|Team Canada players salute the women's hockey record crowd of 16,347 at Scotiabank Place after their 3-2 shootout win over Team USA (Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
Thirty years ago, Mark Johnson and a plucky group of Americans forged one of the most remarkable moments in Olympic hockey history.
But these days, the man whose two goals helped propel Team USA to its famed 'Miracle On Ice' triumph over the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games sees some pretty amazing things happening with the women's side of the game. Like, for example, the astonishing crowd of 16,347 that watched Canada edge the United States 3-2 in a shootout at Scotiabank Place place on New Year's Day.
What a way to ring in a new year, with a record audience for a women's hockey game in Canada. It was more than 1,200 better than the 15,163 who watched the same two countries duel at Calgary's Pengrowth (then Canadian Airlines) Saddledome on Jan. 26, 1998. Surely, interest in the game is peaking as the Vancouver 2010 Olympics loom on the horizon.
"I think it’s great," Johnson, the Team USA women's head coach, said afterward. "Part of what we do – and Canada is the same way when we play these games – is try to promote the women’s game. The challenge is to try to get people into the building and I’m very impressed with the crowd tonight. I certainly think the players fulfilled their task of entertaining them.
"It’s good for a lot of reasons. Obviously, we would have liked to have won the hockey game but more importantly, I think women’s hockey was really the winner here tonight."
While it was only billed as an exhibition contest – the last of a six-game pre-Olympic series between the two women's hockey powers – this one had all of the trappings of something beyond just another hockey night at Scotiabank Place. From the moment a huge Canadian flag was unfurled and passed along through the arena's lower bowl during the national anthem, it was an evening filled with red and white pride.
"I think it’s unreal," said forward Meghan Agosta of Ruthven, Ont., who scored Team Canada's second goal in regulation time."To have Canadian fans behind you that support you so much is an amazing feeling. To be out there on that ice and even during O Canada
, to see that flag being passed around, is an experience in itself and I’m proud to be Canadian."
"I think it’s unreal.To have Canadian fans behind you that support you so much is an amazing feeling. To be out there on that ice and even during O Canada, to see that flag being passed around, is an experience in itself and I’m proud to be Canadian." - Meghan Agosta
Kingston native Jayna Hefford, whose shootout goal decided the game in Canada's favour, said the record crowd made a further statement about the growth of women's hockey.
"It’s amazing," said Hefford, who was honoured prior to the game for hitting the 200-game milestone with the national team. "The game is growing, as we all know, and to be able to have it on such a big scale like this is great.
"For us, it’s a proud moment to see this many people come out to see a women’s hockey game and, hopefully, they all go home and tell everyone how great it was. We believe we have a great product with a lot of great athletes here and it’s going to keep growing."
Canada, which also got a first-period goal from Sarah Vaillancourt of Sherbrooke, Que., completed a sweep of the six-game series between the teams. Now it's on to Vancouver and perhaps a showdown for Olympic gold on Feb. 25. But they won't soon forget the way the record-breaking spectacle that opened their year in the nation's capital.
"For a lot of the girls who are from Ontario and Quebec, we don’t get back here very often," said Hefford. "So to have a big crowd like that and showcase the game in front of our friends and family like that is pretty special."