- Nobody cheered harder for the 2018 U.S. Women's Hockey team than the 1998 squad. On and off the ice.
The text messages were flying fast and furious, back and forth across the globe. In the NBC Sports booth at the Gangeung Ice Arena in South Korea, analyst A.J. Mleczko couldn't resist getting in on the fun, despite being on a live broadcast of the women's hockey gold medal matchup between the U.S. and Canada—and it didn't go unnoticed.
“I know you were checking your phone between periods," play-by-play man Kenny Albert noted around the halfway point of the game's thrilling overtime period. "The entire 1998 gold-medal-winning team is on a group text and they have been texting throughout this entire game.”
“They are on pins and needles here,” Mleczko replied.
It didn't matter that the Nagano team, on which Mleczko was a forward, had been there before. Much like the other 3.7 million people who stayed up until the early morning hours to watch the women's hockey finale, the entire '98 crew was on the edge of their seats, texting and tweeting their emotions and marveling at the latest chapter of an intense rivalry they are a part of.
Estimates vary between those in the text group—named 'The Olympians,' of course—but the final message tally is somewhere in the 400-plus range.
“It was just busy, lots going on, lots of little side comments,” '98 team captain Cammi Granato said, “and everyone was generally excited and sharing the moment of what's happening. Everyone was obviously right into it.”
“I couldn't even read the texts as they were coming in,” said forward Alana Blahoski. "I was glued to the screen.”
As much as the 2018 team spoke about being inspired by its lone gold-winning predecessor, the '98 team was affected by the one coming 20 years after it. Many of the Nagano players watched the current USWNT closely over the past year as its players worked for better compensation and security for the future.
"They accomplished so much. That was as big as a medal for what they did for women's hockey, if not bigger," Granato said. The Hall of Fame forward who tried to lead a similar charge shortly after the '98 Games, played a role in the 2017 boycott, providing some help and guidance. "I sat with them for a couple of hours one night and we talked and they had a lot of questions and you could tell they were so eager to get any information that would help them become successful."
"It's unbelievable what they accomplished as a group," defenseman Chris Bailey said. "The 2018 team is unbelievable that they were able to capture the gold medal—I'm so proud of them—but I'm almost even more inspired by them because they were able to get their group together and do something that we were never able to do."
Perhaps more impressive to the '98 team members was the USWNT's accomplishments coming in an age with so much more attention and distractions surrounding it.
"So much has changed in 20 years," said Colleen Coyne, a blueliner on the Nagano team. "They were dealing with a lot of things that we didn't have to, when it came to social media and exposure and distraction, that we didn't have, that they had to learn to handle."
Coyne, an Android user, missed out on her teammates' iPhone-based group, but made sure her voice was heard during the game on Twitter. She sent some notes to Mleczko and interacted with others who were also watching.
“I thought it was neat that athletes from all sports, from all levels of sports, were following along and certainly were congratulating them afterward,” she said. “It's fun for me to see the sport get that type of attention because it's such a great game and it's a difficult market to be in in sports.”
"We truly believed no one watched or cared," Blahoski said. "There was no social media, there were no expectations because it was the first time it was a medal sport in the Olympics. For us it's not even that we were naive... there was almost like an innocence to it. We wanted to win, but we didn't have the outside pressure of everyone expecting us to win."
Twenty years later, the U.S. brought a gold-or-bust mentality to PyeongChang, carrying a swagger and confidence that showed throughout the Games. It served the Americans well, including while they trailed in the final period of the gold medal finale, but did little to belay the anxieties of some of their biggest fans.
"I was standing on top of my coffee table at one point because I couldn't sit down," Granato said with a laugh.
Monique Lamoureux-Davidson's goal evened the score in the third and a feisty, action-packed overtime only amped up the excitement before Jocelyne Lamoureux-Morando's sixth-round shootout goal put the U.S. in position to take the gold.
"That goal Lamoureux scored was sick," Bailey said of the eventual winner.
While not everyone was a fan of the shootout deciding the gold medal game, the '98 team members all pointed to rookie goalie Maddie Rooney as a true star.
"I thought Rooney stopping Agosta to win it all was so apropos because she had been, in my opinion, the story of that game," Bailey said. "She kind of was the story of the team for the Games in some way or another, but there were a lot of other great things about that group of players."
"I watched her in the beginning of the third period and she was at the top of her crease and that's a sign: She was confident," Granato said. "She made herself bigger instead of smaller. I thought that was, for a young kid, pretty awesome. There was one moment when she smiled in the middle of the shootout. She was smiling. I thought, wow, that's awesome. You could easily be petrified, she wasn't. I think that deserves mention because you need your goalie to be strong."
As the high-tempo and nerve-inducing game came to a close, the Nagano team members also got to watch Angela Ruggiero, a defenseman on the '98 squad, put the medals around the necks of the winners.
"It was really, really cool to see that connection, especially this time around," Granato said. "Her handing out the gold to the American players is almost like the passing of the torch in a way."
For a team that was so important to the growth of the game—just ask the most recent gold medal winners—it's exciting to see the generation that followed take up the mantle for the next one.
“When you think back to being 26 years old and playing for the gold medal with that group of people," Bailey said, "I don't think I realized at that time the influence I would have on the game and the country and probably across the world. Looking back like 20 years past, it's amazing to know that these kids are out there skating... you get to see it coming full circle. Now you're 20 years post and its not statistics, it's human stories. That's amazing. It's really cool to be a part of."