SOCHI, Russia — Hayley Wickenheiser called it the “hardest win ever,” and she would know. She has been there from the beginning, when Canada won silver 16 years ago in Nagano, the first Olympics with women’s hockey. She was there when Canada won gold in Salt Lake and Torino and Vancouver. She was there throughout the rivalry with the United States – all the wins, all the losses, all the fights.
She had never seen anything like this 3-2 win in Sochi – a two-goal deficit, a goal with 3:26 to go, a shot at an empty net off a post, a goal with 54.6 seconds left, overtime, chances for both sides, awful calls for both sides, 3-on-3 hockey, 4-on-3 hockey, another goal, another gold. Oh, yeah. This was the hardest win ever for Canada, which has won four straight gold medals and 20 straight games in the Olympics, and it was the hardest loss ever for Team USA.
“It’s an amazing moment,” said forward Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both the tying and winning goals. “We never gave up.”
The Canadians were done. There was no way they were going to win. The Americans had a 2-0 lead as the clock counted down in the third period, and this was their time to officially take over the rivalry. They had won five of the past seven world championships and four of the past five games between the teams. They were allowing nothing. It was only a matter of time.
But then Canadian forward Brianne Jenner cut to the middle of the ice and fired. The puck glanced off the leg of U.S. defenseman Kacey Bellamy and fluttered just inside the right post with 3:26 to go. It was 2-1. There was a chance.
The Canadians pulled the goalie with a faceoff in the offensive zone with 1:35 to go. Seconds later, a linesman blocked the path of Canadian defenseman Catherine Ward from getting to U.S. forward Kelli Stack at the blue line – it wasn’t the first time the officials got in the way, and it wouldn’t be the last – allowing Stack to fire the puck down the ice at the empty net. The puck rolled and skidded. Wickenheiser joked that she yelled like a curler: “Sweep! Sweep! Get it wide!” It hit the left post, and it wobbled like a flipped coin. Heads or tails? Win or lose?
[Related: Team USA's Hilary Knight says OT penalty 'was a bogus call']
“We had the game in hand,” said U.S. coach Katey Stone. “That puck that goes down the ice and hits the post, it could have been over then again. So when those types of things happen in the game of hockey, you start to wonder if it is your night.”
“It turned the game around, really gave us another life,” Wickenheiser said. “I mean, what a finish.”
Tick. Tick. Tick…
Canadian forward Rebecca Johnston grabbed the puck on the end boards and backhanded it at the net. U.S. goaltender Jessie Vetter held her stick off to the side of the net and deflected the puck, but not out of trouble, a big mistake. The puck went right to Poulin, who broke in and beat Vetter blocker side with 54.6 seconds left. Tie game. Overtime.
This was a classic now. Whoever won, whoever lost, this game would be remembered. So it was a shame what came next. Referee Joy Tottman of Great Britain had been a factor all night, and six seconds after she called Ward for a legitimate cross-checking penalty in OT, she called U.S. forward Jocelyne Lamoureux for a chintzy slash, evening the sides at 3-on-3.
[Watch: Canadians celebrate OT victory from coast to coast]
Wickenheiser got a breakaway in the open ice. U.S. forward Hilary Knight chased her from behind. Both fell, and Wickenheiser didn’t get off a shot. Tottman whistled Knight for … cross-checking? Tottman pointed at center ice and … did not award a penalty shot? Knight said she never touched Wickenheiser; Wickenheiser laughed at that and said she “hauled me down.” It was hard to tell, honestly, if there was contact, let alone how much. But if it was a penalty, it wasn’t cross-checking. It was tripping. And if it was tripping, it should have been a penalty shot. It was a mess, and this was OT of an Olympic gold medal game. The officiating has not caught up to the level of the play in women's hockey, at least not the level of play of Canada and the United States.
And this was the result: On a 4-on-3 power play, Canadian defenseman Laura Fortino handled a rolling puck at the point and threw it to the left circle. Poulin had time to take the pass, turn her body and fire it into the net before Vetter could recover. Game over. Canadian forward Jayna Hefford called Poulin “the best hockey player in women’s hockey, hands down.” Asked about the officiating, Stone said: “No comment.” It was beautiful and ugly at the same time.
“It had everything in it,” Wickenheiser said. “The drama, it’s great for hockey. I think people watching went through many emotions. I’m sure our parents probably had heart attacks and joy and all sorts of things, and as a player, you just want to try to stay even all the way through it and believe that it takes 20 to win. We’ve just got to keep making the right play, and that’s what we talked about, ‘Just keep making the right play. Whoever’s time it is to put it in the net when the net’s wide open, put it in.’ ”
[Photo gallery: Canada, U.S. clash in gold medal game]
The Canadians celebrated in the corner – helmets and gloves and sticks strewn on the ice – as the Americans tried to process it. “We were so focused on doing our job and not letting what happened happen,” Stack said. “I don’t know what happened. I’m shocked.” As the teams lined up for the medal ceremony, the Americans held back tears as the Canadians waved flags and fans sang “O Canada” across the ice. The Americans looked like they didn’t want the silver; the Canadians looked like they couldn’t believe they got gold.
In the afterglow, there was a lot of talk about character and experience, and rightfully so. The Canadians went through a power struggle, a coaching change and a captaincy change in the past two months. They lost four straight to the Americans before the Olympics. But they beat the Americans in the prelims, 3-2, and they came back to beat them when it mattered most. Their veterans played huge roles. Wickenheiser, Hefford and Caroline Ouellette became the first Canadians to win four gold medals in the Winter Olympics. “The hell that you go through to get here, it’s really rewarding,” said Wickenheiser. “It feels great.” The Canadian flag-bearer almost couldn’t bear this. She held back tears.
But it takes nothing away from that to acknowledge that this was also about breaks, about mistakes, about luck, about all the little things that had to line up to make this dream and this nightmare – the deflection off Bellamy, the linesman getting in Ward’s way, Stack hitting the goalpost, Vetter deflecting that puck right to Poulin, Tottman’s calls and confusion. The line is so, so fine, and Canada, once again, incredibly, was on the right side of it. Hardest win ever. Hardest loss ever.
“Great hockey games come down to inches, bounces of the puck, and we put ourselves in a position to win the game consistently,” Stone said. “I mean, that’s hockey, and I think if you’re involved in competitive athletics at a very high level, you know what you’re getting yourself into, and you understand that it’s high risk and high reward. In order for anybody to win a gold medal, they have to put some risk into it. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”