Team USA’s women are looking to reclaim their status as Olympic gold medal winners. It won’t be easy. The competition overall has gotten a lot stronger.
In the sixteen years since Team USA won the first ever Olympic women’s ice hockey gold medal in Nagano 1998, women’s national teams – including Finland, Russia and Sweden – have improved enough that a USA-Canada matchup is not inevitable.
Since winning inaugural women’s gold, Team USA has earned silver in 2002, bronze in 2006 and silver in 2010. In each of the last three tournaments Canada has won gold. Team USA lost a tough 2-0 gold medal final against Canada four years ago in Vancouver.
The team is a blend of veteran leaders and younger players who bring enthusiasm and play up-tempo hockey. With a mix of veteran leadership and new faces, Team USA wants to skate away from Sochi with gold and return to the top of the podium.
“We play uptempo hockey and are an incredibly fast team,” said Kelli Stack, who makes her second Olympic appearance. “We like to go to the net, get dirty in the corners but really we pride ourselves on being one of the best defensive teams out there and have great goaltending.”
Coming into these Sochi games, Team USA is ranked first atop the IIHF Women’s World Ranking and won four of the last five IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships.
“There is a little pressure coming in since we’ve not won Olympic gold since 1998,” said Stack. ”But we like to play big games and I think we will rise to the occasion. We’ve done an incredible job of preparing for Sochi and planning for the tournament.”
Eleven veterans return from the Vancouver Winter Olympics to provide the stabilizing depth needed to compete on the World stage. The average age of the team is slightly under 24 and includes two 19-year-olds.
“We are counting on every single skater to play their role,” said Stack of this year’s roster. “If not everybody is working together we won’t win but everyone has commit themselves to this team and wants to win. We’re a close group.”
Along with Stack, returning contributors include Jessi Vetter, Hilary Knight, Kacey Bellamy, Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux. Meghan Duggan also returns and as team captain. Julie Chu is the oldest player at 31 and brings with her a wealth of senior level international competition.
"We are a balanced team of veterans and newcomers,” said Brianna Decker. “The veterans have done a great job of leading. We’re focused on the little things and that’s what our approach has been about.”
The 2014 Olympic squad is a historic one with presence of head coach Katey Stone behind the bench. Stone becomes the first female to lead the Team USA women’s team. Stone is one of the most successful coaches in women’s college hockey. As a college bench boss with Harvard University, Stone coached nine players who would become Olympians, including Chu and Angela Ruggiero.
Team USA has been in medal contention since the 1998 Olympics. There is no reason to believe they won’t be among the favourites here. For Team USA to succeed, they will have to use the early part of the tournament to find combinations that work and hone special teams play. By the medal round, Team USA will have to show they can play to the moment. If they can perform at a high level and improve as the tournament progresses, chances are good for a return to the gold medal game on February 20.
Julie Chu is an iconic member of the team. At 31, she is the oldest player to represent the women’s squad at the Olympics. Chu brings not only experience but also ability and offensive skill. Having won gold at the Olympics and a tested performer on the international stage, Chu will play an important role in keeping the team together and ensuring that new faces on the squad understand the importance of being at the top of their game in a short tournament such as this. Chu paced the American attack in Vancouver with two goals and six points in five games.
Alexandra Carpenter is fast rising as a possible impact player for Team USA in the years to come. Carpenter has been a key performer at the U18 Women’s World Championships, scoring 18 goals over three tournaments. Carpenter was so impressive that she made the U18 team as a 15-year-old. The 19-year-old Carpenter is the daughter of Bobby Carpenter, the first U.S. born hockey player to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and an 18-year NHL veteran. She will undoubtedly be a player to watch. She’s scored at every level she’s played and possesses the skill to believe she will be able to perform at a high level in Sochi.
Amanda Kessel, who will be making her Olympic debut, is one of the best, if not the best players on this team. Kessel’s brother is Toronto Maple Leafs standout Phil, who is a member of the men’s team also competing in Sochi. Amanda was instrumental in leading the Minnesota Golden Gophers to an undefeated season and NCAA title in 2013. Kessel has been dealing with a lower body injury but is expected to be ready in time for the drop of the pucks. Kessel is worth watching to see how effective she will be as her contributions are important to Team USA being successful in Russia.
“Amanda Kessel is one of our best players,” said Decker. “She has the ability to make plays, move the puck well and support the puck carrier. I’ve seen what she can do playing against her in college.”
Brianna Decker, a 22-year-old Wisconsin native, is making her Olympic debut with Team USA. At the 2010 Olympics she was watching the gold medal game at home with some of her University of Wisconsin teammates. Now she’s going to be counted as a pivotal member of the Team USA women’s squad. Among her honours, Decker was the 2012 Patty Kazmaier award winner as the best player in NCAA hockey. At the 2011 Women’s World Championship she was second in tournament scoring with 11 points. Decker is another gifted offensive player on the American side and the Sochi Olympics will introduce her properly on the world stage.