, the American women instantly knew what that moment meant.
"No matter what we do, there's only one first time," Ruggiero says now, with a wistfulness she can't hide. "You can't duplicate that feeling."
Unfortunately for U.S. women's hockey, they don't know for sure if that's true, because they haven't been able to duplicate winning the gold, either. The program that started from nothing and created that 1998 gold medal has since encountered some less-than-storybook moments. In fact, USA Hockey has essentially started over during the latest four-year cycle, rebuilding the women's operation with new leadership, concepts and strategies.
Everything about the latest women's team has been developing and aiming toward the 2010 Winter Olympics, which start this weekend in Vancouver. But in the challenging world of global competition, there's no wiggle room in pursuing goals. Just the calendar that brings another Winter Games every four years, and a single measuring stick. For these American players, despite Canada having the home-crowd edge and the confidence from winning most of the two national teams' recent head-to-head meetings, anything less than gold will be a failure.
"That's just the way it has to be," Ruggiero says. "We can't expect anything less."
Especially given everything the U.S. women's teams have endured since Nagano.
Disaster struck in 2002 at Salt Lake City, after the Americans outscored their pool-play opponents 27-1 and steamrolled to the gold-medal game, a rematch against Canada. Potter suddenly was slowed by the flu, nothing else went right ... and the U.S. women lost, 3-2, forcing them to settle for the silver and listen tearfully to "O Canada" during the medal ceremony.
"We had been such a dominating team," Potter says. "But then I got sick, and I was on an IV the day before that last game, and when we got on the ice, my pads felt like they weighed 100 pounds.
"But it wasn't just me. The team didn't have it that day, and that was so hard for everyone to take. I always have wondered what might have been different if I had been healthy. But we grew from that, and we tried to learn from it."
Then, in 2006 at Torino, Italy, another nightmare unfolded, this time in the semifinals against Sweden and its goaltender, Kim Martin. Despite outshooting the Swedes 39-17, the Americans couldn't beat Martin from midway through the game to the end, and the result was a 3-2 shootout defeat that prevented the U.S. team from even playing for the gold medal. A consolation victory allowed the Americans to salvage the bronze, but the outcome still shook the USA Hockey kingdom.
"That was such a colossal disappointment," says Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey's executive director from 1993 to 1999 and from 2005 to the present. "We thought we were in good shape, and then all of a sudden we run into a hot goalie, it turns into a shootout and the puck goes in, and we're not even in the gold-medal game."
Suddenly, that gold in Nagano seemed like eons ago.
The math just didn't add up right. Though the U.S. women still had never lost a game in Olympic pool play, they had only one gold to go with a silver and bronze.
"It's been difficult to take," Potter says bitterly.
In other words, you don't make any jokes to Potter and Ruggiero about having a full set of medals.
After 2006, the thought process began to change, and USA Hockey decided it needed a full-time director of U.S. women's hockey. That job was the perfect fit for Michele Amidon, who might have made that 1998 team if not for a slow-healing injury, but wound up a successful college coach at Bowdoin. Since she left to take over the national women's program, USA Hockey has set up a rotation of three established college head coaches (Jackie Barto of Ohio State, Katey Stone of Harvard and Mark Johnson of Wisconsin) for major competitions, with Ben Smith stepping away after being in charge for three Winter Games.
Meanwhile, the rapid development of American women's college hockey has changed the landscape. Today, a whopping 84 colleges have women's teams, including 34 in Division I.
"Now the girls are pushed a lot more," Ruggiero says. "They don't have to stay in the boys' game. College scholarships used to be a trickle, but now they've helped build the player pool tremendously."
Of course, that's true not just for Americans. Many Canadians, Swedes and Finns have found their way into U.S. college programs, enhancing their development. And as far as the Canadians go, when they graduate, they can seamlessly move into a well-developed league for veteran players, one that's open to very few women from other nations.
"They know they can stay in the game," Ruggiero says. "Our players don't have that."
What some Americans do have now, though, is a women's hockey residency program. After defeating Canada at the 2008 world championship, USA Hockey established a compound in Minnesota where nearly 20 older post-college players have been able to live and train together.
"That meant a lot to us," Ruggiero says, "because it helped us build more chemistry, and we could push each other all the time instead of just around tournaments."
"It really helped us take a step forward," Potter adds. "When you're just training by yourself, you can't imitate games and you don't have other players around you, working as hard as they can."
Breaking through again
As 2009 began, the time came for a big decision. Who would be USA Hockey's choice as the Olympic women's head coach?
And yet the decision turned out to be no problem, because the selection committee quickly came to a consensus.
Johnson, who had guided Wisconsin to three NCAA women's championships in four years, brought a pedigree that couldn't be ignored. He had grown up watching and learning from his father, the legendary Bob Johnson, who led the family from Colorado College — Mark learned how to skate at the old Broadmoor World Arena in the mid-1960s — to Wisconsin, then to the National Hockey League. Bob coached the Calgary Flames and Pittsburgh Penguins, leading the latter to a Stanley Cup win in 1991.
Mark became a superb player, starring at Wisconsin before playing a major role with the Miracle on Ice team that won the 1980 Olympic gold at Lake Placid. He continued his career in the NHL before turning to coaching.
"He was the perfect person to take it over at this point in time," Ogrean says, adding that Mark Johnson "knows what it's all about, playing on a national team. And he has such equilibrium — never too high or too low. And where Ben Smith was more of a father figure for those earlier teams, Mark is more of a driver and motivator, and he also clearly tries to make it not about him."
