By Chrös McDougall | Sept. 26, 2017, 9:03 p.m. (ET)
(L-R) Monique Lamoureux-Morando, Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan and Brianna Decker pose for portraits at the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 26, 2017 in Park City, Utah.

 

PARK CITY, Utah – Say the word, and you’ll get a reaction from the U.S. women’s ice hockey team.

Canada.

“Even brining it up puts a little fire in all of us,” defenseman Monique Lamoureux-Morando said Tuesday at the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah. “Just even talking about it.”

A lot has happened since Team USA lost a heartbreaking gold-medal game to its northern rival at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, including three consecutive world titles for the Americans. But in a sport that reaches its quadrennial climax at the Olympics, the memory of Sochi still stings.

With a 2-0 lead and less than 3:30 remaining, Team USA was en route to its first gold medal since 1998.

Then Canada scored off a deflection, a long U.S. shot on an open goal bounced off the post and Canada tied the game with less than a minute remaining. Finally, eight minutes into overtime, Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin scored on a power play to secure the gold medal — and complete a shocking collapse for the favored U.S. team.

That it happened at all was numbing for the U.S. players, and that it happened against their most bitter rival left them at a loss for months to come.

“Obviously we would like to change that result, but you have to ask yourself why?” said U.S. coach Robb Stauber, who was an assistant on that 2014 Olympic team.

Why did they put in all of this effort only to fall short? Did they do everything they could to prepare for that moment?

Stauber knew right away that they could have done more. The coaches let the players come around to that realization on their own, a process that took some as much as a year.

Download the Team USA app today for breaking news, Olympic and Paralympic team bios, videos and more.

“We took a hard look in the mirror, and we figured out where we needed to change,” said Hilary Knight, who drew the penalty that preceded the winning goal in Sochi. “And now we’re continuing to evolve and apply those changes, which is extremely difficult.”

The process has been long and steady, with a focus as much on mental preparation as physical. Through there have been setbacks, the trajectory has been decidedly upward.

Under coach Ken Klee, the U.S. came back from Sochi to win the 2015 and 2016 world championships, defeating Canada in the final both times. Then, under Stauber, the U.S. beat Canada again to claim the 2017 world title on home ice this past April in Plymouth, Michigan.

On paper, the Americans have set themselves apart. They’ve won the past four world titles, and seven of the past eight. But Canada has won the past four Olympic gold medals, and even the last two world championship finals have gone into overtime.

Still, confidence among the American players is at an all-time high.

“I feel more confident in our team, but not only that, individually and with my line. I just feel like we’re confident in each other, we trust each other,” forward Brianna Decker said.

“Not that we didn’t trust each other in 2014. (It’s) just different.”

Results have helped, but other events have boosted that confidence, too.

In search of more equitable support from USA Hockey, the women’s national team announced it was willing to sit out the world championships in Michigan — a bet that paid off with a landmark new contract followed by another world title.

“We wouldn’t have made the gut-wrenching decision to put a world championship on the line if it wasn’t something that was of importance to us,” team captain Meghan Duggan said. “I think that it was a historic moment that really changed the future of women’s hockey and women’s sports in this country, and certainly we were proud to be leading the charge and bringing it to light.”

Riding the high from those two milestones, the final 23 players arrived at their pre-Olympic residency earlier this month in the Tampa area. It’s the first time they’ll train in a warm climate, and the players all live within walking distance of each other.

“It’s such a different experience than what some of us have had in the past, and you can already see the differences in it,” said Lamoureux-Morando, a veteran of the past two Olympics.

And if that wasn’t enough to build team chemistry, the players already rode out Hurricane Irma together at the team hotel.

“We’ve always thought we were a tight-knit group,” Lamoureux-Morando said. “In the last couple weeks it’s even compounding off each other, so it’s really awesome.”

Now they’re ready to play.

The coming months will include the Time is Now Tour, which features seven games, including the Four Nations Cup. Of those games, at least four will be against Canada.

But the game the U.S. players are really looking forward to is Feb. 22. That’s the women’s gold-medal game in PyeongChang, and if history is any indication it will likely feature Team USA and Canada, too.

“When we train day in and day out, we picture playing in a gold-medal game and it being against them,” said Lamoureux-Morando.

If and when that day comes, the Americans have a message for their rivals: we’re ready.

“Not taking anything away from the 2014 team at all, because that was a fantastic team and a great group of women, but it’s scary where we’re going to be this February in terms of our talent, our off-ice chemistry, just what we lived through as a group both on and off the ice,” said Knight.

“It’s going to be powerful, and I wouldn’t want to be suited up against us.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.