How U.S. women's hockey faced down pressure, history and expectations – and came out smiling

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea – After playing for themselves and playing for each other, after playing for redemption and playing for validation, after playing and playing and playing until they felt like they were playing for their lives, after playing 60 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime and five rounds of a shootout and still being tied, after playing, most importantly, for gold, they looked over and their kid goaltender was smiling.

Maddie Rooney was standing by her net, Round Six of the most pressurized moments the sport can produce, and she was grinning underneath her mask.

“Twenty-year-old goaltender, you know,” captain Meghan Duggan, 30, said.

So, the United States had that going for it, a smiling junior from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, apparently unfazed by the moment, the stage or the stakes.

“I knew we had it,” Rooney said.

Well she, Maddie Rooney, was the only one. Everyone else, American or Canadian, player or fan, had their hearts pounding through their chests after this grueling, grinding, gut-check hockey game. Oh, this was a hell of a game in what has become a hell of a rivalry, USA-Canada women’s hockey, one born out of respect but, at least every four years, often with lopsided results.

The Canadians had won four straight golds coming into this one. That included 2002, when they beat the USA in the gold-medal game. And 2010 when they did it again. And, most painfully, 2014, when they came back to force overtime and then practically took the gold straight off American necks. The U.S. had won four consecutive World Championships though.

This is the Olympics though. This is everything.

So, the Americans had given it everything. Everything. Every shift. They had been on the other side too many times, heads pressed against the boards, tears pouring down their cheeks, regret filling their hearts. They had felt it too many times to count, five losses in a row in the Olympics alone. The Canadians, the Canadians, the Canadians, always in the way, always coming out on top.

Here, they decided, they’d win the inches. Here they’d win the blue line. Here they’d win the races to the puck.

Here they would win or die trying.

Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson (left), sister Monique Lamoureux-Morando (center) and backup goaltender Alex Rigsby celebrate after winning the gold medal. (Reuters)
Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson (left), sister Monique Lamoureux-Morando (center) and backup goaltender Alex Rigsby celebrate after winning the gold medal. (Reuters)

Amidst those frayed nerves and out-of-place goaltender smiles, American Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson stood at center ice, mentally running through a lengthy list of potential shootout moves she could employ to break this deadlock. It was 2-2 in the game and now 2-2 after five penalty shot attempts. Now was Round Six. She would go first. Canada’s Meghan Agosta would go second. Each frame its own gold-medal game.

Lamoureux-Davidson grew up in North Dakota. Her dad was a hockey player and her four brothers were hockey players and of course her twin sister, Monique, was a hockey player. It was Monique who tied this thing at 2-2 late in the third, which would either give the Americans new life to exorcise new demons or give Canada a new way to torment them.

It was going to be one or the other. Ecstasy or agony. Everyone knew that. Shootouts are the cruelest. Or the most glorious. There is no middle ground.

Lamoureux-Davidson is part wizard, at least on the ice. Same with her twin sister. Maybe it was all the games growing up, or maybe it was how if they didn’t figure out how to dangle a puck in front of one of those brothers and slip magically by, they’d just get pummeled and lose it and complain to dad who didn’t care.

“Our brothers kicked our butts,” Jocelyne said.

Or maybe it was those days at the University of North Dakota, playing for a Swedish coach who emphasized puck skills and hand drills and would draw up elaborate maneuvers like some kind of whacked out hockey architect. Peter Elander is his name. He’s now an assistant at Ohio State. Back at UND, he used to put the twins through drills, daring them to try this or that until they finally mastered it.

Earlier in the tournament, against Russia, Jocelyne scored on a sweet one that Elander had named “Oops, I Did It.” The name was silly. The move was sick. Done right, it was almost unstoppable, but she didn’t want to go with that one again in case Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados had scouted it.

“I didn’t know what move she was going to pull out of her hat,” Monique said. “But she usually has some pretty flashy ones.”

