By Christy Jeffries & Harry Thompson
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
For the U.S. Women’s National Team, the light that shone brightest through the darkest of times in Harbin, China proved to be the golden glow of its second gold medal at an IIHF World Women’s Hockey Championship.
After dropping a heartbreaking and groundbreaking loss to Finland, the U.S. squad found itself staring at a precipice. On one side was a daunting uphill climb with longtime nemesis Canada standing in the way. On the other was the prospect of being shut out of the medal hunt for the first time in the 10-year history of the IIHF event.
The U.S. squad took the path of most resistance, overcoming stiff odds to turn one of the low points in the program’s history into one of the most celebrated days for USA Hockey.
When the U.S. women’s squad beat a confident Canadian team for the second time in four days to capture its second-ever title, it brought with it a sense of pride and accomplishment, but also a sense of relief.
“It was a huge character test for us, and we responded pretty darn well considering the uphill battle we had to go through,” said Natalie Darwitz, captain of the U.S. squad and member of the program since 1998.
“A fall into a ditch makes you wiser.”
When Finland scored on a 5-on-3 power play in overtime, the hill became steeper as the U.S. group skated off the ice with heads hanging.
A loss to the heavily favored Canadians two days later would have sent the U.S. squad cascading into the bronze-medal game and raised the question on the direction of the program. Instead, the veteran leadership refused to dwell on the negatives and used the loss as a powerful motivator.
“After the game, it was extremely disappointing, but there was still some light at the end of the tunnel,” said Darwitz, who led the tournament with 10 points. “We just had to go through Canada to get there. ”
With the U.S. teetering on the brink, talk turned to the growing parity of the women’s game with a new country poised to stand at the top of the podium historically reserved for the U.S. or Canada. But the talk of the American demise proved to be premature as far as anyone in the U.S. locker room was concerned.
“It was a different group mentality – not seeing Canada as superior,” said three-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero. “There was a marked difference in that it was a collective effort. A lot of previous teams that I’ve been on could have caved and defeated ourselves, but we chose to take the other path – control our own destiny.”
As fate would have it, the Americans launched a great mental and physical comeback. Riding a trio of power-play goals in a 4-2 win over Canada, the U.S. squad punched its ticket to return to the gold-medal game.
“It went through our heads, that we might play in the bronze-medal game, then it became we HAVE to win,” said Darwitz. “The whole team changed – there were no ifs, ands or buts, we were going to win to get to the gold-medal game.”
And so they did, and two nights later they held on to beat Canada, 4-3, and get ready for the long journey home with the gold medal hanging from their necks.
With a renewed sense of confidence, the U.S. Women’s Team can look forward to the challenges that lie ahead leading up to the 2010 Olympics, knowing that they are capable of overcoming any obstacle to reach great heights.
“It gave us a lot of confidence going into next season. We now know that we’re capable of great things and have a lot of potential for the future,” said Darwitz. “We’re not going to slow down, we’re going to keep this going.”
To quote another Chinese proverb, “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.”