In Nagano, Japan, in the winter of 1998, the obvious highlight for Karyn Bye and her teammates was winning gold. There was the golden moment of throwing their gloves and helmets in the air, jumping on top of the goaltenders in joyous celebration, and seeing family in the stands.
Some memories are clearer than others.
“I can vividly remember this woman walking across the ice with a platter of 20 gold medals,” said Bye, an alternate captain for Team USA in 1998, who recorded five goals and eight points during the Olympic Winter Games. “To have that placed around your neck, it’s a feeling you can’t even describe. I mean, it was just unbelievable.”
It’s been a quarter-century since the first women’s hockey teams competed at the Olympics and the U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team defeated Canada 3-1 on Feb. 17, 1998, to win the first gold medal. Some players agreed that the moments seem like they’re both 25 years ago, and at the same time, it feels like barely any time has passed since then.
“It seems like it was just yesterday,” said Shelley Looney, who scored what ended up being the game-winning goal in the gold-medal game. “When I watch the video once in a while… that’s when it feels like it was just yesterday that it happened.”
Perhaps the magic started in the meeting between the United States and Canada three days prior to the gold-medal contest in Nagano. Canada had taken a 4-1 lead in the third period of that game, but 72 seconds after a timeout on the ice where head coach Ben Smith huddled his team together, Team USA scored to narrow the deficit to 4-2.
A 5-on-3 advantage then led to a power play goal from team captain Cammi Granato to get within a goal. A couple of minutes later, it was a tie game. Tricia Dunn gave the U.S. the 5-4 lead only 23 seconds after that. By the time the horn sounded, the United States scored six unanswered goals and defeated Canada 7-4.
That game set the stage, said Gretchen Ulion-Silverman. Instead of throwing in the towel, they went out and made a statement to themselves that they were capable of beating Canada. It gave them the confidence they needed headed into that gold-medal game.
“I don’t think there was much doubt in anybody’s mind that we were going to win that one,” Ulion-Silverman said.
Bye remembers stepping onto the ice for warmups before that final game, trying to control the adrenaline pumping through her. Ulion-Silverman put the United States up 1-0 in the second period with a slapshot from the right circle. Looney made it a two-goal lead with a power-play goal on the backdoor, a tally that ended up being the game-winner and one that she called “definitely one of my highlights of my career,” while also crediting her teammates for setting her up on the play.
Goaltender Sarah Tueting also made “some unbelievable saves” to keep the game close, Bye said. But Canada cut the deficit to 2-1 with 4:01 left in the third period. Once Sandra Whyte sent the puck into an empty net for a 3-1 lead with eight seconds to play, Team USA knew it was golden.
As much as the gold-medal game was a highlight, it was the aftermath of the win that sticks out the most.
“After we won, when we’re all standing there and we all grabbed each other’s hands, we lifted them over our heads like one unit,” Looney said. “That was a pretty special moment.”
Tueting recalls singing the Star-Spangled Banner as a team, and then the moments in the locker room following the game when she called her grandmother. At 81 years old, she watched the game in the wee hours of the morning back in the United States and took pictures of Tueting and her teammates “on her old-school TV, because she was so excited,” Tueting said.
It wasn’t until years after the Olympics that there was more of an appreciation for the historical context of what that 1998 team accomplished.
“Looking back, I could see how it was very historic and it was a very special moment in time,” Ulion-Silverman said. “But you’re in that moment, you don’t really realize the impact that it’s having.”
In 1998, there were more than 28,000 girls and women playing hockey in the United States; today, in 2023, that number has tripled, with more than 88,000.
Tueting agreed that their team, while grateful and confident, didn’t necessarily factor in how historical the moment was. They weren’t necessarily thinking about being the “first” but rather focused on playing their best hockey and beating Canada.
“As time has gone by, obviously that comes into different perspective,” Tueting said. “And yeah, there’s a pride of being at the front edge of that wave.”
That game was also one of the earlier chapters — though not the first — in the storied rivalry between the United States and Canada women’s hockey teams. It started earlier in the 1990s during world championship games, and it was heated from the beginning.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t know it could get much deeper than when we played them,” Bye said. “I loved it, because I knew every time we stepped on the ice, it was going to be a battle, a war. It was going to be a really tough game.”
The battles weren’t limited to the ice. Bye and Looney recalled times when the two teams stayed in the same hotels, “and by no means would we ever get in the same elevator with Team Canada,” Bye said. They’d wait for the next one. But it was the competition on the ice that made it fun.
It was definitely a “love/hate relationship,” Looney added.
“Although it was a rivalry that was hot and heavy sometimes, it was something that our sport needed to grow and to shine in front of everybody to show the best of the best that were playing,” Looney said.
Whether the players realized it at the time, the Nagano Olympics held much more significance for women’s hockey than being a first for the sport’s inclusion.
