VANCOUVER – You couldn’t keep the smiles off of their faces.
The United States Women’s Hockey Team has spent the last six months barnstorming North America for this very moment, where all of the pre-Olympic practices, meetings and preparation became reality. Where Team USA would take the ice in front of a boisterous crowd of 5,000+ at UBC Thunderbird Arena and the games would finally be real.
The first step was a dominant 12-1 victory over China that saw the red, white and blue outshoot their opponents 61-6 over the 60-minute bloodbath. The old veterans, Angela Ruggiero and Jenny Potter scored, as did the new kids, Jocelyn Lamoureaux, Kelli Stack and Meghan Duggan.
“This is just the start of a five game journey,” Stack said. “We had to go out and attack China like any other opponent and that’s what we did.”
Head Coach Mark Johnson’s club nearly escaped without a hitch, until 5’0” Erika Lawler, the shortest member of the U.S. Olympic Team, took a nasty spill into the end boards racing for a puck in the middle of the second period. She grimaced in pain as she left the ice under her own power, but did not return to the ice for the rest of the game.
“We’ll evaluate where she’s at and make decisions later,” Johnson said.
The two North American superpowers (Canada included) have outscored their opponents 30-1 over the last two days at the hockey venue, sparking criticism over the tournament’s lack of balance.
“Clearly if you’re on the losing side of a hiding, it’s never much fun,” said IOC Director of Communications Mark Adams this morning. “But I’m sure they had a great experience and I’m sure they’re thankful to be Olympians.”
Even with the talent gap there’s no negating that this is the real amateur tournament in Vancouver. For all of those that complain about big contracts, this is the story for you; real amateurs, real student athletes, and the only controversy swirling around the girls next door is that they may be too good.
Sure, the Americans are back-to-back World champions heading into these Olympics, but this isn’t the World Championships. And in women’s hockey, this event is the pinnacle of their sport, an event that happens once every four years with the entire world watching.
“When we went out for warm ups and everyone’s wearing your colors, I just thought to myself ‘this is so cool,” Lawler said of the crowd. “At one point I just heard some random fan from the stands scream my name and I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before.”
And they’ve taken advantage of it.
Kacey Bellamy and Kelli Stack met Shaun White at the Opening Ceremony. There was the team meeting with Sandra Oh, of Grey’s Anatomy fame and Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think it all became real during the Opening Ceremonies,” goaltender Molly Schaus said. “Walking out into that stadium, with all of the gear. It’s just so hard to describe the pride you have at that moment.”
You just can’t keep the smile off their faces. That is, until they take the ice against Russia in just a few days time.
“At some point you have to just open up the gate and let them play,” Johnson said. “That’s the balance we’re trying to achieve.”