Kelli Stack's gold medal dream alive after Sochi heartbreak, retirement
LONGMEADOW, Mass. — Kelli Stack sits in a Starbucks, peeling open a granola bar after her workout. She breaks it in half, the edges still in the wrapper. She's wearing a soft gray hooded jacket with the Team USA name and emblem embroidered on the left arm, a reminder of what we're here to discuss: her Olympic play and “retirement year,” as some of the forward’s teammates call it.
She laughs when she hears their name for it.
“Why did you decide to retire?” I ask.
Stack looks up from her granola bar, her eye contact unflinching. “2014 wasn't a good year,” she says. “I struggled with the way it ended.”
Struggled. Past tense. Two years later, she has moved on.
Stack spent the 2015-16 season as the highest-paid player in the upstart National Women’s Hockey League, inking a contract with the Connecticut Whale for $25,000. She rarely missed a practice throughout the seven-month season, despite the 10 p.m. start times and living over two hours away from her home rink. Despite her long commute, Stack racked up 22 points (8 goals, 14 assists) and led the team in points-per-game at 1.29 overall, adding another pair of postseason goals.
She also led all players with eight points at the 2015 Four Nations Cup last November as part of the U.S. Women's National Team and scored two goals on nine shots at the IIHF Women's World Championship in April, helping Team USA win gold.
Stack's teammates can't speak more highly of her. They cite her work ethic and dogged determination to win among her best qualities as a teammate. She is always positive, ready to share tips with a player or get in another rep with the weights, marching into the rink in her sweatpants and snapback, in search of a win. “I try to keep the body language positive,” she says with a grin.
What also makes her such a good teammate, however, is what drove her to try to leave the game after her last Olympics.
“I think I was just misjudged from the very start,” Stack states, when asked about the 2014 Olympic team. “I just felt like I was never accepted.”
Off-ice personality clashes meant Stack felt like she was walking on eggshells around the coaching staff much of the time. The staff's college affiliation, headed by Harvard’s Katey Stone, led to the addition of players and staff who Stack suspected weren't the right fit for the national program, and their presence changed the dynamics of the entire team.
“When I look back at the Vancouver Olympic tour,  was probably the most fun I've ever had playing hockey,” she continues. “I compare it to the Sochi year and it should have been way more fun because we were a better team, but it wasn't. Hockey wasn't always the main focus.
“There were a lot of things that didn't really matter that shouldn't have gotten in the way,” she says, citing social media use and the way players dressed as among the factors that created rifts with the coaching staff.
“You knew they were saying one thing about you when you were in the room, and another when you weren’t,” she adds. “We didn't play to our potential all the time, but it wasn't necessarily the players' fault only. It's the whole team. Coaches, everyone. Everyone is responsible.”
The sour feeling between staff and players wasn't helped by their crushing 3–2 overtime loss to Canada in the Olympic gold medal game in Sochi, and Stack bore the brunt of the attention in the media due to her agonizing near miss of what would have been the game-sealing goal.
“To hit the post––that was me––so that was hard,” she says, intent on getting through this part of the conversation. “I wasn't necessarily trying to aim for the net; I was just trying to clear the puck out of the zone as hard as I could. It just happened to go towards the net.
“It could have just as easily went 20 feet to the right of the net,” she says, gesturing. “Went through the ref's legs, went through their D's legs. It wasn't supposed to go in. It just came really close to going in and it didn't. And at the time it didn't matter because we were still up, but after the fact it mattered a lot.
“It was hard to get over the loss and the way we lost. Deep down, I knew we were the better team, and we deserved to win. And to come that close to winning is just absolutely heartbreaking.”
After that, she wasn't even able to decompress with her teammates, and instead had to spend her time talking to reporter after reporter who were intent on speaking with the player who might have won the game for the U.S. if things had gone a hair-to-the-right differently.
“I relived it the second we got off the ice and I had to go through the mix zone. Every single reporter asked me about it,” Stack says. “I didn't get back in the locker room until probably an hour and a half after we got off the ice. That's honestly the worst part. All you want to do is get back in the locker room, be with your teammates and take in what happened.”
Flying back home, where there was nothing to distract her from the silver hung around her neck instead of the gold she knew she should have won, was the capper to a frustrating Olympic campaign. Stack didn't stop reliving the gold medal loss for three months, long after the news cycle had moved on.
“It wasn't fun anymore,” she says of the sport she loves. And with some players taking the year after the Olympics off, Stack decided to do the same.
“I was tired of missing out on weddings or birthdays or graduations or....” she trails off, her point made.
As time went by, Stack kept pushing off her return. First, she decided not to attend an August training camp, instead going to her friend's wedding. Then, when she found out that there was a second camp for Olympians in September, she didn't feel ready to attend. Every three months Team USA general manager Reagan Carey, would check in with her. And every three months Stack still told her no.
That fall was when Stack realized she might not play on the national team again. But without hockey, she was lost.
Hockey was how she defined her day and, to a certain extent, herself. Having played since she was of a young child, the sport gave her work, exercise, entertainment and even a social life. For someone who had spent more than a decade with teammates traveling, eating, training and filling down time, the change was dramatic.
“It was hard not to be part of a team anymore,” she says. “Living where I lived (in a small town in western Massachusetts), I didn't know anyone there besides my boyfriend and his family. I didn't have a best girlfriend I could hang out with now that I had all this free time.
“When you're on a team you're traveling every weekend, you're staying in hotels, you're always with people. Not that I didn't want to always be with my boyfriend.” Stack huffs out a laugh. “But he had his guy friends there and I didn't have anybody, even to go shopping with.”
The isolation was something she hadn't experienced before. On top of which, she had recently purchased a house and was facing mortgage payments. Before she knew it, was looking for a full-time nine-to-five gig, which she found in sales for a hockey equipment store west of Springfield, Mass.
Through it all, Stack remained on the 2014-15 roster of the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women's Hockey League at the request of coach Digit Murphy, who wanted to keep Stack in her back pocket for playoffs. Despite the league not paying its players a salary, Stack agreed, but Blades games were not a priority for her that year. She had stopped working out entirely and played in just two regular-season contests.
Despite all that, Murphy chose her to represent Boston in the 2015 CWHL All-Star Game, a move that continues to baffle Stack to this day.
“I don't know how that [selection] works,” she says. “I felt like I was 45 years old, trying to play with 18-year-olds. I felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb.”
That, however, proved to be a decisive factor. A New Year's resolution to get healthy led Stack back to her previous habits and USA Hockey workouts. So if she was training like an Olympian, why not earn her way back onto the national team?
With a new staff in place and fresh blood coming into the national program, Stack knew she was making the right decision.
“Taking that year off made me realize that a nine-to-five will always be there,” she says. “Playing hockey won't.”
GALLERY: National Women's Hockey League Viewfinder
Right around that time, Stack heard about the NWHL, which promised to pay its players a salary. At first she thought it was too good to be true.
“We had heard about a new paid league since I was still in college,” she says. “And every year it was still, no, we're still going back to the CWHL. Still not getting paid. I was very skeptical that it would actually happen. We wanted to go in a new direction from the CWHL. It was nothing against them. It was just, if we can get paid to play, be in the U.S. and be competitive, why not?“
When it became evident the newly forming league was actually coming to fruition, Stack wanted to join, but still had reservations.
“No one wanted to be the first one to sign; everyone wanted to sign in a group,” she says of her fellow Team USA members. “We didn't want 15 of us to be in one league, 15 of us to be in another. You have strength in numbers. It made it easier for all of us.”
Stack, along with much of the U.S. Women's National Team, signed in early September with NWHL franchises. Her disinterest in turning her life into a brand meant eschewing corporate deals and agent representation, so she did not carry the burden of being the face of the league, but her name still leant it instant credibility.
While the NWHL provided further incentive for Stack to come out of retirement, the league owes much of its first season success to her, her national teammates, and the star power they brought with them. But there were drawbacks, especially for a group of players who live for winning.
“As the season went on it became evident that it was hard to be on a team with people who had to go to work,” Stack says of the salary structure that still required players to augment their incomes. “I don't fault them for that. It's what they had to do. But it's hard to work towards the same goal when I know people aren't working as hard because they can't. I think that's something that held our team back.”
The other part of the problem came in the form of a coach who ran low level practices for the Connecticut Whale during the first half of the season. Stack, who normally turns a deep red when exercising, barely displayed a touch of pink in her cheeks during most practices. She found the sessions to be frustrating, especially with a two-hour drive to and from the rink.
Although the issue was solved when the coach was replaced, the issue of economics remains and will continue to until a women's league can afford to pay its players enough to train and play full time. That is not likely to happen during Stack’s playing career, but the quality of NWHL competition has increased with the signings of Amanda Kessel, Courtney Burke, Amanda Leveille and Lisa Chesson. Though the NWHL faces lawsuits from former investors and rumors of financial issues, the league hopes its second season will be longer, with more skill on display, than its first.
Stack hopes so, too, in large part because she doesn’t see herself returning to the CWHL.
“It would literally be the national team in Boston,” she says, which was exactly what she had hoped to avoid by joining the Whale last season, citing strong competition from Boston, specifically, and a relatively easy commute.
Stack is keeping her options open during the off-season but hopes to re-sign with the NWHL. Although she feels that are improvements to be made, she is happy with her play during the 2015-16 campaign and once again has her eye on Olympic gold.