Championship culture
by Lucas Aykroyd|30 AUG 2021
For the defending champion Americans, the camaraderie and cohesion between youngsters like Grace Zumwinkle (#13) and veterans like Brianna Decker (#14) is a big part of their winning formula.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The numbers tell an apparently simple story. After the U.S. lost its last group stage game 5-1 to archrival Canada at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, the defending champions redoubled their efforts and walloped Japan 10-2 in Saturday's quarter-finals. Talk about the perfect way to bounce back after a 29-game winning streak ended.

Talent, training, size, depth at every position – on the surface, it all seems quite obvious why the Americans are back on track heading into their semi-final clash with Finland as they gun for a six-peat in Calgary.

However, a team doesn’t just get this good out of the blue. It takes a concerted, multi-pronged effort – on and off the ice – to ensure players are at their best, not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and socially. That is a huge part of building a championship culture.

It’s especially true when those players are experiencing the strain of the global pandemic with health concerns and frequent isolation. Not to mention the in-limbo status of pro women’s hockey in North America and the cancellations and postponements of Women’s Worlds over the last two years, with the 2022 Beijing Olympics right around the corner.

In the current environment, players interact in video meetings and have “check-in buddies” throughout the day. Having a national team mental performance coach is also beneficial.

“We've got a staff member, Dr. Aimee Kimball, who's checking in with us virtually and was with us in the pre-camp,” said U.S. coach Joel Johnson. “Her focus is to make sure we're on the right page collectively as a group. I think that the quarantine has been frustrating for everybody. Whether you're in the US or Canada, it's been a challenge to try to make sure that we're staying together, staying connected, staying healthy, staying safe.”

“All of these things are a really big challenge,” Johnson continued. “But I give a lot of credit to our staff as a whole and within the USA Hockey program. I think our players have felt as normal as they can be, and have also been able to embrace some of the weirdness and say, 'Hey, this is what it is. We're not going to try to hide from it. We're not going to run from it. We're going to embrace it and make the best of it.'”

Embracing young players is another critical part of a winning formula. All the top teams are in transition to some degree in Calgary. The U.S. brought 10 Women’s Worlds rookies into the bubble, while Canada and Finland have eight apiece.

Certainly, the accepting, welcoming attitude from the veteran U.S. leaders has enabled their newcomers to flourish, from 22-year-old forward Grace Zumwinkle, who is tied with Hilary Knight for the team scoring lead (4+2=6), to 18-year-old defender Caroline Harvey, who is averaging 19:44 a game alongside Lee Stecklein and racked up three points versus Japan.
“To be able to have this young talent step in and just own the ice is something that is special about our group,” said Knight, who has surpassed the great Cammi Granato to become both the all-time Women’s Worlds goals leader (47) and U.S. points leader (80). “When you see Grace Zumwinkle wind up with the puck, it's a great thing to see, because she's got that confidence and tenacity to go hunt pucks. It's all down the line for every younger player. It's funny: you wouldn’t know it's their first World Championship for many of the newcomers to our team.”

“We have such a special group,” added linemate Brianna Decker, now the all-time leader in U.S. assists (40). “The energy, it's fun. We have youth, we have veteran players. But every night our job is to go out there and win a game. Everyone plays their role and everyone steps up into the certain situations when we need them. So that's one thing that I admire about our group. It's a team effort.”

Also, it’s not just about everyone magically coming together as a well-oiled machine on game day. It’s about the habits that are modelled both during training and away from the rink, fostering a humble confidence that trickles down from veterans to youngsters.

Johnson described the scene at the end of a recent practice: “Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker, they're picking up pucks at the end of the day, throwing them in the bucket. And that's a huge testament to our younger players that ‘This is how we do things. We're going to be servant leaders, we're going to buy into what we're doing together.’ And that's what we get from that older group. For us, as coaches, it's easy. We just want to reflect that spotlight right back on those older players because they're playing the game the right way. More importantly, they're leading the locker room in the right way.”
This tournament is not only a quest for gold but also an audition for roster spots in Beijing, as the U.S. vies to defend its 2018 title from PyeongChang. With the U.S.’s great depth, that means that highly talented youngsters – who would be first-liners for many of the other 10 competing nations – are rotating in and out of the lineup as Johnson and his staff continue the evaluation process.

The ability to handle sitting out, without rampant bruised egos and in-fighting, is another aspect of building a championship culture. So far, nine American players – including four born in the 2000’s – have been made healthy scratches at least once.

“It's always a tough spot when you tell someone they're not going to play,” Johnson admitted. “Most of the time, at this level, it's the first or second time in their life they've ever been told, 'You're not playing.' I have to give a lot of credit to our players. They've handled it well. Again, I credit our veterans who set the tone that this is not about any of us individually, including me as a coach or anybody on the coaching staff. This is about us as a group. As we go forward, every player gets the chance to define their value by how they contribute to the game on the ice and in practice, every single day.”

With the broader evolution of hockey culture, this also involves veterans talking to coaches – a change of pace from the top-down model that ruled from Toe Blake to Viktor Tikhonov – and offering their thoughts on where the team can improve. For instance, Johnson mentioned that after the crushing loss to Canada, he heard widespread assent that the U.S. needed to do better in 50-50 puck battles and going to the net. The response against Japan spoke for itself.

Now, to play devil’s advocate, some might argue: “This all sounds nice, but really, does any team ever claim that their dressing room is a nest of vipers that rivals the worst episodes of Survivor, The Bachelor, and the court of your favourite dictator of choice?”

Of course not. And in 2021, every successful team is looking to build a more inclusive culture. But right now, with eight titles in their last nine tries, the Americans set the gold standard.

In Calgary, they might not be able to leave their hotel or go for a walk between games. But they’re still finding ways to soar as they aim to tie Canada’s record with their 10th Women’s World gold medal of all time.