BEIJING – Asking Steve Thompson to pick the No. 1 goaltender on the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. Each of them is special in her own way and brings a unique personality and playing style to the table.
According to an informal scouting report from Team USA’s goaltending coach, Nicole Hensley is a technically sound goaltender. With Alex Cavallini, it’s her strong mental approach and fierce competitiveness. And Maddie Rooney’s strength lies in her unpredictability, which keeps opposing shooters guessing what she’s going to do between the pipes.
Despite their different styles, all three goaltenders have one thing in common: they each have what it takes to lead the U.S. to another Olympic gold medal.
“It’s rare that you’re on a team where all three goalies can be a No. 1,” said Thompson, who pulls double duty as USA Hockey’s manager of goaltending.
“We’ve got three that we know are fully capable of being world-class goaltenders and have proven it in the past. That’s a huge luxury that we have. Our goal is to make sure that they’re all peaking so that, regardless of who’s in net, they have the ability to give us a chance to win.”
Who will get the starting nod when the puck drops on Team USA’s gold-medal defense against Finland on Feb. 3 is anyone’s guess. If you’re expecting head coach Joel Johnson to tip his hand, you’re opening up the wrong fortune cookie.
“We’re in a unique spot unlike any other team … where we’ve got three veteran goalies who could all be a number one. That gives us a lot of flexibility as we go,” Johnson said after Tuesday’s practice, the team’s fourth since arriving here.
“In a year like this with COVID or injuries or anything that can come up possibly to change the dynamic of everything, we’re just in a really fortunate position to have Alex and Maddie and Nicole. And our team is confident no matter who’s in the net.
“I don’t look forward to making a decision because it’s going to mean somebody plays and somebody doesn’t, but I feel confident in whatever decision we come up with.”
And that suits this talented trio of goaltenders just fine. This being their second Olympics together, they already know the drill and plan to be prepared if and when their number is called. And if it’s not their turn, they’ll do whatever they can to support their teammates.
“We’ve been together for almost four and a half years and if one of us gets the nod that night, you know the other two are going to have their back and support them that night,” said Rooney, who received the starting nod in the gold-medal game in PyeongChang, South Korea.
One of the great dichotomies with the position is that while you’re in competition with your teammates for playing time, you also have to be each other’s biggest supporter when it’s their time to shine. While each is a superb athlete and fiercely competitive, their ability to put their egos aside for the good of the team may be their best attribute.
“We are all three very competitive and all three of us want to play and play well,” Hensley said. “At the end of the day, you don’t want to play because somebody else is having an off day, you want to play because all three of you are playing well but you just happen to be the right option that day.
“I think for us, it’s just going out and competing each day and smiling and just worrying about yourself on the ice and let things play out how they’re meant to play out.”
The glue that holds them together during the long road to get here is their faith in Thompson to help them develop into the best goaltenders they can be.
“He brings such an energy to our team and a calmness to our team so it’s awesome to have him,” Cavallini said of her coach who was with her as a member of the gold medal-winning team at the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championship.
“He’s great to work with and he’s so knowledgeable of the game. It’s always fun to be able to speak with a goalie coach and bounce ideas off of, and ask questions and know that you’re getting a legit answer.”
Working with such high level athletes who are driven to win but also willing to put their egos aside for the good of the team makes his job so much easier.
“A lot of that speaks to how long they’ve all been together,” Thompson said. “They’ve all been through this and understand that while all of them certainly want to play in the big moments, it’s a team that wins and everyone’s got a role in that.”
That doesn’t mean all three don’t want to hear their number if the team reaches the gold-medal game. It’s that competitive spirit that has carried each of them to the top of the women’s hockey world, but they also know there’s only room for one goalie at a time between the pipes.
“All three of us are super competitive, and I think everyone has to be lying if we didn’t say that we wanted to be the starting goaltender,” Hensley said.
“What is so cool about it is that we are all pushing each other to be our best and at the end of the day, it’s a matter of winning another gold medal.”