Less than ten minutes into the first period of their first game, the U.S. women’s hockey team encountered what could be their biggest test of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
An awkward collision between U.S. alternate captain Brianna Decker and Finland’s Ronja Savolainen caused both players to fall to the ice, with Decker’s left leg buckling underneath her opponent.
In the near-empty Wukesong Sports Center, Decker’s screams of pain were audible. The three-time Olympian was stretchered off and USA Hockey later confirmed that she had sustained a tournament-ending injury.
“I just told her, ‘We got this,'” U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said. “No matter what, she’s a big part of this group. … You saw that in our response after she went down, how much we picked up the game and took control.”
The U.S. went on to defeat Finland 5-2, with both Amanda Kessel and Alex Carpenter tallying goals in the four minutes following Decker’s injury. Coyne Schofield added made it 4-0 in the second period, while Carpenter added a second goal in the third. Three-time Olympian Susanna Tapani recorded both of Finland’s goals.
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Still, the U.S. team’s decisive win was muted by the early-game injury.
Decker has been a key member of the U.S. national women’s hockey for over a decade. A six-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist, the Wisconsin native has long been considered one of the best players in the world. Last August at the 2021 World Championships, she became the U.S. team’s all-time assist leader in world championship history when she tallied her 39th assist.
But her injury highlights a key decision USA Hockey made heading into this month’s Winter Olympics.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – and China’s stringent testing and isolation procedures – ice hockey’s international federation (IIHF) announced that each men’s and women’s team would be allowed to bring six additional players (aka taxi players) to the Winter Olympics in case of injury and/or illness, including COVID-19. This had the potential to be especially impactful on the women’s side, where Olympic rosters are limited to 23 players, compared to 25 on the men’s side.
Earlier this week, Hockey Canada confirmed that its women’s team had taken advantage of the rule change. Esther Madziya, the communications manager for Canada’s women’s team, told On Her Turf via email that four taxi players were traveling to Beijing. “They will practice and skate and be ready if and when we need them,” Madziya wrote.
The U.S. women’s team, however, does not currently have any additional players in Beijing. The U.S. men’s hockey team brought one taxi player to Beijing: Justin Abdelkader, USA Hockey confirmed on Thursday.
Before the U.S. women’s team departed for Beijing, an unknown number of players who were cut from the 23-player Olympic roster were asked to stay on standby.
In screen shots reviewed by On Her Turf, general manager Katie Million emailed these players the day the U.S. team departed for Beijing, asking them to “remain eligible (and covid free) so that if an injury should occur or someone tests positive for covid while we are in Beijing, we could still possibly call on you to fulfill a role.”
Million’s email went on to say that while Olympic hockey teams had an option to bring reserve athletes, they had decided not to utilize the taxi squad option prior to the start of the Games. She wrote: “Unfortunately, it is not as simple as it may sound and not a very nice experience for those chosen for this role.”
Million cited the fact that while these alternate athletes would be permitted to practice, they would not be allowed to sit on the bench, live in the village, or be considered an Olympian unless they replaced one of the rostered athletes. “Instead of this alternate/reserve option, we will only call on one of you if there is a significant injury or covid issue that allows us to add an athlete,” she wrote.
The reserve athletes were told that they should continue entering their health monitoring data every day in order to remain eligible, but that they would not be required to PCR test.
Given that athletes need two negative PCR test results prior to flying to Beijing – one 96 hours in advance and the other 72 hours in advance – it seems unlikely that the U.S. women’s hockey team would be able to add an athlete to its roster until at least next week, should they choose to.
In January, two days after the U.S. women’s hockey team was officially announced, Million was asked in a press conference whether USA Hockey would consider bringing taxi players to the Beijing Winter Olympics. Here is her response in-full:
At this time, no, we are planning to move forward with our main team, a 23-player roster. We’re really excited about those players and obviously we’re doing everything we can to keep everyone safe and healthy. I do know per the Beijing Olympic Committee rules we do have the opportunity if – for some reason – someone was unable to compete – whether that’s injury COVID etc. – that we do have a small, a very small, window to bring in alternate players if we need to. But obviously that’s a worst-case scenario. And we’re preparing for every scenario, but hopefully we don’t have to do that.
After the U.S. team’s win against Finland, Erica Ayala reported that U.S. women’s head coach Joel Johnson said the team will consider its options moving forward.
The U.S. women will face off next against the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), a team that is currently having COVID-19 challenges, on Saturday.
On Her Turf’s complete guide to the women’s Olympic ice hockey tournament – including a full schedule, team rosters, and tournament history – can be found here.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC