Breaking the ice

How an astounding finish transformed the world’s perceptions of women’s hockey, lifting it from second-tier status to a phenomenon that will forever enrich Canada’s rich sports mythology.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 10, 2014

How an astounding finish transformed the world’s perceptions of women’s hockey, lifting it from second-tier status to a phenomenon that will forever enrich Canada’s rich sports mythology.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 10, 2014

There is an advantage, it turns out, to holding an Olympic women’s hockey tournament in Russia. When you win big, they let you celebrate as you please. Nobody blinks when you light up a Montecristo cigar or snap open a tall can of the national lager. So when the scent of Cuban broad-leaf wafted through the lower concourse of the Bolshoy Ice Dome last Thursday night, the guardians of public welfare (do they have those in Russia?) were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they were outside, having a smoke.

Here’s hoping Marie-Philip Poulin was the source of the aromatic haze, because few players in Canada’s rich hockey history have lifted their country so high, from such depths, so quickly. Her tying goal in the final minute of the game against archrival Team USA, followed by her gold-medal overtime winner, made the perfect coda to a game so hard-fought, so intelligently played, that the amateurish officiating stood in glaring contrast. Canada’s fourth consecutive gold medal in this young event was arguably its most improbable, because it was won against a more skilled and better-prepared opponent than any they’d seen before.

But that astounding finish also formed the pièce de résistance of a game that transformed perceptions of women’s hockey, lifting it from second-tier status to a phenomenon in its own right. Afterwards, Canadian and American players alike seemed to have only a vague sense of the impact they’d made. Then, news began trickling in of unprecedented TV and Internet ratings—five million U.S. viewers; an astounding 13 million in Canada, according to CBC—and the weight of their accomplishment sank in. The following afternoon, with her medal around her neck, Canadian forward Brianne Jenner marvelled at web videos she’d seen that morning showing fans leaping to their feet in joy when Canada won. “I’m just amazed at how many people watched our game,” she said. “It’s tremendous for our sport to see high school kids, everyone, watching our game, watching us. It makes you proud to represent Canada.”

That’s how it looks, at least, in the rear-view mirror. And while the players maintain they kept their cool through it all—“We stuck to our plan,” captain Caroline Ouellette later insisted, “We never panicked”—the rest of us must admit that, at some point, as the seconds slid away, we succumbed to doubt. Down 2-0, with three and a half minutes left on the clock, the reigning Olympic champions looked spent. They were locked out of prime scoring areas and were being systematically smothered by a U.S. team that had clearly had it up to here with Canadian presumption when it came to hockey. This time, surely, the Americans would not be denied.

It was a force-of-will goal by Jenner with 3:26 to go that yanked Canada back into the game, and it was as if the team had been given smelling salts. With the net empty and 55 seconds remaining, Poulin’s line set up in the U.S. zone. The 22-year-old from Beauceville, Que., took a centring pass from Rebecca Johnston and knifed the puck over Jessie Vetter’s right pad. Then, during a four-on-three power play in overtime, it was Poulin again, corralling a pass from Laura Fortino and snapping the puck past a lunging Vetter.

A snapshot taken from the rafters at that moment might have captured a glaring contrast. On one side of the U.S. zone, a red mob of joyous Canadian players. On the other side, Americans hunched as if in physical pain, or turning back toward their bench as if disoriented by the scene around them. For four years, the two teams had followed the same road to Sochi, yet they’d arrived at different destinations, and it was a measure of the antipathy between them that the pro forma expressions of mutual respect were few and far between. When asked how she felt on seeing the Canadians receive their gold medals, U.S. captain Meghan Duggan stuck to the script, even as tears ran down her flushed cheeks. “You stay proud of your team,” she said. “You don’t focus on the other team. You just move forward.”

Forward together, you can bet, because the Olympic paths of these two teams have always been intertwined, and seldom in a good way for the Americans. Though women’s hockey has developed at the same pace in both countries, Canada has not lost a game in Olympic competition since 1998, logging 19 straight wins, counting Thursday’s triumph. Its 17-10 record against the U.S. in world championship and Olympic games has been no less impressive, given how close the talent level has been on the two teams over the past decade and a half. They are equals at the top of their game, yet somehow, at the big events, Canada finds a way to win.

