In the time leading up to the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship being canceled, along with sporting events across the globe, members of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team were on edge.
The five-time defending champions would ask each other, “Did you hear?” and “Do you think?” as other, albeit mostly smaller, events were starting to fall off the sports calendar.
“Then sure enough, it got canceled,” goaltender Alex Cavallini (née Rigsby) said. “That was so hard for all of us to take at first because it was one of the first sports tournaments to be canceled.”
The news came down on March 7, four days before the NBA suspended its season, opening the floodgates to most global sporting events soon being canceled or postponed indefinitely.
“We were like, all these other pro teams are still playing, or they’re talking about playing without fans, and we could play without fans,” Cavallini continued. “You go through all these different scenarios, then a few days later everything was canceled and you realize there’s a bigger picture here. They’re doing what they can to avoid the spread of this crazy thing going on. I can’t even comprehend having world championships now at this point.”
Long before anyone outside the medical field knew the word “coronavirus,” however, women’s ice hockey had already suffered its first blow to the season.
Sweden was set to host the Four Nations Cup, the annual competition among four of the world’s top women’s teams, in November 2019. However, in September the Swedish ice hockey federation announced it was canceling the tournament due to an ongoing dispute with its women’s players, several of whom were boycotting the national team.
To make up for it, Canada and the U.S. came together for a joint training camp and two exhibition games in November at the practice home of the Pittsburgh Penguins as a way to prepare for the upcoming Rivalry Series between the two nations.
Little did they know that five-game Rivalry Series — two games in December and three in February — would comprise the entire season.
The U.S. roster for the two December games consisted of both post-grad and collegiate players, while the final three games were all post-grads. Even with the mix of players, the U.S. lost just one game in overtime and won the series 4-1.
“Overall I think as we’re stepping back and looking at the big picture, our program looks really strong and that’s really promising for us,” said forward Hilary Knight, a three-time Olympic medalist. “The challenging part for us moving forward is to continue to set higher standards for ourselves and shape those goals. We’ve been very dominant for a long time, and that goes to show the type of character and culture we have in the room. Hopefully that can continue to be developed and nurtured.”
Over the course of the five-game series, the U.S. outscored Canada 15-9. Ten different players scored for Team USA, with Knight leading the way with three goals and Dani Cameranesi, Abby Roque and Alex Carpenter all scoring two apiece.
“It was awesome for the Rivalry Series this year, especially to come together through a couple of different teams,” defenseman Megan Keller, a 2018-time Olympian, said. “Those are important games for us, and any time we play Canada it’s going to be a battle and a bloodbath. It’s great to get out there as a team and compete and honestly have that platform where a lot of younger girls and families can watch us continue to grow our sport.”
Two of the games were decided in overtime, including the final game of the series played in front of a crowd of 13,320 at the Honda Center, home of the Anaheim Ducks. It was the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s ice hockey game in the U.S.
“To be able to have a crowd like that show up and be loud and energetic and cheering for us definitely gave us a lot of wind in our sails,” Knight said. “It was a fun game to be part of, but as Americans representing the U.S. we’re all extremely proud with the crowd that assembled to watch us play. It just goes to show what we’ve always known, that we haven’t had a product problem. We know we’re skilled and fast and physical, but we’ve always had a visibility problem. Once people know we’re there, they’re going to show up and watch us play, and these were promising, significant steps.”
With the series win under their belts, the U.S. began preparing for world championships, which were scheduled for March 31-April 10 in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia. The roster was announced on Feb. 25, with 14 members of the 2018 Olympic gold-medal winning squad among the 23 set to try for Team USA’s sixth world title in a row.
Eleven days later, the event was canceled.
“People were getting really focused and dialed in for worlds and we knew it was going to be a great world championship because it was in Canada and we knew they were going to do a great job hosting and we were the defending champions as well,” Cavallini said. “The team was just getting excited.”
As disappointing as the loss of world championships was initially, as the dominoes fell and it became more apparent what was happening worldwide everyone was on board.
“At the end of the day there are way bigger things going on,” Keller said. “In tough times it’s important to stick together and realize we’re all on the same team and be there for those around us.”