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MC's Take: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

I couldn't stop the tears from flowing. 

Sitting alone in my apartment, I had just watched the U.S. Women's National Team win a gold medal against Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

It had been 20 years since the U.S. last accomplished the feat in 1998, the first year that women's hockey was featured as an Olympic sport. What followed in the next 20 years was heartbreak after heartbreak. 

In 2014, the U.S. had a 2-0 lead against Canada with less than four minutes to play, only to give up two goals and lose in overtime. The United States also lost in the gold medal game in 2010 and 2002 and suffered a monumental upset to Sweden in the semifinal in 2006.

In 2018, Canada had a 2-1 lead in the third period. And with each excruciating minute ticking away, my stress level was going through the roof. And then, with under seven minutes to play in the game, Monique Lamoureux tied the game! My heart raced with every single shot in overtime. 

Then, in the shootout, I witnessed one of the most incredible goals I've EVER seen scored - and I watch Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a nightly basis! - when Jocelyne Lamoureux, Monique's identical twin, beat Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados with a move called "Oops! I Did It Again."

All I can really remember after that was American goaltender Maddie Rooney stopping Canadian hockey legend Meghan Agosta to end the shootout, watching the women celebrate and the tears. Lots of happy tears. I've been fortunate enough to be a part of two Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Penguins, but nothing compares to the emotional highs and lows I experienced during that game.

And now many of the women that played in that dramatic showdown from both Team USA and Hockey Canada will be in town next week to hold a joint training camp at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. The camp will run from Monday, Nov. 4 through Sunday, Nov. 10, culminating with two exhibition games on Friday and Sunday. It's an incredibly unique opportunity to see the best players in the entire world on the same sheet of ice, up close and in person.

When I was growing up as one of just two girls who played hockey in my suburban Detroit community - playing on all-boys' teams until I physically couldn't keep up with them anymore getting dressed in women's bathrooms and refs' rooms, and feeling lonely and isolated missing out on that locker-room camaraderie - my dad told me about this hockey player named Cammi Granato. 

He told me about how Granato also grew up playing on all-boys teams and eventually became the star of her high school team in Downers Grove, Illinois. He told me about how even though players on the opposing teams targeted her because she was so much better than everyone else, she battled through it because she loved playing the game. I was so inspired by her story, and was absolutely ecstatic when I had the opportunity to watch her captain Team USA to that gold medal in 1998 when I was just 10 years old. 

Unfortunately, that was one of the few rare chances I had to watch my idol play. I would have killed for an opportunity like the one we have this week. When I heard that this was happening, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it because it's such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have these incredible athletes around for an entire week, practicing, playing games and making an impact in our community. 

My job is to talk to NHL players. I'm around Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang on a daily basis. It may have taken about five years, but I don't get nervous around Sid anymore. I don't get starstruck around any of these guys. But I'm not sure if I'll be able to say the same about these women, because they're heroes, idols and inspirations for hockey players everywhere.

I certainly felt that way around Kendall Coyne, the captain of Team USA, when she came to Pittsburgh last season as part of the NBC Sports broadcast team when the Penguins hosted Tampa Bay on Jan. 30.

Coyne is one of the fastest players in the world - male AND female. She made history as the first woman to participate in the NHL All-Star Skills competition on Jan. 26, taking part in the Fastest Skater competition. She was the first to go, and blew everyone away with her performance.  

"It was crazy," Kris Letang told me afterward. "We were all sitting on the bench and as she was hitting the first corner, we were like oh my God (laughs). This is fast. A lot of guys were like, 'There's no way I'm beating that.' Everybody was really impressed."

I got a chance to talk with Coyne before the game against the Lightning, and her hope was that when people watched her skate, it helped change the perception of women's hockey. 

"We're always told the game is slower than the men's, it's boring to watch," she said. "I think my score proved the game isn't that slow. We're as fast as the men. Hopefully that means people will come in and support the game equally."

(Note - she's absolutely right. I went more in detail about that in a column I wrote ahead of the 2014 Olympics).

Not only will people in Pittsburgh get to see that speed on display this week, they'll also get to see one of the best rivalries in all of sports. The two hockey powerhouses have faced off in the gold-medal game of every single World Championship and Winter Olympics that have been held, with just two exceptions (2019 WC, 2006 Olympics). 

Team USA has captured gold in eight of the last nine IIHF Women's World Championships, including five straight, while Canada captured four consecutive gold medals in the 2002, '06, '10 and '14 Olympics.

That's thanks in large part to Marie-Philip Poulin, the captain of Team Canada, who has been called the Sidney Crosby of women's hockey. Like Crosby, she has a knack for playing her best on the biggest stages - and has been instrumental in making the rivalry between Canada and the United States so intense and exciting. 

She scored both goals in Canada's 2-0 win over the U.S. in the Gold Medal Game at the 2010 Olympics, and then, in the 2014 Gold Medal Game, Poulin scored the game-tying and game-winning goals in Canada's 3-2 overtime win over the U.S. Her first came with 54.6 seconds left in regulation, while the second came in overtime. Talk about clutch.

"You're going to be seeing that blood-filled rivalry," said Hilary Knight, a three-time Olympian with Team USA. "We bring out the best in one another, so you're going to see some great competition."

You're not going to want to miss out.

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