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My Take: Why You Should Watch the US Women's Team

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Over the next couple of weeks, all of us will be rooting for the seven Penguins competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics: Sidney Crosby; Chris Kunitz; Evgeni Malkin; Brooks Orpik; Paul Martin; Jussi Jokinen; and Olli Maatta. Though I of course want Team USA to win gold, I’ll also be cheering on all the other guys. I cover them on a daily basis, and would be happy to see any of them find success in these Games.

But that being said, while I’m invested in watching all of our guys compete over in Sochi, the team I’m actually watching the closest is the American women – and I beg all of you to give them a chance.

Team USA completed preliminary round action Wednesday morning with a thrilling, back-and-forth, quick and physical, closely contested 3-2 loss against their bitter, hated rival Canada. The Americans won both of their other games by a combined score of 12-1, defeating Finland 3-1 on Feb. 8 and Switzerland 9-0 on Monday. Their next game will be in the semifinals on Saturday.

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When I watch women’s Olympic hockey, I’m watching as more than just a fan. It goes much deeper for me. I started playing hockey when I was 4 years old and continued through college at Michigan State University. I’ve gotten a few texts from people over the last few days asking if I skated with or against any of the girls on Team USA. And yes, I was fortunate enough to share the ice with a few of them at one time or another growing up playing in Michigan.

I played against center Kelli Stack – who scored a goal and two assists in Team USA’s first three games – for a few years, as we competed in the same league (she played for Honeybaked and I played for Little Caesars). And during my senior year of high school, after a few days of tryouts held nationwide in all of the USA Hockey districts and regions, I was invited to the USA Hockey Select 17 Festival in Lake Placid, N.Y. – where I was there with all of the girls my age that are on the Olympic team now.

When I put on that USA jersey for the first time, in the locker room of the same arena where the Miracle on Ice took place back in 1980, I felt overwhelming, staggering pride. To be considered one of the best in your country at what you do – in any capacity – is such an amazing feeling. There is nothing like it. And to be chosen to represent your country that you love so much (and has given me so much) is such a tremendous honor.  

It was the biggest achievement of my career and one of, if not the best, moments of my life, getting to spend a week at the U.S. Olympic Training Center with the most talented female hockey players in the country.

The reason I bring this all up is because I’ve always thought of myself as a great (or at least decent) athlete growing up. I played AAA hockey for one of the most prestigious organizations in the country in the Midwest Elite Hockey League, and had a few offers to play Division III hockey from smaller schools out East (I eventually settled on playing at Michigan State, where I ended up captaining the team my junior and senior years and helped lead our team to the national championship game my last season). I also played three years of varsity soccer in high school.

But next to these girls? I felt like I was just learning how to skate. That’s how incredible of hockey players they are. I’ve experienced up close the amazing athleticism of these women.

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The other day, I was reading this fantastic piece by Yahoo! Sports’ Greg Wyshynski on Amanda Kessel – star Team USA forward and the sister of Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil – and honestly got choked up reading it. It got me so excited, believing she was finally getting some of the recognition she deserved.

I mean, just take a look at a few of her accomplishments: 97 goals in 114 career games at the University of Minnesota; in her most recent season as a Gopher she won the Patty Kazmaier Award (the women's equivalent of the Hobey Baker) while becoming just the fourth player in NCAA history to reach the 100-point mark in a season; back-to-back NCAA titles; and a spot on the U.S. women's Olympic hockey team. Pretty solid, I’d say.

Watching them, it’s not that difficult to realize how fantastic the women are. The scary-good line of Kessel, Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne? They have blazing speed, shiftiness and read off each other beautifully to make sick plays. Stack is a stickhandling magician playing alongside big, powerful scoring winger Hilary Knight, while identical twins and linemates Jocelyne and Monique Lamoreux are fast, skilled and can put the puck in the net. And the goaltending? Jessie Vetter was tremendous against the Canadians. She was confident, aggressive and didn't hesitate to come out to the top of her crease to challenge shooters. She tracked the puck so well and stymied a lot of Grade-A chances against.

But I’ve heard people complain that there is no hitting in women’s hockey. Monique Lamoreux said it best when she told the Wall Street Journal, "For someone to say there's no body checking and no hits is naïve. It happens." And for those of you who don’t believe us, I give you the recent line brawls between the U.S. and Canada and just the overall physicality between the teams in their Wednesday morning matchup as evidence.

Yeah, technically, it’s not allowed. But there’s still plenty of contact, especially along the boards and in the dirty areas around the net. I was a defensemen when I played, and my signature move was a hip check. When going down 1-on-1, I relished every chance I got to steer an opposing player into the boards. Maybe I couldn’t stand them up at the blue line, but that doesn’t mean they could just walk around me.

And honestly, the no bodychecking rule means there’s much more of a focus on skill. The women have more time and space to use their speed and hands to make dazzling plays, especially on this bigger ice. It’s so much fun to watch. And trust me, when you watch the best in the world do anything, it’s going to look awesome no matter what. And this is exactly what that is: the best female hockey players in our country going up against the best female hockey players from other countries.

Yes, women’s hockey is different from the men. But that doesn’t make it any less exciting. And you can’t compare Amanda Kessel to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It’s just not fair. Kessel is a star in her own right. And just like I grew up idolizing Cammi Granato, who captained Team USA to gold at the first Olympics to have women’s hockey as a sport back in 1998, little girls putting on skates for the first time right now are going to grow up idolizing players like Kessel. She’s going to be their hero, and she’s going to be a darn good one.

Another text I got from a friend said, “This is good hockey. I’ve really enjoyed watching these women.” He may have been surprised, but I’m not surprised at all at the caliber of play. I’m proud to have these women athletes representing us and our sport. Hopefully, they can come back home with gold. And hopefully, our whole nation is watching.

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