WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah—As the final seconds ticked down in the Olympic women’s hockey gold medal game last Thursday, the puck came to Harvard’s Jennifer Botterill ’02-’03, whose Canadian team led the fan-favorite Americans, 3-2.
Botterill needed only to clear the puck to preserve the victory, but her shot deflected off a U.S. defenseman, bouncing right back to her as time ran out. Lost for the moment, Botterill rid herself of the suddenly irrelevant puck, raised her stick in the air and rushed towards the Canadian net to pile on goaltender Kim St. Pierre.
It was Canada’s first Olympic women’s hockey gold medal.
For Botterill and former Harvard linemate Tammy Shewchuk ’00-’01, the Canadian victory was ecstasy. For their former Harvard teammates from America, Angela Ruggiero ’02-’04 and A.J. Mleczko ’97-’99, it was agony.
The Canadians won despite all kinds of adversity. They had been put down by the media throughout the Olympics, having lost eight straight to the U.S. in pre-tournament exhibitions. They had to kill eight consecutive penalties, including two tripping calls on Botterill, to avoid falling behind.
Despite all that, it was the Canadians who earned the right to celebrate in the end.
Amid the celebration pile, Botterill and Shewchuk hugged. They then progressed towards center ice and waved passionately to their supporters in the stands, as their friend and former Harvard linemate Angie Francisco ’01 battled with arena security to get in prime photo-taking position.
Botterill and Shewchuk received their gold medals in succession to the tune of John Williams’ Call of the Champions. And when the Canadian national anthem was played, they both sang along.
Botterill, especially, could not hold back tears.
“I honestly believed that we could do it, even when we heard people saying we couldn’t,” Botterill told the Salt Lake Tribune. “When I heard the anthem, the tears got uncontrollable. I was sobbing.”
The medal ceremony was watched by over five million Canadians on national television according to the Toronto Sun. In the U.S., the game was shown in its entirety only on CNBC. NBC showed the final minutes of the game, and then opted for taped skiing coverage instead of the medal ceremony.
The majority of American fans in the crowd saluted the Canadians with respect, but remained stunned at the defeat. Their belief in the U.S. women’s team’s invincibility was deflated by reality. The 1998 Olympics and 1997 Four Nations Cup remain the United States’ only significant international victories over Canada.
Before Canada got its medals, Sweden—a surprise victor over Finland in the bronze medal game—earned its just reward. Then the U.S. women graciously accepted their silver medals as they struggled to hold back tears.
Ruggiero, who tied for the tournament lead in plus-minus, was named the tournament’s best defenseman following the game. St. Pierre, who made 25 saves, was named the top goaltender.
Hayley Wickenheiser, who scored Canada’s second goal and led the tournament with 10 points, was named the top forward and MVP. Botterill had earned the same honors at the most recent world championships when Wickenheiser was out due to injury.
The U.S. had its chances to take control of the game, but couldn’t take advantage of its abundance of power play opportunities, including multiple five-on-threes. The Americans were asked one by one after the game why they weren’t more aggressive on the power play. U.S. Coach Ben Smith ’68 turned all the criticism away by saying he thought the team wasn’t patient enough on the man advantage.
“I thought that we were so excited and we came unglued on our power play,” Smith said. “I thought we were hurrying. We almost got tired out doing it.”
The U.S. put the pressure on down the stretch but couldn’t pull off the win. Julie Chu ’06, an incoming Harvard freshman next year, was one of the few U.S. players who wasn’t tentative.
““When you’re down by a goal with the gold on the line, there’s going to be a sense of urgency,” Chu said.
Canada won the game largely due to the timeliness of its scoring. Canadian forward Cherie Piper, the last player added to the team and a Dartmouth recruit, made the play that set up the first Canadian goal in the game’s first two minutes. Jayna Hefford scored Canada’s third goal on a breakaway with just a second left in the second period.
“The first and last minute of each period are the most important and she scores in the last second,” Shewchuk told the New York Post. “It put a knife in the heart of the Americans.”
Rumors abounded after the game on several fronts. One was that the U.S. team was far more affected by the flu then it publicly revealed itself to be. Another was that the U.S. team trampled on a Canadian flag before the game. The latter, in particular, has been harshly denied by the U.S.
The U.S. must now wait four years to regain the Olympic gold in Turin, Italy.
“That’s one of the bad things about [losing in the Olympics],” Ruggiero said. “It’s such a long wait until you get another chance.”
Canada knows that feeling well. Shewchuk, for one, was the final cut from the Canadian team four years ago. She then had to endure watching her team lose in Nagano.
“We know the feeling of a silver medal,” Shewchuk said. “It’s the most awful feeling in the world. That’s a feeling that stuck with a lot of us for four years.”
Shewchuk turned the disappointment into motivation. Four years later, the gold medal was hers to cherish.