Why it wasn't the U.S. team's night
SOCHI, Russia -- They couldn't escape. For some 15 minutes, the 21 members of the U.S. women's hockey team were forced to stand there and watch, trapped in a nightmare that none of them could believe had happened again.
Kelli Stack stared into the crowd, desperately searching for an American flag. Julie Chu bit her lip, fighting back the tears that so desperately wanted to fall. Hilary Knight stared at carved-up ice below, wondering what she could have done differently. And Amanda Kessel did everything she could to avoid eye contact with anyone, blankly gazing into the distance.
A few feet to their left, on another stretch of the shiny blue carpet that had been hastily rolled out by a group of Olympic volunteers, the Canadian women's hockey team received their gold medals. They were used to this by now, well-versed in Olympic success after 20 straight victories and four consecutive Olympic titles.
The Americans, for that matter, should have been accustomed to this, as well. They were the losing team in three of those gold-medal matches against the Canadians, including Thursday night's 3-2 overtime heartbreaker. But this one, for a variety of reasons, felt different. Since the moment the final buzzer sounded in Vancouver four years earlier, the Americans had pointed to this game, on this night, against this opponent, as the moment everything would change. They had sacrificed months of their lives, putting off college, careers and relationships on a quest for Olympic glory. They had done everything their coaches had asked -- the wall sits, the suicide drills, the grueling two-and-a-half-hour practices -- all with the belief that the payoff would come on this night.
But in sports, of course, nothing is ever assured. No amount of hard work or unwavering desire can automatically correlate to guaranteed success. This is part of the gamble. You put yourself out there, you take that risk, unsure if you're ever going to be rewarded in the end.
"If you're involved in competitive athletics at a high level, you know what you're getting yourself into," U.S. coach Katey Stone said Thursday. "It's high risk, high reward."
This week, the Americans walked and talked like this time the reward would be theirs. They insisted they had learned their lessons from a 3-2 loss against Canada in a preliminary clash on Feb. 12 and were a new team. Captain Meghan Duggan said she was "110-percent confident" her team would come through. Stone spoke with similar conviction about her team's ability to seize the opportunity.
For the better part of 56 minutes Thursday night, the Americans controlled the biggest game of their lives. They killed penalties, blocked shots and withstood feverish Canadian rallies. When a shot made its way to the American net, goalie Jessie Vetter was there to swat it away like a pesky gnat. The U.S. held a 2-0 lead with 206 seconds remaining in regulation, a lead most everyone inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome figured was likely insurmountable.
But a bounce off the knee here, a puck off the post there and a couple questionable officiating calls later, the Americans somehow ended up with a 3-2 overtime loss.
"Inches from the gold medal, I guess," said U.S. forward Jocelyne Lamoureux said after the game. "It only comes around once every four years. It just sucks."
Added teammate Kelli Stack: "I had no doubt we were going to win. We were up by two goals. Honestly, it's heartbreaking. It's shocking that we didn't win the game. It feels like a dream."
Heartbreaking. Shocking. Demoralizing. These were the words muttered in postgame interviews over and over again. And nothing could make the pain go away. Stone knows this all too well, having coached Harvard to three straight NCAA Division I championship runner-up finishes in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
"This is very difficult," she said. "It's difficult because of the players, the commitment, the dedication of all your athletes. There really isn't much to say. You can't take the sting away. You just tell them how proud you are of them."
When it was over, several Americans were critical of the officiating, particularly in overtime. A little over six minutes into the extra session, Lamoureux was charged with slashing on Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados. "And she didn't even have the puck," Lamoureux said after the game.
Less than a minute later, the referee called Hilary Knight for cross-checking Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser on a breakaway. Replays showed that Knight actually may have tripped before making contact with her opponent. "I didn't touch her," Knight said afterwards. "It's an unfortunate, heartbreaking call."
When asked about the officiating after the game, Stone said simply, "No comment."
But this was far more complex than bad calls or bad bounces. This was about a young team that is still learning how to win in the game's biggest moments. For 56 minutes, the Americans flew around the ice with commitment and purpose. They took the game to the Canadians. But then, in the most critical of moments, a bad bounce went against them and everything changed.
After Brianne Jenner's wrist shot ricocheted off the right knee of American Kacey Bellamy and into the back of the U.S. net, Stone immediately clapped her hands, looked up and down her bench and barked to her team that they were OK. There was no need to panic.
A minute later, with the Canadian goalie pulled, Stack's clearance shot from her blue line slid down the ice untouched, heading straight for the goal. It bounced off the left post.
"When those things start to happen in the game of hockey, you start to wonder if it is your night," Stone said.
Still, there were less than two minutes left to kill. But at 55 seconds, Rebecca Johnston dug a puck out behind the net and flicked it toward the slot. Vetter kicked it away, but it ended up on the stick of Marie-Philip Poulin, who fired her shot past Vetter. Overtime.
The Americans peppered Szabados with five shots early in the extra period, but none of them found the back of the net. It was immediately following one of those bursts when Lamoureux and later Knight were called for their penalties. Thirty-nine seconds after the penalty on Knight, with the Americans desperately attempting the task of killing a 4-on-3 penalty, Poulin rocketed a shot past Vetter and the game was over.
Immediately, Vetter's head dropped. Staring down, she skated to the U.S. bench, where her teammates were waiting, every single one of them with their heads bowed. Some of them, like Bellamy, fell to the ice. Others held their helmet-covered heads in their hands.
They couldn't believe it. Heartbreak again.
A few minutes later after receiving their silver medals, they stood and watched as the Canadian flag was raised to the rafters. They listened as "O Canada" blasted through the arena. And they swore that four years from now it will be different.