SOCHI, Russia – Their mantra from the moment they first came together as a group in Lake Placid, N.Y., has been one day at a time, one game at a time.
That moment has finally arrived, as two familiar rivals will meet again with an Olympic gold medal on the line when the United States and Canada face off on Thursday night at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
“This is what we’ve been training for. This is what we do every single day,” said Gigi Marvin, one of 11 players on the U.S. roster who played in the gold-medal game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“Now we’ve put ourselves into the position to play in the gold-medal game. No longer are we training for that day. That day is here. We’ll continue pressing on, pushing forward and riding this train all the way to the end.”
The two teams met eight days ago in the preliminary round when the Canadians caught the U.S. flat-footed and held on for a 3-2 win. The Americans vowed then that things would be different if they met again. The last two times the teams have met twice in a tournament, the IIHF Women's World Championships in 2012 and 2013, the team that lost the first time they met came back to win the gold medal.
“They beat us in the pool play. I don't think they can beat us two times in a row, especially with what’s on the line,” said U.S. forward Kelli Stack, who has combined with her linemates Hilary Knight and Alex Carpenter for seven goals in the tournament.
After watching video of their sluggish performance, the U.S. knew it needed to get better at supporting the puck in their own end, tightening up play in the neutral zone and sustaining their forecheck to pressure the Canadian D corps.
“Their D is pretty shaky when you give them a lot of pressure,” Stack said. “On Thursday we’re going to try to use our forecheck as best we can to make them turn pucks over below the goal line.”
Those changes the U.S. worked on in practice were on display in a 7-1 semifinal rout of Sweden, a game in which they pumped 70 shots on a pair of shell-shocked Swedish goaltenders.
“We were the kind of team we’re used to seeing, aggressive, going forward and not backing up, moving the puck very well,” said head coach Katey Stone. “We’re building here, and hopefully the best is yet to come.”
This will mark the fifth time the two countries have met on the Olympic stage, with Canada holding a 3-2 edge, including a 2-0 victory in Vancouver. The only time the two countries have not met in the final game was at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy when the U.S. was upset by Sweden in a semifinal shootout.
“They’re a team that brings out the best in us, and we bring the best out of them,” said Julie Chu, who is playing in her fourth Olympics.
“We’re going to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with them. It’s going to be a physical, fast game and one where it’s going to be about the little things, who’s going to execute in the end and be able to make the most of every situation.”
And after their final practice together, this team of 21 women who first came together during the summer in Lake Placid, say they are ready to follow in the footsteps of the 1998 U.S. Women’s Team that won gold in the inaugural women’s Olympic hockey tournament.
“This will be our last game together as a team,” said forward Brianna Decker. “It’s a little sad but we’re not going to take it for granted. We’re going to go out there and bust our butts.”
Having played only once in the past week, both teams are ready to get going, knowing that four years of blood, sweat and tears have all come down to this one game. The players are ready and the coaches are ready for the puck to drop on what should be a great game.
“We not only have one more game but we’re playing for a gold medal, and that’s what we’ve been training for the last four years and particularly the last eight months as a team,” said goaltender Jessie Vetter, who will get the start in goal.
“We’ll take a couple of days to tweak a few things here or there, but we’re ready to go. I think we’ve been waiting long enough and we’re ready to play for the gold medal.”
According to NHL metrics, the average hockey shift lasts somewhere between 45 and 55 seconds. There’s inherent beauty and fluidity to line changes, as skaters come on and off the ice, looking to recharge after going full throttle for their teams.
Meanwhile, your NHL officiating peers are giving their all, too – regularly logging 4-5 miles a game. Those totals are even greater at your level, where you and your colleagues officiate multiple games a day, several times per week, on a seemingly never-ending calendar.
And, although we want to perform our best every game, everyone has both good days and bad – players and officials alike. To learn more about keeping burnout at bay, we went to the experts: longtime amateur hockey scheduler Larry Carrington and former NHL official Mark Faucette.
“There is so much more to officiating than meets the eye,” said Faucette, a 17-year NHL veteran. “It may look easy from the stands, but to maintain total control of a game along with the stress, slumps, supervisors, travel, and fitness regimen takes a very special kind of person.”
Get in shape (and stay there)
We all think we’re in “pretty good” shape, but the reality is, officials must be top athletes and in great condition – even at the youngest levels.
“Conditioning is very important—the deeper into the season, the more important it is,” Carrington said. “Burnout happens physically, mentally, and emotionally. An official who is in good condition will experience less physical burnout, and that will in turn help with the emotional and mental burnout.”
Faucette stresses following a workout routine that maxes yourself at least every other day. Neither player or official should plan to use games as a vehicle toward better physical fitness.
“Where we used to go to camp to get into shape, officials today are on summer conditioning regimens and are tested as soon as they come to camp,” he said. “Taking care of your body is a total focus for the good official.
“The players are so much stronger and faster now, so it’s imperative the officials keep the same pace.”
No, not balance on your skates (that’s a given). Rather, make sure to keep the big picture in mind, to work a manageable schedule that includes everything that’s important to you – family, friends, and time away from the rink.
Although it makes Carrington’s job as an assignor more difficult, he said it pays off in the long run.
“I encourage officials to take at least one weekend off to get away from hockey,” he said. “I certainly don't want to lose their services for a week, but the invigoration that it usually provides makes them a much more valuable asset over the course of the season.”
That’s huge in an industry where both mental and physical fatigue are commonplace.
“Every official runs into slumps, just as players do,” Faucette said. “You spend numerous hours alone as an official, and when things are not going good, where everything is negative, it can cause you duress.
“Positive thoughts and self-evaluations speed up recovery,” he continued. “So, instead of telling yourself, ‘I wonder what bad thing will happen tonight?’ say ‘I’m ready for anything – bring it on!’”
It’s No. 3 here, but should be No. 1 on your to-do list.
“I realize the officials are all trying hard, and mistakes are part of any sport by any participant,” said Faucette, who currently serves as supervisor of officials for USA Hockey, the NAHL director of player safety and the SPHL director of officiating. “That being said, the joy I get out of seeing a young official start out at ground level and making the big time one day is immeasurable.”
For most of you reading this, the “big time” might not be the end goal (and that’s OK). But wherever you are, there’s experience you’ve gained, as well as that to come – which both point back to why you first got involved in this great sport.
As an assignor, Carrington tries to get out of the office as much as he can and intentionally varies the schedules of his officials to help keep things fresh. He also encourages his more senior officials to lend a hand to those who aren’t as long in the tooth.
“Going to the rink and helping officials help themselves get better can be very invigorating,” he said. “Even a very good, very experienced official will often find it fun and relaxing to mentor some new official at a lower-level game where the stress levels aren’t nearly as high.”
But no matter where you officiate, Carrington emphasizes keeping one thing in mind: the love of the sport and those playing it today.
“If you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be out there.”