Gold in 1998, silver in 2002 and bronze in 2006.
To the casual observer, the U.S. Women’s Olympic program appears to be heading in the wrong direction. But where others may see a backward slide, Michele Amidon sees a golden opportunity for advancement. And based on recent events, it’s easy to see why.
Two years away from writing the fourth chapter in women’s Olympic history, USA Hockey has refined its approach to get back to the top of the sport.
To start with, the organization hired Amidon, a former U.S. National Team player and experienced college coach, to oversee the day-to-day operations of the women’s program. A new development program is in full swing, and a residency program is in the works as the Games draw closer.
The departure of long-time head coach Ben Smith has meant new blood has been transfused into the coaching ranks, and a number of talented players are ready to make their mark.
The latter was evident when the U.S. Women’s National Under-18 Team won the first gold in the 2008 IIHF World Women’s U18 Championship in January, leaving the program with a sense that brighter days are on the horizon.
“We have some very good young talent,” says Amidon. “Looking at our roster from the Under-18 tournament, we have eight kids who will be eligible for next year’s tournament. Bringing that many back into the mix means we have a great chance of winning gold again.”
There’s a strong possibility that many of them will also be in the mix when the U.S. Olympic tryout camp gets under way in August of 2009. It will likely be a different scenario from past camps, where a number of players were vying for a select few roster spots.
“Some of those [U18] players will definitely be in the mix because they’re that talented. All they need is a little more exposure and experience,” says Amidon.
“I don’t think the roster changed that drastically over the years. You pretty much had your set 15 [players], and there were five to seven nipping at the last spots. Now it’s the other way around.”
It’s the same for other countries, including Canada, which has seen a number of its veteran players retiring after years of international excellence.
“The biggest thing is that Canada has made a lot of changes to their roster and we’ve made a lot of changes to our roster, so there’s still a lot of unknowns for both of us,” says Amidon.
“To have that many open spots is exciting and scary at the same time. We want some players to start stepping up to help make the decisions easier for us. But there’s still plenty of time. I think that brings an element of competitiveness that hasn’t been there in awhile.”
A lot can happen in two years time, but by one count, only four or five players from the 2006 squad that won bronze in Torino, Italy will likely be on the team competing in Vancouver – Julie Chu, Natalie Darwitz, Jenny Potter, Angela Ruggiero and possibly Krissy Wendell and Kristin King.
It’s the same with the coaching staff, which will need to replace Smith, who led the U.S. squad in its first three Olympic appearances.
Amidon says the next Olympic coach won’t be named until a year before the Games begin, giving him or her enough time to work with the squad and coach the team during the 2009 World Championship prior to Vancouver.
While those involved in the decision remain closed lipped, one thing is for certain. There are several very capable candidates in the mix, including Mark Johnson, Jackie Barto and Katey Stone.
Johnson, the head coach of the two-time NCAA champion Wisconsin Badgers, coached the U.S. women to silver at the 2007 World Women’s Championship, while Stone, now in her 14th year at the reins of Harvard University, was at the helm of the U.S. Under-18 Team that won gold in Calgary. Barto is the head coach of The Ohio State University and will lead the U.S. Women’s squad at the 2008 World Championship.
Amidon and the rest of the USA Hockey brain trust are quick to point out that the changes in the women’s program are not a knee-jerk reaction to its stunning bronze-medal finish in Torino, but more the natural progression that comes with examining what has and what hasn’t worked in the past.
“I think if you look at all three Olympics, two of them were successful. So it was only the last Olympics where we definitely fell short,” says Amidon, who was coaching at Bowdoin College at the time.
“I also think that it might have been a good thing in the long run. It changed a lot of things about the program. Let’s face it, [losing to Sweden in a semifinal shootout] was definitely a good thing for women’s hockey in Europe.”
With two years left before Vancouver, there is plenty of time to help some of the younger players gain valuable international experience, and mold the veterans and newcomers into a cohesive unit that will reverse the trend and bring gold back to the United States.
“We definitely don’t want to fly under the radar,” says Amidon. “We have two World Championships and two more Four Nations tournaments before then. Our goal is to win the gold at those events and use those opportunities to improve heading into Vancouver.”