Early in her athletic career, Karyn Bye Dietz arrived at a crossroads.
She entered the ninth grade at River Falls High School in Wisconsin excelling in hockey and basketball. Her hockey ambitions, though, were met with resistance because for the female athlete, the sport wasn't thought to offer a career path. Her father told her so, as did River Falls' varsity basketball coach. Each tried to convince her to stick with basketball.
But there was something about hockey that touched Bye Dietz’s heart, the speed and grace of being on the ice along with a test of her will and perseverance; to survive and thrive playing with boys under exacting circumstances.
"There were teams that I played against that they did not like having a girl out there," she said. "They would actually try to take extra hits at me or go after me.
Karyn Bye Dietz (left), seen here with Cammi Granato, was told at a young age not to pursue her dream of becoming a hockey player. Instead she blazed a path for all women to embrace the sport, and in December will be honored by becoming the third woman inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. (Photo: USA Hockey)
"It was a daily habit of mine, but I felt that I had to prove that not only to myself but to my teammates on a daily basis that I was good enough to be there, because I obviously took the spot of another boy that didn't make the team. As I got older the challenge became tougher. When I was 12 years old, I was the tallest one out there and, quite honestly, I think I was one of the fastest ones. But as the boys matured they caught up to me and actually went ahead of me, so that's when the challenge really took place when I felt like I had to work that much harder just to prove I deserve to be there.
"I think, looking back, that's what made me the player that I became."
Resolute in her abilities as an athlete, Bye Dietz gave up basketball and tried out for River Falls' hockey team. Her father respectfully disagreed because of the limited opportunities for women to go far and excel in the sport, but Bye had different ideas. Hockey was her reality, and she was determined to see how far she could take it.
"To this day we still kind of laugh about it because I kind of went against his opinion and his advice, saying I should stick with basketball," she said. "Look where it got me. I made the right choice."
It was a choice that took her to the University of New Hampshire, a gold medal at the inaugural women's competition at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame. In the summer, Bye Dietz received a phone call with the news she will become the third woman (Cammi Granato, Cindy Curley) individually inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. The ceremony will take place Dec. 4 in Minneapolis.
Chosen on the basis of extraordinary contribution to the sport of hockey in the U.S., Bye Dietz helped unlock doors for girls who dared to dream big, to dream that they could go far beyond college and no longer be ridiculed playing a "boys" sport.
"As a female hockey player, all through your career, you just have to continue to believe that it's OK for a girl to play hockey," Bye Dietz said. "It was kind of frowned upon there for years. A lot of parents just didn't think hockey was a sport for girls. I think after the 1998 Olympics it was a big eye opener for families and moms and dads to say, 'Wow, girls can play hockey. They're pretty good at it. Look at the level they can play.'
"Now it gives these females a dream. The boys always have the NHL to dream for and now the girls have an Olympic team to dream for. So I think the 1998 Olympics were a springboard for just the growth of women's ice hockey in general, because it just took off after that."
Long before Bye Dietz became alternate captain of the '98 U.S. women's hockey team, one destined to make history, she became inspired at 8 years old watching a group of college kids from America defeat the mighty Soviet Union and later Finland to win gold at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and complete a “Miracle on Ice.” It was at that point she decided she wanted to be an Olympic hockey player, a dream unheard of at the time but in her mind wholly possible after witnessing the impossible.
In her basement, Bye Dietz played hockey with her brother, Chris, pretending she was U.S. defenseman Bill Baker. She finished second on River Falls' hockey team as a junior with seven goals and 11 assists and was a captain her senior year. She excelled at New Hampshire, leading the Wildcats in goals and assists all four seasons, scoring 164 points in 87 games and playing on two ECAC championship teams.
"Hockey is lucky she chose that sport because she's the type of athlete that would have excelled in any area athletically because she was so well prepared," said Ben Smith, who coached the U.S. women's Olympic teams that won gold (1998), silver (2002) and bronze (2006).
Two years after Bye Dietz and New Hampshire tied the U.S. national team 2-2 in a scrimmage, she won the first of six silver medals at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championships. Once she learned that women's hockey could become an Olympic sport, making that team became her next mission.
"For people of her age group, it looked like that was the end of the road, but she wouldn't allow that," Smith said.
Bye Dietz's career reached a new high in Nagano, where her five goals and eight points led the United States to a 6-0-0 record while outscoring the opposition 36-8. Heading into 1998 Olympics, the U.S. and Canada, the world's two best teams, played 13 times in international competition with the Canadians holding a 7-6 series lead. Their first Olympic game was a prelude to the gold-medal showdown, a round-robin match in which the U.S. trailed 4-3 at 5:53 of the third period.
The U.S. responded with six unanswered goals to stun Canada. The rematch for gold was two days later, but Canada was defeated before the final battle was fought.
"That kind of set the stage for the gold-medal game," Smith said. "Not only did we win the medal, I always like to think we won the series 8-7. For us to come up on top, I think was kind of a testament to the willpower of that team almost more than anything else, and I think that's where somebody like Karyn is right at the top of the list."
Bye Dietz went scoreless in the 3-1 victory that won the U.S. gold, but her presence on Smith's leadership council in the round-robin and gold-medal games against Canada was palpable.
"It's not [just] the points. It's the blocked shots, the hard work to get it out of your zone, the sense of timing and when to make the proper line change," Smith said. "She never left anything up to chance, never left that stone unturned. It was with a preparation that was second to none.
"Maybe there have been players with more talent, but there haven't been any better players than Karyn Bye in women's hockey."
Bye Dietz competed in one more Olympics, winning a silver medal in 2002 at Salt Lake City, but it was the USOC Team of the Year in '98, one chosen for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009, that led to a significant growth of the women's game in the United States. When she was younger, Bye Dietz's future endeavors were questioned. Thanks to her trailblazing journey, the women are in the spotlight. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the U.S. team captivated a country, coming within inches of defeating Canada for gold before settling for silver. Two members of that team, Hilary Knight and Anne Schleper, became the first American female skaters to practice with an NHL team.
"She's a strong woman in sport," said Knight, who skated with the Anaheim Ducks in October. "One of the biggest accomplishments obviously is the [U.S.] Hockey Hall of Fame. But I think more importantly is her willpower and her will to win. You needed that whenever she'd get on the ice. She'd compete. That was her puck. That mentality is sort of contagious, especially when you're a young child watching it.
"The game's changed dramatically. It's an incredible journey to experience that and know that that groundwork was laid in '98 and years before on the shoulders of Karyn Bye."
Besides the 110 goals and 229 points in 175 games for the United States, Bye Dietz carried a generation of inspired girls with big dreams. A memorable ride continues in December when she's inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, an honor that leaves an Olympic gold medalist and pioneer of women's sports virtually speechless.
"That's something that's not even on your radar and you get the phone call and you're like, 'Wow, this is really happening. This is a big deal,'" Bye Dietz said. "It's hard to believe. People say that and I don't know if it's really sunk in yet. To be part of that group is going be pretty amazing."