“To be arm-in-arm with your teammates – basically your second family, your sisters –
to lock arms with them and belt out a horrendous version of your national anthem, that’s a pretty sweet feeling.” —Natalie Darwitz
Twelve years ago, the United States Women’s National Hockey Team experienced that sweet feeling after winning its first-ever gold medal at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in Linkoping, Sweden, after defeating Canada 1-0 in a shootout victory.
Before 2005, the U.S. Women’s National Team took home silver medals in eight consecutive World Championships dating back to 1990, the inaugural year of the Women’s World Championship.
“A lot of people forget that we hadn’t won a world championship in the history of the program,” said Angela Ruggiero, a 2005 team member, four-time U.S. Olympian and four-time world champion.
Who took home gold in the first eight championships? The U.S. team’s archrival, Canada, which made the 2005 victory even sweeter.
“The first time you win a big international event and you beat Canada, it’s pretty special,” said three-time U.S. Olympian and three-time world champion Natalie Darwitz, a member of the 2005 team and now head coach of the NCAA Division III women’s hockey team at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Like any gold medal, this one didn’t come easily. After 60 minutes of regulation play, the game was scoreless. Twenty minutes of overtime, still 0-0. So it went to a best-of-five shootout.
Darwitz, Krissy Wendell, and Ruggiero scored in the shootout, with Ruggiero’s goal deemed the game-winner.
“My brother had told me, ‘French Canadian goalies are going to go down and cover the bottom of the net; you have to go upstairs,’ and I remember thinking it was Kim St-Pierre in the net, so I have to go upstairs one way or the other,” Ruggiero said. “I deked to the blocker side on my forehand, pulled it to my backhand and roofed it over St-Pierre’s glove.”
U.S. goaltender Chanda Gunn stopped three of four Canadians in the shootout for the win.
“Chanda Gunn had the game of her life,” Ruggiero said. “Our team stood on its head defensively. We had a fearlessness and quiet confidence on the ice, and there was a sense of ‘We’re going to win this game.’”
The Alchemy of Victory
There’s something special about a championship team at any level of sport, but especially at the world’s highest level. Talent, skill and hard work are prerequisites, but chemistry is what makes a great team legendary. The 2005 team is proof of that.
“Anytime you have strong leadership on the top-end and people who have experience, and you mix in some new, fresh faces, I think that creates a good recipe for success,” Darwitz said.
To come out on top of a grueling, 80-minute contest – plus a shootout – strength of leadership and fortitude of will are paramount. Experience breeds these characteristics.
“You had the veterans; You had the Cammi Granatos, the Shelley Looneys, the Tricia Dunns—the players who had been through two Olympics already,” Darwitz said. “You had me and Krissy Wendell who were young in age, but as far experience in USA Hockey, you could call us veterans.
“Then you had some new blood coming in, a lot of college kids who were fighting for an Olympic spot the following year, and they brought some good energy to the team.”
This harmonious concoction led to the U.S. Team’s first world championship. Simply put, they had the right ingredients in the right amounts.
“It sent a very strong message that anything is possible,” Ruggiero said.
Word to the Wise
As teams battled through the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan, the 2018 Winter Olympics were on the back of their minds. Everyone competed knowing that a good showing at the World Championship could set teams up for success in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“What was crucial was going into an Olympic year,” said Darwitz. “To have any sort of momentum – you can build off of that – and it’s going to give you that confidence going into the Olympics.”