(L-R) Nicole Hensley, Alex Rigsby, and Maddie Rooney are the goalies on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Women's Ice Hockey Team.
A new era for the U.S. women’s hockey team began in August 2016 with the retirement of longtime goalie Jessie Vetter.
Vetter, who backstopped Team USA to silver medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games, had been the squad’s No. 1 goalie for the better part of seven seasons, starting in both Olympic gold-medal games and five world championships during that time.
Now more than a year after Vetter’s announcement, and a month before the 2018 Olympic Winter Games begin in PyeongChang, no single goalie has taken Vetter’s role as the team’s clear No. 1.
And that’s just fine with coach Robb Stauber.
“If we have the ability and feel confident that we can put a goalie in there, no matter who it is, and we can come away with the win, then for the program that’s a win,” Stauber said.
One could accuse Stauber of using coachspeak for “we don’t have one really good goalie,” but Team USA’s three goalies — Alex Rigsby, Nicole Hensley and Maddie Rooney — named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team on Monday have each taken turns as the primary starter, and each have proven that they can indeed win in big situations.
The question now is whether Stauber will eventually name a primary starter like Team USA had in Vancouver and Sochi, when Vetter played in four of Team USA’s five games, or whether he’ll instead go with a strategic approach like he did at the 2017 world championships, when all three goalies started a game en route to the team’s fourth consecutive world title.
It’s a question Stauber and USA Hockey staff have been happy to delay answering.
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“I think every game is a little different and it has a different objective and a different challenge, and our goalies are different too,” general manager of the 2018 U.S. Olympic women’s team Reagan Carey said in September at the Team USA Media Summit in Utah. “So we’re trying to piece things together and make sure it’s the best fit for each game. It might be different for every game, or it might be the same, but we have a long time to figure that out.”
The three goalies have each had an opportunity to make their case over the past two seasons, and especially over the past two months, when the U.S. team played in 10 games, including the Four Nations Cup, as part of its pre-Olympic schedule.
Rigsby, 26, is the blue blood.
Growing up just outside Milwaukee, she came up through the national team system — being named best goalie at the 2009 and 2010 U18 world championships — before following in Vetter’s tracks as the starting goalie at Wisconsin.
After being the last goalie cut from the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, Rigsby began making her move, winning two games for Team USA at the 2015 world championships and then unseating Vetter as the No. 1 goalie at the 2016 worlds, where she finished by shutting out Canada in the title game.
Hensley, 23, is the underdog.
A Colorado native, Hensley’s options for playing collegiately came down to one scholarship, with the second-year NCAA program at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area.
Playing with the inexperienced team had a key advantage: Hensley faced a lot of shots. And she saved more of them than any NCAA Division 1 goalie, which helped her get an invite to the national team and, this past spring, the primary goalkeeping duties at the world championships. Hensley started three of five games for Team USA, including the title game win against Canada.
And Rooney, 20, is the newcomer, and possibly the favorite.
A native of Andover, Minnesota, which is just north of Minneapolis, Rooney parlayed her experience in the state’s premier girls’ prep league to a spot on the Andover High boys’ team, and that led to a scholarship with the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Following a breakout sophomore season in 2016-17, Rooney got her first international call up with the senior national team for the world championships and promptly shut out Russia. At 19, she was the youngest member of that worlds team, and she’s only gotten stronger from there.
Although stats from the pre-Olympic games can be misleading, as coaches are often trying out new combinations or strategies, Rooney played more minutes than the other two goalies combined, recording four wins and two overtime losses with a 1.83 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. Also among her wins was against Canada in the final of the Four Nations Cup.
Stauber has said he’s in no hurry to name a primary starter, and based on last season’s world championships, when he kept his starting goalies to himself ahead of each game, there’s little reason to expect a grand pronouncement this time.
In fact, that’s all part of the plan.
Stauber, a former goalie himself, won the Hobey Baker while at Minnesota and went on to play parts of four seasons in the NHL. He now starts each practice working with the goalies, nurturing them into a cohesive unit that can lead the team from the back.
It also helped that USA Hockey named its national team in May and carried only three goalies up to Monday’s Olympic team announcement, giving the players time to bond without the fear of getting cut (Vetter came out of retirement to try out for the Olympic team but missed the cut in May). Over this time, the three goalies have become friends while splitting duties.
“The fact that our goalies are very close, it affords us the ability to say, ‘Your turn,’” Stauber said.
The approach has worked so far under Stauber. And no matter who starts in PyeongChang, his goalies have bought in.
“You know, if I’m on the bench or I’m in the stands or I’m on the ice, I’m embracing my role,” Rigsby said. “I’m not going to be sitting out there, pouting and being upset that I’m not playing. I’m going to be a supportive teammate.”
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.