It may not be a Winter Olympics year, but 25 years after the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team captured its first gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games, the American women are still going toe-to-toe on the ice with perennial foe Canada. The U.S. women are currently up 3-2 over Canada in the 2022-23 Rivalry Series, which resumes action this Monday, Feb. 20.
The series was introduced by USA Hockey and Hockey Canada during the 2018-19 season as an annual showcase of these superstar squads, but ahead of the teams’ 173rd meeting in international competition, On Her Turf takes a look back at the Olympic triumph that launched a U.S. women’s sports phenomenon.
Heading into the 1998 Olympics, the first to feature women’s ice hockey as a medal sport, the Americans’ rivalry against Canada had already begun to take shape. The two teams had already met in four World Championship gold medal games and two Nations Cup finals. The Canadians held the upper hand, winning five of the six matchups.
But signs of change began to bubble up less than two months prior to the Games, at the 1997 Three Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., when Team USA blanked Canada 3-0 in the gold medal game to earn its first international title. The Americans carried that momentum into Nagano, where they kicked off round-robin play with dominant wins over China (5-0), Sweden (7-1), Finland (4-2) and Japan (10-0).
Having already qualified for the gold medal game on the strength of those four wins, the U.S. faced Canada on the final day of round-robin play with seemingly nothing on the line. Yet as any player on that U.S. team will tell you, it was that particular game – on Feb. 14, 1998 – that changed the trajectory of everything.
“Every single game we played against Canada mattered deeply to us,” forward A.J. Mleczko recalled to NBC Sports ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. “We could play on a pond in the middle of nowhere, and it would be heated and competitive and fierce, and this was no exception.”
Through the first two periods, the score was tied at 1-1, but Canada exploded at the start of the third period, scoring three goals in less than five minutes and taking a 4-1 lead at 45:53 in the third. They called a timeout, which seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for a whiplashed American squad. That… and a bag of doughnuts?
“[Head coach Ben Smith] called us together,” says Mleczko, “and we’re all there and he says, ‘You win this game, and you have a dollar — you got a bag of doughnuts.’ We all of course looked at each other — it’s such a typical Ben Smith-ism. So, it became sort of a rallying cry, right? Bag of doughnuts!”
It was Smith’s way of defusing the emotion – and it worked. Just 72 seconds after the timeout, Team USA got one back from Laurie Baker. Cammi Granato added to the tally less than four minutes later, and about 90 seconds after that, Jenny Schmidgall tied the score at 4-4. A mere 23 seconds later, Tricia Dunn sent USA out in front.
“It was crazy. Every line was involved. Pucks were going in for us,” Granato remembers.
“It felt almost surreal,” adds Mleczko. “I don’t want to say we were laughing because it was intense, but I do remember smiles because it just felt like we were destined. We were going to win this game.”
Team USA bolstered the score with two more unanswered goals in the final three minutes from Lisa Brown-Miller and Baker, respectively, recording a 7-4 win and heading into the gold medal game a changed group.
“If we just beat that team in that many minutes, like, we can beat them,” says Granato about scoring six goals in less than 12 minutes. “They’re beatable, and they were flustered. I think that’s where it felt like a pivotal change. It was subtle, but it was it was pivotal.”
“We go in three days later on Feb. 17, 1998, and everybody in that locker room had just a complete and utter and deep-seated belief that we were going to win the gold medal,” Mleczko says. “That’s what changed on Feb. 14. It changed the culture, the mentality.”
The U.S. took a 2-0 lead in the championship game on goals from Gretchen Ulion and Shelley Looney, but a late Canada goal closed the gap with just four minutes left. Sandra Whyte notched an empty netter with just eight seconds remaining to secure Team USA’s 3-1 victory and a 6-0-0 record in the Olympic tournament.
More than two decades later, Smith says he’s still awed by the accomplishments of the 1998 team.
“After that timeout,” he notes, “over the next three and half periods that these two teams battled, there were 10 goals scored and USA scored nine of them with eight different players.”
“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,” fellow forward Karyn Bye told TeamUSA.com ahead of the team’s 2019 induction into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame. “It was a dream come true for all of us. To have that gold medal put around your neck was something truly magical.”
That magical moment proved to be a cultural turning point for women’s hockey in the U.S. Almost immediately, participation in girls’ hockey surged. At the time of the Nagano Games, USA Hockey reported there were approximately 27,000 registered female players in the country. Twenty years later, that figure had tripled to about 82,000.
More recently, Team USA enjoyed its first true streak of dominance over Team Canada on the ice, beating them in eight straight international finals dating from the 2015 IIHF World Championships through the 2018 Olympics and 2018 Four Nations Cup.
Overall, the U.S. and Canada have battled in six of seven gold medal games at the Winter Olympics and 20 of 21 IIHF Women’s World Championships, with the two exceptions being 2019 Worlds and the 2006 Olympics. The Canadian women are the reigning Olympic and World champions, but the current crop of Team USA stars are chasing their next turn at gold.
MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl