It all goes back to a medal, specifically a silver one. It was the third in four tries, with a bronze thrown in for good measure, all representing a string of Olympic efforts starting in 2002 that had come up short. And it signified the early stages of a culture change for the U.S. women's national hockey team.
The U.S. was just minutes away from that elusive gold in Sochi in 2014, holding a 2-0 lead over rival Canada, with the top of the podium within their grasp for the first time since 1998. Then, disaster happened over 15 minutes of game clock.
Brianne Jenner's shot with 3:27 left ricocheted off the knee of U.S defenseman Kacey Bellamy and floated past goalie Jessie Vetter to cut the deficit to 2-1. Canada pulled its goalie, but forward Kelli Stack's shot toward the empty net from the defensive blue line with 1:30 remaining hit the post—a missed opportunity that reared its head moments later, when Marie-Philip Poulin tied the game from the slot. In a penalty-filled overtime period, it was Poulin who dealt the crushing blow to the Americans' gold medal dreams with a power play goal at 11:50, giving Canada its fourth straight Olympics atop the medal podium.
“It was heartbreaking,” Hilary Knight says of the loss, which extended a U.S. gold medal drought and forced her to settle for a second straight second-place finish at the Games. “That's the best word to describe it. You have to lose to win a silver medal, so that's always the tough thing to wrap your head around. That raw emotion of coming so close and having that lead slip through your fingers in the final minute, to then go into overtime and lose the game that way... it was just gut-wrenching.”
In the months following the collapse, the many veterans on the U.S. team forced themselves to answer some difficult questions about what had happened in that final game in Russia, and what their roles were in it.
“When you come up short of your ultimate goal, what you need to do and what we did, was took time to look ourselves in the mirror,” says Meghan Duggan, the team's captain for the PyeongChang Games, her third Olympic tour. “As individuals, as a team, as a program and just ask ourselves, ‘Why, why did that happen? Why did we not achieve what we wanted to achieve?’"
"Being able to answer those questions over the last three and a half years, at team events or training camps or meeting, has really shaped the culture and the mindset of our locker room and how we show up and go to work every day.”
That culture, cultivated and steeled in the three years following Sochi, was put to the test in March 2017, when the USWNT boycotted the USA Hockey-hosted IIHF World Championships over —among a litany of issues—compensation and development. The team's senior players were swift and precise, sharing a clearly stated message and keeping players in the national team pool and development system on it.
"It sounds silly, but it was one of the best team-building exercises we could have gone through," Knight says. "We obviously, through that process, had to trust one another on a deeper level and there's some vulnerability that you have to put on the table and say this is what we want to accomplish, this is what's at stake. And we were able to go through that process together."
The U.S. women received encouragement from other American and international athletes like U.S. soccer stars Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, Billie Jean King, the NWHLPA, NHLPA and others as they stood their ground, ultimately reaching an agreement with USA Hockey in time to go on an undefeated run at the tournament in Michigan, winning gold at the Worlds for the fourth straight time.
“It's the bond that our team has and how we stuck together,” says Bellamy. “I think the support that we've had, not just in the United States, but around the world, that's going to carry us into the Olympics and it has throughout the year. Our team bond and being able to stick together no matter what, fighting for whatever we believe and whatever one individual believes in.”
That next fight comes in Korea for that evasive Olympic gold, and the veterans know that this is the perfect opportunity to continue to spread their message of change. Only 10 players on the U.S. roster have played in the Olympics before, but all 23 women have a shared experience.
Coming up on 20 years without a first-place finish, a team filled with players who found inspiration in that 1998 U.S. team is acutely aware of what finally achieving that goal can do.
“Everything we fought for in the past, everything we continue to fight for is to grow the game and to enhance the sport in the United States,” Kendall Coyne says ahead of her second Games. “There's no better way to do that than winning a gold medal. Just the impact that will have on our sport and the community as a whole could be pretty surreal. If you look at our team, most of us started playing because of that ‘98 team. We know the effect it can have and that's the goal in the end."
While this is a different team than the one iced in Sochi, both in personnel and style, it's a squad brimming with talent and a sense of unity, eager to put the lessons learned over the past four years to the test. It's a stronger group than ever before, and each and every player knows what they're capable of when they become one.
There will be no settling for silver this around, and there will be no stopping after the PyeongChang Games are over.
"There's no secret behind it: When strong, passionate women get together, they have the ability to change the world," Duggan says. "That's something I can speak for our team. I feel like our team did and will continue to do. It's not gonna stop with what happened last spring."