NEW YORK -- The memory is nearly four years old, but the heartbreak remains fresh in the souls of United States Olympians Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan.
Two players who became collegiate superstars accustomed to winning it all while skating for the University of Wisconsin were at the peak of their careers, playing with the best in the world at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The U.S. had plowed its way through the competition all the way to the gold-medal game against powerhouse Canada following a 9-2 victory against Sweden.
The taste of gold on their palates, the U.S. had to settle for the flavor of silver, and never had such a precious element tasted like stale black licorice. For a team that brought its “A” game throughout the tournament, that 2-0 loss to Canada was the most inopportune time for the dots to be left disconnected.
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"We did not show up," Knight told NHL.com as part of a New York media tour Monday. "I think the beauty of ice hockey is you have to rely on other people and other people have to rely on you. When one link doesn't work, the entire chain is broken. Unfortunately, something happened, a goal gets scored here, a puck doesn't get chipped out there -- the little things that if you're a fan, you might not pay attention to, but if you're on the ice, you know how important these little moments are. We didn't execute and that was really unfortunate, especially to go on that entire journey with such an amazing group of girls and come up short.
"It didn't feel great to lose our last game of the season, by any means. That's something I still carry with me."
The pain remains a burden, even after three-plus years. It's also motivation for Knight and Duggan to make such a burden worth its weight in gold. With the 2014 Sochi Olympics 100 days away, two prep-school rivals turned tight-knit teammates at Wisconsin and with the U.S. are determined to not just make their second Olympic team, but to ensure that settling for silver is something they never experience again.
Gold has been elusive to the American women since winning the grand prize in their inaugural appearance at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Canada has won every gold medal since, but the women's hockey powerhouse is not unshakable. The U.S. defeated Canada on April 9 to capture gold at the World Championships in Ottawa. The confidence boost is one they plan on riding throughout the rest of an exhibition series against the Canadians that will lead into the preliminary round of the Olympics and the gold-medal game in Sochi on Feb. 20, a date on which the teams are favored to meet yet again.
In Ottawa, the U.S. refused to lose. The plan is to enter Russia and not take no for an answer.
"Beating Canada in Canada in the past World Championships, it was an incredible feeling," Duggan told NHL.com. "There's nothing like that. There were signs all over the boards [that read:] 'Hockey is ours.' We won that game, and hockey was ours that night.
"People have said in the past that Canada is the country of hockey and they're the best women's hockey team ever. In my career, I think the tables have turned a little bit. Canada, they have an outstanding team, but in my eyes, hopefully we'll be able to do whatever it takes to gain the edge on them."
The focus for the U.S. team has been getting better, not worrying about what its nemesis is doing north of the border.
"We're just elevating the game to a different level," Knight said. "We're faster. We're stronger. We're bigger. We're just focusing on getting ourselves better. It's going to be exciting to watch us play and compete."
Knight and Duggan were excitement personified as teammates and linemates at Wisconsin, where they combined to win five national titles. Under coach Mark Johnson, a member of the U.S. Olympic team that famously shocked the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics semifinals en route to winning gold, the two learned how to cope and play in big games. Think of the scene in “Hoosiers,” when Gene Hackman's Norman Dale measured the height from the rim to the floor and the length from the baseline to the foul line to inspire his small-town team before the big championship game.
The measurements were exactly the same. Johnson's message was just as simple. Every rink has two goals, two blue lines and a red line. Don't let the magnitude of the moment consume you.
"Sometimes when the stakes are heightened and you have all this hoopla going on, he finds the simplicity in things and helps you return to what you know, and that's playing hockey," Knight said. "Regardless if it's a gold-medal game in front of [18,000] or 19,000 people, or if you're out on a pond in Minnesota, it's simple. Through his stories and different things I heard from him, he was able to do that for me."
Playing for Herb Brooks, Johnson was prohibited from settling for second best. Knight and Duggan plan on arriving to Sochi with the same mindset: gold or bust.
"We came up a little bit short [in 2010]," Duggan said. "That wasn't obviously the outcome we were expecting. I think you go to an Olympics and it's hard to lose your last game of the season. As time went on, you become proud of your silver medal and proud of what you did, but obviously we wanted the gold, and that's what we're training for right now."