Johnson was announced in early 2009 as the Olympic coach, and last April he guided the national team to its second straight world title, capped by a 4-1 whipping of Canada in the final.
In June, Johnson summoned all the candidates for the Olympic roster, more than 40 of them, to Colorado Springs and the Olympic Training Center for a camp that included demanding physical workouts and evaluations.
"We came here to the training center," Ruggiero says, "and all I could think of was how it was so cool to still be part of this."
Toward the end of their training, Johnson took them to the Manitou Incline. And he ordered everyone to race the grueling mile, and its 2,000-foot elevation gain, to the top.
"A lot of times, athletes think they've worked hard, but that's really not enough," Johnson says. "They look at something like that incline, and they think, 'There's no way I can do that.' But then they find out they can.
"I've told them that this is like preparing for a marathon. It's 26 miles. You don't worry about the first four or five miles. You worry about when you're toward the end, and the lactic acid takes over. You want to quit, but you have to keep pushing. And it's not just the stars, either. At the end, it might be somebody on the third or fourth line who makes the difference."
Johnson, amid his own hockey experiences, had watched the women's frustrations of Salt Lake and Torino.
"We knew we had to find ways to elevate the program," he says. "It's definitely been nice to be able to spend five or six months working with the team. When it's just two weeks before a tournament, you don't really get to see everyone's true colors. But in a situation like we've had, you get to understand who they really are as people, and how they deal with life. You also find out who is the most committed, and those are the ones who make it. It's also a better journey for the team."
At a final training camp in August, Johnson and his staff had 41 players to evaluate, knowing they could only keep 23 for the pre-Olympic tour. (The final cut to 21 came in December.) Johnson would rather not dwell on the emotions that came with having to make many of those decisions.
"Especially those last five to 10 people, when you know what they've put into it and how talented everyone is, you hate taking away their chance," Johnson says. "As my dad used to say when he went through the same thing before the 1976 men's Olympic team, that's when it's not a good day to be a coach."
He's built respect, though, even among the older players who had deep loyalty to Smith.
"Mark says the right things at the right times," Potter says. "He knows when to pull in the reins and when to give us slack."
Ogrean is equally impressed.
"Mark's the right guy for this team," he says. "Like after the game Dec. 12 up at Denver, we'd lost to Canada 4-2, but Mark wasn't upset. He knew that no medals were at stake. He also has teen daughters at home, and he's coached college women through long seasons. His whole challenge is about having the team ready for five games in February, not the exhibitions in November and December."
Canada has won seven of nine against Team USA during the "season" that began in Vancouver with the Canada Cup, a pre-Olympic tuneup on the same ice as the Winter Games. The Americans actually won that final 2-1.
But none of those games mean anything now.
The final mountain
Talk to team leaders, and it's obvious they see something special.
"I look around at the girls in the locker room now, and I know that a lot of them were inspired by that 1998 team," Ruggiero says. "Every team is different, but this is the closest to what it was like with the '98 group. We have veterans, but there's also a newness because many of the players are doing this for the first time, so they bring a fresh attitude. But everyone still goes about their job in a professional way. There's an excitement in the air every day."
Jocelyne Lamoureux, a 20-year-old from Grand Forks, N.D., who made this Olympic roster along with her twin sister Monique, remembers that 1998 team in a different way.
"I'll never forget our mom getting us together in front of the TV set to watch the games in Japan," Lamoureux says. "We were in the second grade. But ever since then, I always wanted to be an Olympian. I didn't care what sport it was, but I'm glad it turned out to be hockey."
The younger players have elevated the women's game, first at the high school and college levels, and now internationally. The tempo is faster, the stick-handling and shot-making naturally more advanced. That's where Johnson helps, implementing what has worked with his Wisconsin teams.
"He makes everything fun," Jocelyne Lamoureux says. "The forwards really like it, because he's always teaching us new tricks for putting the puck in the net. But he also knows how to win."
And now everyone has been together since late summer, training and touring and becoming a tighter-knit group.
"Excitement is starting to set in now." Lamoureux says. "Especially when you see the Olympic commercials on TV."
USA Hockey has helped, feeding superstitions that are such a part of the sport by having the women's team spend its final pre-Olympic days, and play its final exhibition, in Colorado Springs. Twelve years ago, the American women played in one of the first events ever staged at the then-new Colorado Springs World Arena. On Feb. 4, Ruggiero and Potter returned to that same ice with the 2010 team and spent 11 days here before flying to Vancouver.
Beyond these Winter Games, there's no sign of a dropoff. Not with such young standouts as 18-year-old Hilary Knight, the U.S. women's leading scorer during their pre-Olympic schedule, as well as the Lamoureux sisters and other talented newcomers — not counting those who nearly made this team.
"I think our depth will show a lot more, starting next year," Lamoureux says, which means that making the U.S. women's roster will become more difficult than ever before.
The numbers certainly suggest that. Ogrean says in the mid-1990s, as the buildup began toward women's hockey making its Olympic debut, about 20,000 girls were playing hockey in the United States. Now that total is 60,000 and growing.
Obviously, those girls will be mesmerized over the next two weeks, watching their idols on Team USA. And those American players would love nothing more than to thrill them by winning a gold medal, and burying the bad dreams from 2002 and 2006.
"We had such a memorable experience in 1998," Potter says. "But it would be so great if everyone on this team could find out how that feels. That's all we want now. We've taken a huge step forward the last four years. This is the most fun I've ever had on a team.
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