That background mattered in Sochi in ways you don’t always see in sports. Frustrated through three straight Olympiads, the Americans had scented blood this time—especially after Canada’s coach, Dan Church, was let go in December with little in the way of public explanation. Whispers circulated of a schism in the Canadian dressing room and, in a tune-up series against the Americans, Canada seemed undisciplined and disorganized. Two of the four games devolved into gloves-on brawls (face-cages discourage bare-knuckle fighting). All of the last three matches went to the Americans.

Critics wondered if Kevin Dineen, recently fired from his coaching job with the NHL’s Florida Panthers, was the right fit for a group of female hockey players. Eyebrows rose when he took the captain’s C from Hall of Fame shoo-in Hayley Wickenheiser and gave it to veteran forward Ouellette. And the former Hartford Whaler was candid from the outset about the fact that he had not set his sights on the job. Even at the Olympics, he acknowledged: “This was a bit of a left turn for me.”

Yet, after a few games against junior and midget-aged male teams, things started to turn around. The Canadians had begun to buy into what their coach was saying, and it helped that they wound down an “overload” training regimen that involved deliberately playing games when they were flat-out exhausted. In an interview with Maclean’s , goaltender Shannon Szabados described a typical day: two hours on the ice in the morning, followed by gym workouts, bike sprints, track sprints and another two-hour practice in the evening. “As a goalie, I feel like my game is 90 per cent mental,” she said. “When you feel like you’re mentally fatigued, it’s hard on you. It’s hard on your team, hard on your body, hard on your confidence, and you could see it in our last three [tune-up] games that we lost to the Americans. We were completely wiped.”

Worked into that program, though, was a rest-and-recovery phase that the team passed in Austria, and as January came to a close, says Szabados, they began feeling better about Sochi. They opened the tournament with a convincing 5-0 win against the Swiss, followed by a 3-0 win over Finland that flattered the losing side—Canada got 48 shots on a hot goaltender.

Then, to widespread surprise, they stung Team USA in their last game of the preliminary round with a 3-2 win. The Americans were upset. In their next game, a semifinal, they shelled Team Sweden with 70 shots and came away with a 6-1 victory. Canada, meanwhile, got by the eventual bronze medallists, the Swiss, 3-1, and when it became clear the two rivals would meet again in the gold-medal game, U.S. forward Kelli Stack spoke brashly about exploiting weaknesses she perceived in the Canadian lineup. “Their D is pretty shaky back there when you give them a lot of pressure,” she said. “If we end up playing Canada on Thursday, we’re going to try the U.S. forecheck as best we can and make them turn pucks over below the goal line.”

On paper, the teams looked like opposites. The Americans entered the game with 20 goals in four games, more than any team in the tournament. One in 10 of their shots had sailed past opposing goaltenders, while their power play was firing at an astonishing 35.71 conversion rate. Canada, meanwhile, was the Games’ stingiest team, allowing just three goals in four games, with both netminders, Szabados and Charline Labonté, boasting save percentage rates above 95. The Canadians, however, had trouble scoring. In their semifinal, they pelted Swiss goaltender Florence Schelling with 48 shots, yet squeezed in only three goals.

Through much of the gold-medal game, the Americans fulfilled Stack’s predictions. The onslaught of fast-skating, puck-thieving forwards like Amanda Kessel, sister of Toronto Maple Leaf and U.S. men’s star Phil Kessel, brought out the worst in Canada’s defence. They took three penalties in the first period, and forced Szabados to bail them out with a handful of big saves, including a lightning-fast glove-hand stop off hard-shooting U.S. defender Anne Schleper.

Finally, at 11:57 of the second period, Duggan took a pass from Jocelyne Lamoureux and snapped a shot over Szabados’s left shoulder, giving an added spring to her team’s stride. The Americans killed off a brief 5-on-3 power play, and two minutes into the third, with Canadian defender Tara Watchorn in the box, U.S. forward Alex Carpenter one-timed a pass into the Canadian net before Szabados could slide across. With that, an American victory began to feel inevitable. They intensified their checking. They clogged the middle of the ice with bodies, and drove rush after Canadian rush harmlessly into the corners.