Jocelyne settled on “Oops, I Did It Again,” the wicked step-sister of “Oops, I Did It.” Oops, I did it again? Like that old Britney Spears song?

“Peter names them,” Jocelyne said, shrugging herself.

This would be an audacious attempt at any point in any hockey game. Here? Now? With these stakes? In a shootout, it can be ideal to offer up the most fakes to create an open net, but the higher the risk of error, the more errors. This was no time for error. Amanda Kessel had scored the United States’ second shootout goal by basically racing toward the net and burying a wrist shot, glove side. Canada’s Agosta had essentially done the same earlier.

Yeah, well, this is Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson. She was on that American team four years ago that had it won and then had nothing. She had tasted those silver medal tears. She had stewed and fumed for four years working and waiting to get here. She had been given an American flag seven months ago, packed it up and carried it with her everywhere she went, including into the Gangneung Hockey Centre on Thursday night because she was certain she was going to haul it out and drape it over her shoulders and celebrate with it.

So, four years and eighty minutes and five rounds of shootouts was coming down to this, to an impossible move with an improbable name. It was going to come down to Jocelyne taking the puck, making two lengthy, looping skates, one to the left, one to the right before coming directly at the net, touching the puck twice and deking a fake shot.

With that, Szabados went to the ice, trying to deny the five-hole. Jocelyne then shifted left and went backhand. Szabados, already in a bad spot, lurched to follow her. This, alone, would have been a pretty nice move. Jocelyne wasn’t done though. She quickly cut it back across the crease, like the puck was glued to her tape. Szabados fell backward in a heap trying to keep up, her legs caught underneath her, her stick sprawling off to the side. She was left hopeless to watch.

With a quarter of the net open, Jocelyne slipped the puck in and let out a primal scream they could probably hear all the way back in Grand Forks.

As goals go, there may never have been a prettier one. As golden goals go, forget it.

“Crazy move,” Rooney said. “Amazing.”

Of course, it was now the smiling goalie’s turn. Whatever.

“Pressure is power,” Rooney said.

Rooney once beat the University of Minnesota in a game by making 62 saves. Here the objective was far simpler.

“One more save,” Rooney said.

Agosta came charging in and Rooney guessed she would try to make a move and go five-hole, between the pads. She guessed correctly. As Agosta tried to shoot, Rooney poked the puck away.

The game was done. The gold was won.

“It was all just a blur after that, seeing all my teammates coming at me,” Rooney said.

The Americans stormed off the bench, throwing gloves and sticks into the air and wound up in a pile of hugs. Finally, at last, exhausted and exhilarated, they’d beaten the Canadians in the Olympics. Finally, at last, they’d won that gold medal.

Across the way the Canadians cried, the way the Americans have cried, tears dropping onto Olympic ice in a sorrow that will slowly fade but never be forgotten. That’s the heat of this rivalry. That’s the heat of all rivalries. Pressure is power. Pain is too.

“It’s hard not to be there for the girls when you go to the wire like this,” the brilliant Szabados said as tears streamed down her face.

“When you don’t hear your anthem on that blue line, it’s a feeling you’re never going to forget,” Canada’s Natalie Spooner said.

The Americans had stood on that blue line before. Stood and listened to “O, Canada.” Stood with silver medals that felt like failure. Stood and promised next time would be different, next time they’d find a way, next time they find a way to do little bit more.

“This is probably a very classic example of how hard it should be,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” played, ringing out into the South Korean night. The Stars and Stripes was raised. Wearing matching necklaces of gold, the Americans tried to savor every moment. They thought of their parents. They thought of their coaches, all the way back to local rinks. They thought of the neighbors and friends back home who stayed up into the middle of the night to watch. They thought of the Americans they don’t even know. They thought of the little girls who might look on and dream the way they once did.

They thought about what they’d just done. Together.

“You think about who you are representing,” Duggan said. “So much pride in that. So, proud to be American.”

And when it was done, like their 20-year-old goalie, they smiled.

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