Members of the U.S. women's hockey team celebrate winning gold at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
CHICAGO -- After an Olympic gold-medal performance just a few months ago, the U.S. women’s ice hockey team heads into the upcoming Four Nations Cup with a target on its back. But with the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 now in their rearview mirrors, the returning U.S. players come into their first tournament of the new quad with a focus firmly on the future.
The annual tournament, which starts on Tuesday in Saskatoon, Canada, pits the U.S., Finland, Sweden and Canada against each other, with a round robin this week followed by a medal round on Saturday.
“When you’re in a tournament atmosphere, you have to win the first game before you can move onto the second,” said forward Kendall Coyne Schofield, who played in her second Olympics in PyeongChang. “Even though people would like to see us and Canada, you can’t look past your first opponent, and for us that’s Finland.”
Team USA took home the championship in each of the past three Four Nations Cups, but this is a different team, starting with the head coach, Bob Corkum. He replaces Robb Stauber, who led the Americans to the 2017 world title and 2018 Olympic gold medal. There are also some departures from the 2018 Olympic team, including three-time Olympians Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who are both taking the season off while pregnant. Despite that, expectations remain the same for the members of the U.S. team.
Corkum, who played for 12 years in the NHL, comes in with experience coaching the U.S. Under-22 women’s team. He said one of the dangers of taking over such an accomplished team is that there’s nowhere to go but down.
“We’re at the top of the mountain right now, and we have to find a way to not get complacent and keep on building,” Corkum said. “It’s the start of a new quad, and some new pieces to the puzzle, some new relationships and we’re looking to bring everybody together.”
Coyne Schofield, a Palos Heights, Illinois, native who will skate in her ninth Four Nations Cup, said the change behind the bench is something the team is used to. The team also underwent multiple coaching changes after taking silver at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
“We’ve had new coaches, specifically four years ago at the new quad,” said Coyne Schofield, who plays for the Minnesota Whitecaps of the National Women’s Hockey League. “We responded very well. We’re all sponges, and we want to learn, and this coaching staff has been nothing but professional in teaching us so many amazing things. We’re ready to showcase that.”
The U.S. opens the round-robin portion of the tournament against Finland on Tuesday, followed by a game against Canada on Wednesday and then Sweden on Friday. The top two teams will play for gold on Saturday. The other two teams will play for bronze earlier that day.
While Finland and Sweden are traditionally two of the top teams in women’s hockey, with Finland winning the bronze medal in PyeongChang, it’s the rivalry between Canada and Team USA that captures the most attention. This tournament marks the first time these two foes have faced off since that thrilling gold-medal game in PyeongChang where the U.S. took home its first gold medal in women’s hockey since 1998.
“It’s a heated rivalry, and it’s a game we love to play in, specifically this year,” Coyne Schofield said. “We’ve been on that side of the fence, losing a gold medal in the Olympics. We know the fuel that’s pumping them up right now.”
Though Corkum is new to the team, he still understands how important that rivalry is.
“Obviously, between the U.S. and Canada, it’s always one-two,” Corkum said. “Right now we’re on top of the mountain. Right now they’re chasing us, and we’ve been chasing them before. It’s all in the essence of competition, and the women thrive on it.”
Team USA prepared for the tournament with a camp at MB Ice Arena, the Chicago Blackhawks’ practice facility. That’s where Coyne Schofield, 26, has played as the lone woman in the Chicago Pro Hockey League during the past few years. She had the advantage of skating on familiar ice and got to show her national team teammates how special this facility is to her.
“I know how awesome these facilities are, so I’ve been really excited for my teammates and I to collectively share this experience,” Coyne Schofield said. “Specifically for the young girls in the area, have maybe been around me throughout the summers, but to finally experience all of my teammates, for us to be here, to showcase our talent, our skill on the ice for them was really cool.”
Winning the gold medal in PyeongChang was important not just to the players but also the entire girls’ and women’s hockey community, which continues to grow. As one example, Coyne Schofield’s new team, the Whitecaps, joined the NWHL this season as the fledgling league’s first expansion team.
Coyne Schofield and the rest of Team USA hopes that the momentum will continue into the Four Nations Cup.
“That’s one of the coolest parts of winning a gold medal, seeing the impact it’s had on others,” Coyne Schofield said. “I never thought about that growing up when I dreamt of winning a gold medal, when I held Cammi Granato’s at 7 (years old). It was always, ‘I want to be at the pinnacle of our sport.’
“The takeaway from it is that it is so much bigger than yourself, and just to see the girls specifically in the city of Chicago, where I’ve been, it’s been tremendous. It gives me motivation to want to do it again.”
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.