“I think I can speak for all of us, that we had no idea what the Olympics was going to do to women and girls’ hockey,” Bye said. “I think that ’98 gold medal and us winning, I think that was definitely a springboard for women’s and girls’ hockey. It grew after that. To be part of that is pretty special.”
Since the late 1990s, the registration for girls and women playing hockey took off, the number of women’s college hockey teams grew, and girls can now grow up with the hope of not only playing in the Olympics, but also playing in a professional women’s hockey league.
Even the idea of women getting full college scholarships to play hockey wasn’t an option back then. Having that be such a common incentive in the years since is a cool concept in the eyes of Tueting, who won a high school championship in net for a boys’ team before playing for the Dartmouth women’s team in college.
“I think that we all feel proud that women’s hockey has taken such a huge leap forward and that ’98 was kind of a catalyst for that explosion in women, and especially young girls, registering to play hockey,” Ulion-Silverman said.
Now 25 years later, Looney said she can still run into someone who will tell her a story about how they started playing hockey. The story usually goes like this: It was after watching the 1998 Olympics and seeing Team USA win a gold medal and they told themselves, ‘I’m going to start playing hockey."
Looney has heard those stories from adults and kids of all ages.
Olympian and current U.S. Women's National Team member Hilary Knight recalls watching in 1998.
"My memory of those games was pretty much just jumping up and down on the couch and just cheering," Knight said. "Just to see women’s ice hockey at that level and when they captured the gold, just to also have that effect be felt from the top, at the Olympic level all the way to the grassroots level and inspires so many generations - I don’t know what hockey would be in the United States without that win.
Earlier this month, Blake Bolden a trailblazer in women’s hockey as the first Black athlete drafted by a women’s professional hockey team, remembered the golden moment fondly.
“My biggest dream was to be an Olympian -- I told my mom and dad that when I was a young girl and I saw the 1998 team,” Bolden told USAHockey.com
“I said, ‘if that’s the highest that women can be in hockey, then that’s what I want to do,” Bolden said.
“To feel that impact that we were able to put on the sport is something special,” Looney said.
While it’s fairly common now to find girls’ hockey programs for skaters at a young age, most of the members of the 1998 Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team grew up playing hockey surrounded by boys. That was the only option.
Bye registered under her initials, and she knew other girls who used different names, like “Stephanie” going by “Stephen,” for example, “just because sometimes the boys would find out there was a girl on the team, they’d want to try to take an extra run at me or an extra hit,” Bye said.
The athleticism, speed and fitness of girls playing the game today is also notable to the ’98 Olympians. So much more is involved with strength training, nutrition and everything that goes into helping women’s hockey players turn into top athletes. The sport keeps getting better and better, Ulion-Silverman said.
Current players on the women’s national team see the game so well, making it really fun hockey to watch, Looney said.
“The best thing is that women’s hockey has grown with the game,” Looney said. “And I think they’re playing their best hockey nowadays.”
To share in the experience of winning a gold medal with 19 others made it even better, Bye said, because they all did it together, making it even more special. The bond of the close-knit group is part of what really sticks with Looney, how she and her teammates were all on the same page with that one common goal.
Tueting and Sara DeCosta split time in the net during the Olympics, and Tueting pointed to that unique relationship between goaltenders as one of her memories from the 1998 team.
“I trusted her more than any goalie coach,” Tueting said. “It was just a really, really special relationship. That remains a beautiful memory.”
Looney also recognized the support staff and how much a part of the team they were, guiding the players in the right direction.
“If they didn’t have the belief and the backing and the support for us, then who knows where it would have taken us?” Looney said.
The teammates all developed a very tight bond with each other, and they still keep in touch via a text chain, which also helps keep those Olympic memories alive, Bye said. The players have plans for an in-person reunion this year in Rhode Island.
What made the experience of the 1998 team so unique, too, compared to the following Olympics in 2022 where the U.S. took home the silver medal, was that it was a new experience for everybody.
“This was the first time any of us had ever gone to the Olympics,” Bye said. “The next Olympics, 2002, some of us had been there before, some of us hadn’t. So for us, the ’98 team, we were going through it for the first time together.”
That’s part of what Tueting loved about that 1998 team, too. When she and her teammates grew up playing hockey, mostly with boys, playing in the Olympics wasn’t an option. They all played for the love of the sport, she said.
“And then we were given this opportunity, and we were like kids in a candy store,” Tueting said. “We were just so wide-eyed and appreciative and grateful. Just feeling like we had won the jackpot to even be given the same opportunity that men had been given.”
Ulion-Silverman recalls the sacrifice and selflessness among the players leading up to the 1998 Olympics.
A lot of people ask Looney what it feels like to win a gold medal.
“I don’t know, what do you feel if you ever had a dream and it actually came true? It’s hard to put into words,” Looney said.
“But it’s even more special because you didn’t do it alone. You did it with 19 other women. Nobody can take away winning a gold medal together. So I think that’s pretty special.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.