How, or why, the champions regained the momentum isn’t entirely clear. The team’s younger players later credited their elders—Ouellette, Wickenheiser, Meghan Agosta-Marciano—with calming them down. “I don’t think we ever had doubt in that dressing room,” said Laura Fortino, the 23-year-old defender. “Our veterans just help us stay so calm and poised and confident that we can come back.” Yet after the game, in a frenzied media zone, Wickenheiser admitted that with about seven minutes left, even she started to worry, urging the team to get moving. Carpenter, meanwhile, acknowledged that she and her U.S. teammates might have taken their foot off the gas, thinking they could protect their lead through the final few minutes. “We kind of let down defensively a little bit. We let in two soft goals. We didn’t play as well defensively as we had all game.”

The remedy to their situation, though, was plain for all to see. Talk on the Canadian bench had grown progressively more urgent, Jenner recalls, and the message had been to take it to the net—her brand of hockey. “I try to play a power forward’s game,” she said. “I just keep things simple and make that kind of play where you’re just putting your shoulder down and driving to the net.” That she did, cutting hard from the left slot and firing a backhand shot that deflected off the leg of U.S. defender Kacey Bellamy straight into the net. Vetter had no chance.

It was at this point that the officials got involved, and whether you spoke to the American or Canadian side afterwards didn’t much matter: they were both unimpressed. With less than 1:30 on the clock, Canadian fans were treated to the heart-stopping spectacle of a Czech linesman backing into Canadian defender Catherine Ward at the U.S. blue line just as the puck was arriving. Stack, the American forward who had spoken ill of the Canadian defence, took advantage and sent the puck travelling the length of the ice toward Canada’s empty net where—incredibly, hilariously—it hit the goal post. Ward later admitted to being “pretty mad” at the official. Anyone who has spent time with female hockey players will know that to be code for apoplectically, homicidally angry.

Still, by this point, the Canadians were playing like it was the last game they’d ever see, and Poulin, considered by some the most gifted player in women’s hockey, was busiest of all. Her equalizer landed like a brick load on American fans in the building, whose “U-S-A!” chants dwindled into silence. Then, in overtime, there was another intervention by the officials: Joy Tottman, a British referee, called a string of three penalties, including two against the Americans. At least one of the calls was debatable, a slashing call against U.S. forward Lamoureux, who found herself in the box for taking a swipe at a puck Szabados had covered. Then, when American defender Hilary Knight fell during a Wickenheiser breakaway, grazing Wickenheiser’s leg and knocking the veteran down, Tottman had no choice but to call another.

The result was a four-on-three power play for Canada, and at 8:10, Poulin took the feed from Fortino and, with no time to settle the wobbling puck, whipped it past Vetter on the goaltender’s right side. Pandemonium erupted inside the Bolshoy. Canadians in the crowd threw hats and drink cups into the air. Russian fans, making up about half the audience, joined a couple of thousand Canadians in celebrating the goal. On the U.S. side, predictably, there were scenes of agony. When Poulin scored, defender Michelle Picard doubled over as if she’d been gut-punched. Vetter slumped to the ice, broken.

Poulin, meanwhile, braced for the inevitable pile-on—first Wickenheiser, then Meghan Agosta-Marciano. Then Johnston and Fortino and the first celebrants to come off the bench. Within seconds, the entire team was tangled in the corner—a heap of gold-medal merriment. Later, with her medal on, Poulin tried to put words to the experience in both official languages. “I could hear the bench shouting to shoot the puck—it was a four-on-three, so really, we just had to get the puck on the net,” she said. “It went in and I’m just so happy. Being here, with this jersey on and the gold medal around my neck, it’s the best thing ever.”

In all, it was the latest and possibly greatest chapter in a women’s hockey story for Canada, and Poulin in particular must have experienced some déjà vu. She was the hero four years ago, after all—an 18-year-old who scored both goals in the 2-0 gold-medal win over the U.S.—and assumed she would never experience anything quite like what happened in Vancouver. Alas, she was forced to issue a public apology for her part in a beer-and-stogie celebration after the game at Olympic Hockey Place (now Rogers Arena).

This time, Poulin laughed when she was asked if she planned to take advantage of Russian customs without fear of repercussions—albeit with the dressing room door closed. Her clutch performance in Sochi merits a place beside Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal and Paul Henderson’s clincher in ’72, which is why her coach offered the sort of praise reserved for true competitors. “She doesn’t speak a lot,” Dineen would say later. “But I’ll catch her eyes, and there’s something there that tells you this is a big-game player.” Hard to put a price on that. But if it means tolerating a little cigar smoke every four years, then surely Canada is getting a bargain.

Maclean's March 10, 2014.