Hannah Brandt skates during women's hockey action in Game #4 of the 2020 Rivalry Series against Canada on Feb. 5, 2020 in Vancouver, Canada.
The last time the U.S. women’s hockey national team skated together, it was February and the players had their sights set on the 2020 world championship scheduled for April. But like many other things in the sports world, the tournament ended up being canceled due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19.
That also resulted in a long break for the program.
The U.S. team, coached by Bob Corkum, didn’t reunite in full until late October when it met in Minnesota for an evaluation camp. The roster was broken up into three practice teams for scrimmages throughout the week.
Megan Keller, a member of the 2018 Olympic gold medal team, said it was nice for the teammates to get together in-person again and relearn some of their systems, though the process was also a bit like riding a bike.
“As soon as that first shift, or first practice, is over with, you kind of figure it out again and learn how people play,” Keller said. “It’s always a great time to learn and grow as a program.
“Even though we can’t high-five and hug, it’s still fun to play hockey together.”
Fifty-three players were invited to the camp, held Oct. 25-31 at the National Sports Center in the Minneapolis suburb of Blaine. Of the 53 players, 17 were on the 2019 team that won a world title, and 14 were on the 2018 Olympic team. Thirty-one players were current collegiate athletes.
Typically at this time of the year the U.S. team would be preparing to take part in the annual Four Nations Cup. However, that event was canceled in 2019 due to a contract dispute within the host Swedish federation, and there’s no tournament scheduled for this year either. Instead, this camp served as one step in the process of choosing the U.S. team for the next IIHF Women’s World Championship, scheduled for April 7-17, 2021, in Nova Scotia. It was also part of the long-term preparations for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
With so much time apart this spring and summer, the players connected like so many did during the pandemic: via Zoom.
“We definitely hopped on the Zoom train,” Keller said. “We had a lot of Zoom calls as a program, some Zoom workouts, which was fun to see people get creative with the weights we were choosing in exercises.”
Maddie Rooney, the winning goalie at the 2018 Olympics, hadn’t seen her national teammates since last December.
“It’s all just showcasing what you have worked on in quarantine, with your college season, showcasing yourself and also how you can play with this team and the team’s systems and overall goals,” said Rooney, a redshirt senior last season with University of Minnesota Duluth.
The eight months the team lost playing together are gone, and the players had to accept there was nothing they could do about that, said fellow 2018 Olympian Kali Flanagan.
Still, she’s confident in the group at camp, which had a good mix of older, veteran players and younger ones.
“We’ve been holding each other accountable to be training at home so that when we did get here in October that we were all really ready to go and to be able to take advantage of this time together,” Flanagan said.
Despite the long layoff as a team, the game plan, the systems and their collective goal — winning the world championship when it comes around — haven’t changed, according to Rooney, who added that the camp was more of a “refresher.” COVID-19 made the environment a little different, she said, but the players competed hard in camp.
“It seems like we’re picking up where we left off in a sense as well,” Rooney said.
The evaluation camp and any games the team can play leading up to the 2021 world championship will help enforce the systems and the kind of game the U.S. team plays, Rooney added.
With the blend of new and old players, there’s also a hole to fill without longtime team captain Meghan Duggan, a mainstay on the team for more than a decade who announced her retirement earlier in October. Keller, who played with Duggan for four years, said the U.S. players all learned a lot from her, and she had a huge impact on the program.
“But I think she passed down a lot of great lessons in leadership to our veteran leadership group,” Keller said. “It’s exciting to see the impact that she’s left on this program. We look forward to carrying it on.”
Thirty-three-year-old Kacey Bellamy and Hilary Knight, 31, are the two veterans on the team who’ve played in each of the past three Olympics. Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Lee Stecklein have each competed at the 2014 and 2018 Olympics.
Flanagan said the older players did a good job introducing the newer players to the team culture, showing them the way they play on the U.S. national team and, in general, welcomed them to camp.
“I think that the younger girls bring a lot of energy, while the older girls bring that wisdom,” Flanagan said.