The impact of the 1998 U.S. Olympic Women's Hockey Team still reverberates throughout the country.
Consider the fact that when the inaugural Olympic women's hockey tournament took place at the '98 Olympics in Nagano, there were only 10 Division I college teams in the United States. Today, there are four times as many.
"The opportunities for young women wanting to play collegiate hockey are great and it's pretty obvious the impact our team had on that," 1998 women's Olympic coach Ben Smith
What the 1980 United States Olympic men's team did for national pride in Lake Placid, the '98 women's team did for every pig-tailed adolescent afraid they'd be ridiculed for playing a boys' sport. The Olympic triumph gave every female across the nation a reason to believe that playing competitive hockey no longer was a pipe dream.
"What stood out for me was our pre-Olympic tour before the actual games began," said Team USA captain Cammi Granato. "It felt like we were finally professionals. I had seen my brothers and the schedules they kept, how they got to play in these beautiful arenas and kind of hop around the country and there was always a buzz around them. For the first time in my career, there was a buzz around what we were doing and people cared and we would go into these professional rinks, sit in the locker rooms and dress for big games; it was magic for me and I loved it."
The U.S. twice defeated archrival Canada, including a monumental 3-1 triumph in the gold-medal game before 8,626 fans on Feb. 17, 1998.
"We had some really big, rough games against Canada and it was bitter," Granato said. "Both teams knew what was at the end and neither team could get there fast enough. It got to a point where if you saw a Canadian player in the elevator or they saw you, you would wait for the next one. We realized we hadn't won in a big game against them and we were underdogs. It didn't matter, though."
Behind the guidance of Smith, Team USA finished the tournament undefeated (6-0-0) while outscoring the opposition, 36-8. Granato, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last year, Karyn Bye, Katie King and Gretchen Ulion each finished with 8 points apiece to lead the offense. Goalies Sarah Tueting and Sara DeCosta each won three games.
Their defining moment in American sports history will be honored Dec. 1, when the team is inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel -- nine years after the 1980 men's team entered.
"It's a spectacular award for a great group of athletes and I'm just thrilled that they're being honored," Smith said. "They did something that's never going to be duplicated -- win the first-ever gold medal in Olympic women's ice hockey."
Smith vividly can recall the process of selecting the team that would represent the country that year -- nothing was easy despite the fact there weren't many women's teams to choose from.
"Selecting national teams or Olympic teams is always a puzzle and it takes time and a lot of sweat and tears by those involved," Smith said. "When you look back now and see what that group did and how they performed as a team, obviously, there were a lot of the right pieces in the right places."
The road to victory in Nagano actually began during the 1996-97 season when Smith's club was presented a rigorous, yet advantageous, 29-game pre-Olympic schedule.
"We were going to play the Canadian team 13 times that fall and winter leading into Nagano," Smith said. "And after 13 games against the Canadians we were 6-7, so we were very familiar with them. There was never any thought of having to climb over them or anything like that. We knew we were right there with them, eyeball-to-eyeball."
As it turned out, Team USA would win the next two games, including a gutsy, come-from-behind 7-4 victory Feb. 14 in a game the Americans trailed 4-1 six minutes into the third period.
"Nothing much was said before any of the two Olympic Games with Canada," Smith said. "We knew we were even with them, so we just kind of reviewed the things that had been successful for us. We didn't feel like we had to back down one inch in any zone, whether we were on the power play or shorthanded. We just felt that, from the goal line out, we were just as deep, just as strong and more ready."
Granato also recalls there being a collective calmness during practice and the hours leading up to the gold-medal game.
"Honestly, everything seemed to fall into place," Granato said. "We were really loose and I just remember Ben saying, 'It's like a golf game and now we'll sink the 20-foot putt.' We knew how good we were playing and we felt if we played our game, we'd have a great chance."
They played better than great, and for once, women's hockey earned the spotlight.
"I thought it was unbelievable," said 1980 Team USA men's captain Mike Eruzione. "Just to see how far women's hockey has come since that victory -- I know the sacrifices a lot of these girls have made throughout their lives. Some girls had to cut their hair and play as boys and sacrifice even though there was no real professional hockey. But these girls stayed together through some very difficult times in their life and ended up accomplishing something so amazing. Their story is a great one."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com