Hockey became an Olympic event in 1920, but that was just for me. It wasn’t until 1998 that women were welcomed to play Olympic hockey. Six teams participated – USA, Canada, Finland, China, Sweden, and Japan. The final medal-round games of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan were played on February 17.
The clear forerunners were the teams representing Canada and USA (who had not even had a women’s team until 1989). For all four world championships leading up to the Olympics, Canada had won with USA coming in second. As USA defenseman A.J. Mleczko said, “I was on this team when we lost to Canada at the worlds in ’90, ’92, and ’94, and we were always second best to Canada.” In the 1997 World Women’s Hockey Championships in Kitchener, Ontario, which served as the qualifier for the Olympics, Canada won 4-3 in overtime. The exciting game boosted the popularity of women’s hockey.
As predicted, the Canadian and American teams played each other for the gold medal. First, at 2 pm, 7,412 watched Finland defeat China (4-1) for the bronze medal. Then, at 6 pm, 8,626 fans attended the gold-medal game. Team USA came into the final round undefeated, and the only game Canada had lost was to the Americans (7-4) on February 14.
The rivals held each other off throughout the first period. At 2:38 of the second, American Gretchen Ulion scored the first goal. About midway through the third, Shelley “Looney converted the jam at the left post off an Ulion power-play blast from the high slot.” Thanks to Danielle Goyette, the Canadians finally got on the board with 4:01 left. Coach Shannon Miller noted, “My only regret is that we didn’t score earlier in the third period. If we had, the floodgates would have opened.” Instead, with eight seconds left, American Sandra Whyte “skated into possession of the puck at center ice, off a quick chip along the boards by Canada’s Judy Diduck.” According to the Boston Globe recap, Whyte then “fired in the empty-netter as she crossed the offensive blue line at left wing.” Defenseman Angela Ruggiero said, “Once Whytie scored that goal, I skated down there and I got air.” Meanwhile, goalie Sarah Tueting did a “dance alone at the far end of the ice.” Defenseman Mleczko summed it all up with a simple, “They’ve always won the worlds, and that’s big, but it’s nothing like winning an Olympic gold medal. Somebody had to win, and I’m just glad it was us.” USA won 3-1.
Team USA earned the first gold for women’s ice hockey in the Olympics and the first gold for USA hockey since the men’s team won in 1980 at Lake Placid. The Americans outscored their opponents (36-8) and remained undefeated in that Olympics (6-0-0). Sarah Tueting and Sara DeCosta each minded the net for three games. Four teammates – Karyn Bye, Katie King, Gretchen Ulion, and captain Cammi Granato (a 2008 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee) – each had eight points.
“We went crazy at the bench,” said Mleczko. Her teammate, Karen Bye, “made a direct line to the bench, grabbed a large US flag, and draped it over her shoulders.” American goalie Jim Craig had done much the same back in 1980, and he had sent a fax to the women’s team wishing them well before the game. Captain Granato commented, “My brothers and I used to recreate the Miracle on Ice in our basement. I’d always be Mike Eruzione [the ’80 US captain from Winthrop, Mass.]. Now to be part of something like that, it’s really crazy. I mean, I can remember times when people would look down on me because I was a girl playing hockey.”
The medal ceremony was emotional for these trail-blazing women. Bye commented, “My whole body went numb, literally numb. I didn’t know what to do. It’s so overwhelming. They were about to put it [the medal] over me and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s going to happen. Just breathe. Relax.’ What a feeling.” For Mleczko, “When we got the medals. I had the chills. My whole body was overcome with excitement.” As coach of the silver-medalists, Miller said, “I had a feeling of joy go through my body when I saw an Olympic medal being hung around the neck of a female hockey player.”
The ecstatic women would have many hours before resting. After receiving their medals, they had a “hearty locker-room toast” by Coach Ben Smith. By 10:30 pm, they had “reassembled in an anteroom of the press center, being interviewed behind a closed sliding door by CBS’s Bryant Gumbel.” Half an hour later, they were allowed to spend 40 minutes with their loved ones. At midnight, half the team stayed up to “tape a segment and some promotional spots with TNT” and to watch the last three minutes of their taped game. First thing the next morning, at 6:50, the other half taped a Top 10 for David Letterman. Finally, at 8:30 am, the team went out to sign autographs and interview with CBS radio, “Good Morning America,” and the “Today” show. All the publicity helped have a positive impact on growing female ice hockey in the United States.
Twenty years later, at the 2018 Winter Olympics at Gangneung, South Korea, Team USA finally defeated team Canada again. On February 22, with a score of 3-2, Team USA again took home the gold.
- Barbara Huebner, “It’s all over but the shouting,” Boston Globe, p. A1 and F6.
- Bob Ryan, “Tueting played a winning tune in biggest game,” Boston Globe, p. F1 and F4.
- Kevin Paul Dupont, “Golden Charm,” Boston Globe, p. F1 and F4.