The U.S. women's ice hockey team celebrating their 3-1 win over Canada at the Olympic Games Nagano 1998 on Feb. 17, 1998 in Nagano, Japan.
After the U.S. men’s ice hockey team defeated the Soviet Union in the famous “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, a young and inspired Karyn Bye made a declaration to her parents: One day, she wanted to be at the Olympic Games.
Considering that the Winter Games didn’t have an ice hockey competition for women at the time, Bye’s dream was particularly ambitious. But sure enough, there she was 18 years later at the first-ever Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament.
Bye was one of the stars of Team USA at those 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. The U.S. roster included many other women who, like Bye, had been heavily influenced by the “Miracle on Ice” years earlier, and together, they pulled off their own iconic moment.
That team’s win over fierce rival Canada in the gold-medal game was not only one of the top moments of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games, it was also an inspiration for an entirely new generation of female athletes, including many members of the U.S. team that won gold 20 years later in PyeongChang, South Korea.
With a legacy like that, it’s easy to see why that ’98 team is being inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2019.
The entire team—which also included the likes of Cammi Granato, Katie King, Gretchen Ulion, Angela Ruggiero, Sarah Tueting, Chris Bailey, Laurie Baker, Alana Blahoski, Lisa Brown-Miller, Colleen Coyne, Sara DeCosta, Tricia Dunn, Shelley Looney, Sue Merz, A.J. Mleczko, Tara Mounsey, Vicki Movsessian, Jenny Schmidgall, and Sandra Whyteon the roster—will be honored at an awards dinner on Nov. 1 at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“It’s truly an honor,” said Bye, who led the U.S. team in goal-scoring during the 1998 Olympic tournament. “To be inducted with this group of women makes it that much more special. I think this team has been special from the get-go.”
Although women’s ice hockey didn’t enter the Olympic spotlight until 1998, an intense rivalry had already developed between the United States and Canada in the years prior. The series became known for its physicality and trash talking, but the results consistently favored Canada, which had won all four world championships held before 1998.
“It was such a fun rivalry,” Bye recalled. “Did it get nasty at times? Sure it did. Was there trash talk on the ice? Sure there was. But we stepped on that ice and wanted nothing but to beat them every single time.”
“Going into those Olympic Games, we had to get over a psychological hurdle,” said Granato, who served as the team captain in Nagano. “Canada had dominated us for so many years when it came to the big tournaments.”
The two countries actually faced off twice in the Olympic tournament. The first matchup, which came on the final day of round-robin play, saw Canada jump out to a 4-1 lead in the third period before an offensive explosion from the U.S.—six goals in the final 13 minutes—turned the tide.
Although the outcome of the game was inconsequential for the tournament— both teams had already clinched a spot in the gold-medal game by then—Team USA’s 7-4 win provided a tremendous confidence boost for a U.S. squad that had always been No. 2 to its Canadian counterpart thus far.
“If we could beat them in seven minutes, the way we just did, we could beat them in the final,” Granato said of the team’s mindset after that game. “It wasn’t in the forefront of our minds, but it was in the back of our heads that, in half a period, we had gotten over a hurdle we didn’t think we could get over.”
Three days later, the two rivals met again in the gold-medal game, and tensions were running high.
“There was a lot of emotion going into that game,” Granato said. “I remember writing in my journal the night before (the final) about how I couldn’t sleep. I was having a hard time understanding that 60 minutes of hockey was going to determine whether I’d be completely devastated or on top of the world.”
In that championship game, goals from Ulion and Looney gave the U.S. a 2-0 lead before a late Canada goal closed the gap with four minutes left. But Whyte notched an empty netter shortly after that to assure Team USA’s 3-1 victory.
“I still have a visual of Sandra Whyte scoring that open-net goal, and of jumping on top of the goalie, and of seeing the gold medals come out,” Bye said. “It was a dream come true for all of us. To have that gold medal put around your neck was something truly magical.”
That moment proved to be a cultural turning point. Just as the “Miracle on Ice” had done 18 years earlier, the ’98 team’s performance would have a lasting impact on hockey in America.
Almost immediately, there was a surge in participation in girl's hockey. At the time of the Nagano Games, there were approximately 27,000 registered female players in the country. Within 20 years, that figure had tripled to about 82,000 players, according to USA Hockey.
That part of the team's legacy is a huge source of pride for players like Bye.
“Our team really had a lot to do with the growth of women’s ice hockey,” she said. “If you look at the stats, after the 1998 Olympics, girls’ youth hockey just skyrocketed. That’s awesome.”
That effect could be seen in the most recent U.S. team that competed at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang. Many of the stars from that roster cite the 1998 championship squad among their biggest influences.
Granato, who as a child often recreated the “Miracle on Ice” with her brothers in their basement, found herself in a position to mentor the generation of athletes she had personally helped inspire. Six months before the PyeongChang Games, she made a guest appearance at a U.S. women’s national team training camp and team-building session in Oregon, and the players picked her brain for every detail they could think of in search of the key to success.
The U.S. entered PyeongChang having not won an Olympic gold medal in women’s ice hockey since 1998. Following Team USA’s inaugural triumph in Nagano, Canada stormed back to win the next four Olympic titles. Just as expected though, the gold-medal match in South Korea once again pitted these two powerhouses head-to-head.
The night before the final, Granato had another opportunity to address the team, this time through a video conference.
Many American fans no doubt remember what happened next. Down 2-1, Team USA’s Monique Lamoureux-Morando scored a late goal to even the score and ultimately send the game into overtime. After a scoreless overtime period, the U.S. prevailed in a dramatic shootout to recapture gold for the first time in 20 years.
“We knew people were inspired and we knew everyone was behind us when we won,” Granato said. “It was really special to come home and see the welcoming from fans. But then to hear the players on the 2018 team talk about how we inspired them and gave them this dream, it’s really amazing and really cool to see it come full circle.”