Ben Smith was known for many things during his tenure as the head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team. Among them were his colorful expressions that his players took to calling “Smithisms.”
On one particular occasion, Smith walked into the women’s locker room before a big game and said, “The hay is in the barn, ladies. Let’s go.” Then he walked out.
His players sat behind staring at each other before letting out a collective, “huh?”
What they later learned was that was Smith’s way of saying the work is done, it’s time to go out and play.
Well, there may be a new coach at the controls of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team, with his own way of motivating his club, but ultimately it’s the same message this time around.
This team has done everything it can since coming together in August. They have climbed mountains, both literally and figuratively, they have worked hard on and off the ice, won championships and lost nail biters. Through it all they have come together as a team and ready to take the final step, together.
“We are enjoying the moment and have just loved being part of the Olympics,” said four-time Olympic veteran Angela Ruggiero.
“Our coach has talked all season that this climb we’re on is a mountain and we’re at the top now and hopefully we can get to the very top.”
For the third time in four Olympics, the U.S. and Canada have been on a collision course that will conclude with a gold-medal clash.
The Americans have outscored opponents 40-2, with 12-1, 13-0 and 6-0 wins over China, Russia and Finland in the preliminary round.
Meanwhile, Canada has steamrolled over Slovakia (18-0), Switzerland (10-1) and Sweden (13-1) before blanking Finland, 5-0, in the semifinals.
The Canadians are deep, talented and playing on home ice. The same could be said for the Americans coming into the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City in 2002. Canada hadn’t beaten the U.S. during the 2002 pre-Olympic tour, yet came up big when it counted to win the gold medal, 3-2.
That was then and this is now. With 15 players competing in their first Olympics, there is a new energy in this U.S. locker room, and it shows on and off the ice.
“There’s a very different feeling than we had in Torino or Salt Lake. I think it’s very close to what we were feeling in Nagano,” said Ruggiero, who was only 18 when the U.S. struck gold in 1998.
“This is one of the best teams I’ve ever had an opportunity to play for. We all get along, we all enjoy playing with each other. We have unbelievable skill and heart, and I know that we’ll bring that tomorrow.”
As is often the case in a game with two evenly matched teams, it will come down to which team does the little things well. The U.S. needs to get traffic in front of either of Canada’s top-flight goaltenders, and keep their physical play in check by taking advantage of power play opportunities.
For Ruggiero, who is a physical presence in her own right, she hopes that the officials will keep their whistles close to the vest.
“I’m hoping the refs let us play and there aren’t a million power plays and penalty kills,” she said. “People don’t want to see that. They want to see hockey and in my opinion hockey is 5-on-5. I want them to let us battle it out on the ice and let the hockey speak for itself.”
Ruggiero isn’t concerned about the raucous crowd of 18,000 that will pack the Canada Hockey Place. In fact, she can’t wait to hear the roar and see the sea of red that will be throughout the stands.
“The only time we play in front of huge crowds is in Canada, so we’re used to it,” Ruggiero said. “To me we don’t need a crowd behind us. We know we have 330 million people back home cheering for us and supporting us.”
Since the 2006 Olympics, the U.S. and Canada have met a total of 22 times, with the U.S. holding a 6-1-2-13 record (W-OTW-OTL-L-T). However, the Americans have beaten Canada to win four of the last five championships, including the 2008 and 2009 IIHF World Women’s Championships. Those victories have given the U.S. the No. 1 ranking in the world, a first since the rankings were introduced.
The U.S. may be the No. 1 seed, but they know the Canadians are favored, especially playing on home ice. That’s just fine with them. They know the game is played on the ice, not in the papers. They are relaxed, confident and ready to go.
“I think we’re in a great position. We’re having a great time,” said Ruggiero, who learned earlier in the day that she was elected as an athlete representative to the International Olympic Committee board.
“We were sad today that it was our last practice. We are loving hockey right now. We love what we’re doing and I think you’ll see that on the ice tomorrow.”
Harry Thompson is the editor of USA Hockey Magazine and will be covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for www.USAHockey.com. You can also check out his Olympic blog and Twitter posts at www.USAHockeyMagazine.com.
Tag(s): 2010 - Vancouver, BC