They’re the three best friends that anyone could have. And three of the best goalies that any team would ever want.
The U.S. Women’s Olympic Team enjoys a wealth of riches between the pipes, and it’s not simply because of their prowess as puck stoppers.
It has more to do with the rock solid relationship that all three U.S. goaltenders, Brianne McLaughlin-Bittle, Molly Schaus and Jessie Vetter, have developed over the years. And just as good goaltending leads to success on the ice, they form the foundation of team chemistry that is essential to winning Olympic gold.
“It’s as good a relationship as I’ve ever experienced as a coach,” said head coach Katey Stone. “They push each other on the ice and support each other off it. Whoever gets the nod on any given night they have the other two riding on their shoulders. So it’s competitive, but it’s one of the best positive rivalries that I’ve ever experienced as a coach.”
In the ultra-competitive, high-pressure world of international hockey, some of the fiercest battles can be for ice time. Nowhere is that more pronounced than between the pipes. Any athlete worth his or her competitive salt wants the starting nod in any game, whether it’s a preseason affair or when the gold medal is on the line.
“From my experience this is rare,” said Robb Stauber, the goaltending coach with the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team. “These three have set a standard on how you work together. You might not see that again.”
If anyone should know, it’s Stauber, who was the first goaltender to win the Hobey Baker Award in 1988 after his junior season at the University of Minnesota. After a 14-year pro career that included 62 NHL games, Stauber turned his attention to coaching others, including the U.S. Women’s National Team starting in 2009.
“Any time you’re carrying three goaltenders, the chemistry of that group is critical,” said Stauber, who doesn’t put stock in labeling one goaltender over the other two on the depth chart.
“Personally, on any given day I feel comfortable playing any one of them. That’s not going to be the case, but I’m certainly not afraid to put any one of them in there if we should need them.”
“Personally, on any given day I feel comfortable playing any one of them.”
— Robb Stauber, U.S. Women’s Olympic Team goaltending coach
Part of their chemistry comes from working hard on the ice, pushing and encouraging each other to improve their game. For McLaughlin, she may have made the most progress as Stauber has continuously pushed all three to step outside of their comfort zone to improve their basic puck stopping skills.
“We always say ‘be comfortable with being uncomfortable,’” said McLaughlin, who honed her skills at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
“When Robb first came here he said to forget everything you’ve done before and do it this way. It was a struggle because everything that I naturally wanted to do I was trying to change. It’s allowed all of us to open our minds. We’re all getting a little bit more aggressive and playing smarter.”
Often the odd man out when it comes to big games, McLaughlin has stepped up and shined when given the opportunity, posting shutouts in her only starts at the 2011 and 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championships.
“As much as you want to play, you want to win,” said the native of Sheffield Village, Ohio. “That’s the ultimate goal, to come out of this thing with a gold medal. So whatever goalie is in there has got to get the job done.”
Like McLaughlin, Schaus has made the most of her opportunities. After four years at Boston College, the Natick, Mass., native joined the U.S. Women’s program in 2007. Over the years she has seen her playing time increase, often when the spotlight shines the brightest.
She started five games at the 2011 Women’s Worlds, where the U.S. won gold, and three more games on home ice in Burlington, Vt., where she was on the losing end of an overtime thriller. Her one start in Vancouver came in a 12-1 victory over China, where she gave way to McLaughlin in the third period.
“We all understand the position we’re in. Only one goalie can play and we’re all vying for that spot,” Schaus admitted. “But at the end of the day we want our team to succeed, and whoever is in net we know will do the best they can.”
Anchoring the staff is Vetter, a 28-year-old from Cottage Grove, Wis., who led the University of Wisconsin to three NCAA titles and won the 2009 Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in women’s college hockey. Since making her international debut in 2006, Vetter has made 16 starts in IIHF Women’s World Championships and boasts a 3-0-0-1 mark with two shutouts in Olympic competition.
And while she may appear on paper like the odds-on favorite to get the starting nod when the gold medal is on the line, Vetter said that if the call doesn’t go her way, nobody will be cheering louder for her teammates than her.
“Most people would think that you’re secretly hoping that the other goalie lets in six or seven, but we go in with the attitude that we hope she gets a shutout or makes a big save that will turn the game around if we need it,” Vetter said.
“I think we’ve done a great job of that over the years and in return we’ve developed some good friendships out of it.”