Canada opened the Women’s World Hockey Championships a week ago with sluggish, uncharacteristic play, but they finished it piled in a gleeful heap, celebrating a gold medal.
Team Canada started with 9-2 loss to the U.S in the tournament curtain raiser and slowly reversed its fortunes, getting better each game.
Team psychologist Dr. Peter Jensen empowered them with his messages, many players said. The veterans just took ownership, others explained.
Whatever the reason for the turnaround, Canada won the gold medal game 5-4 in overtime, denying the honour to their heated U.S. rivals for the first time since 2007.
Caroline Ouellette netted two goals -- including the overtime winner as other veterans lit the lamp too, Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford and Meghan Agosta.
“We were really sick of silver,” said Ouellette. “We can’t say we’re better than them. They are amazing, and it’s just whoever is going to be best on any given day, and today, we just wanted it to be us.”
Team USA had dominated its opponents all week, outscoring them 39-2. The fans tailgated outside Gutterson Fieldhouse, packed the rink in American jerseys and waved their American flags to the beat of the University of Vermont Fighting Catamount band. Talk of the U.S speed dominated interviews, and there were whispers about whether -- just perhaps -- it had moved a step ahead of Canada.
On gold medal day, the old rivals both came banging and pounding, skating stride for stride, building the drama that drips off most instalments of this rivalry.
Physical play ruled the night. Two of the biggest young stars of the game, Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin and American Jocelyne Lamoureux were pushing and tripping one another.
Canada’s Jennifer Wakefield and American Kacey Bellamy traded punches. American blue liner Megan Bozek levelled Canadian defender Catherine Ward into the boards. A pushing scrum broke out in front of Shannon Szabados’ Canadian net. Gillian Apps flattened American veteran Julie Chu. Both teams took penalties that lead to costly power play goals.
Wickenheiser scored the first goal of the night, pouncing on a turnover, racing in on a breakaway and then banking in her own rebound. But American Kendall Coyne soon banged a rebound in to tie it 1-1.
Canada pulled ahead in the second period as Hefford bombarded the net and beat goalie Molly Schaus. Ouellette came flying in minutes later, rifling a wrister to pull Canada ahead 3-1.
Very suddenly, Team USA took over. Forward Brianna Decker blasted a snap shot to narrow the score 3-2. Then defender Gigi Marvin added two more, as the Gutterson crowd bellowed.
But just as the U.S. was 2:48 minutes away from gold, Agosta scored on the power play with Lamoureux in the box to tie it up and send it into overtime.
“That sucked to be in the box at the end of the third period, I thought it was an iffy call,” said Lamoureux, who was in the box during Agosta’s tying goal. “I take responsibility for that penalty. You always think you’re going to win. This stings.”
Ouellette’s overtime winner came after a sloppy U.S. line change less than two minutes into the extra period.
“Tessa saw me coming off the bench, she went to the net and brought everyone with her. I think Meaghan Agosta was about to shoot but she heard me yell so she passed to me and Tessa as in front of the goalie so she couldn’t see,” recalled Ouellette. “I get the credit for scoring, but Tessa made it happen, all I had to do was shoot.”
Szabados made 40 saves for Canada, while Shaus kicked away 34.
“The [opening loss]was a big help for us in terms of focusing our team on what we needed to do to accomplish a beat feat like this -- we hadn’t won the Worlds since 2007,” said Canadian coach Dan Church. “It was a wakeup call and got us on task to getting better every day.”
Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin said: "We had great sessions with our team psychologist during the week, it was very special. He said we are the underdog now, and we need to keep improving more each day."
Jensen, a long-time staff member with the Canadian women had sessions with the team all week, encouraging them to build on each performance. At Saturday's morning skate, he stood on the bench with the team gathered before him and delivered a message. He said thinking "me" would mean silver, and thinking "we" would give Canada a true shot at gold.
Players also added that assistant coach Doug Derraugh had given an inspiring pre-game speech about his own days playing hockey in Europe.
"Doug told us Canadians became famous over there for playing with heart and never giving up," said Ouellette. "That really fired us up because it was exactly what we wanted to show."
The two rivals have met in all 14 of the gold medal finals in tournament history dating back to 1990. Canada has now won 10.
“The veteran players stepped up and lead the way,” said Wickenheiser. “We’ve been in these battles a long time, and it was weighing on us -- the losses from the previous years. We calmed everyone down and stuck with it.”