The Stunner in Sochi: An oral history of the 2014 Olympics Women’s Hockey Final (Unabridged)

Marie-Philip Poulin of Canada (29) celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against USA in overtime during the women’s gold medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip )

By Lucas Meyer

 

Mental and physical exhaustion, multiple brawls, a coaching change, lucky bounces, an inspirational note and a huge bag of McDonald’s. A look back at one of the most dramatic moments in hockey and Olympics history.

A bounce off a defender, then one off the post. A six-on-five goal and then huge saves in overtime. A few whistles later and it was Marie-Philip Poulin once again driving the steak in the USA heart. Tears of exhaustion, relief, joy and heartbreak fell down the players’ cheeks. While the Americans were left to figure out how they lost, the Canadians were overjoyed not only because they had won, but because they could finally decompress. The following is an oral history of not just the game, but the context and circumstances leading to it, as well as the events following from players, coaches and others with interesting perspectives. EDITOR’S NOTE: The IIHF declined a request for referee Joy Tottman, to be interviewed.

THE LEADUP: “It was probably the hardest six months of my life” – Natalie Spooner

Long before both teams arrived in Russia, each was preparing for a meeting four years in the making, as Canada had beaten the U.S. 2-0 at the Vancouver Games. After their boot camp in the summer of 2013 in Penticton, Team Canada gathered in Calgary in August for a brutal training camp, team selection and its long road to Sochi.

Natalie Spooner (Canada forward): It was probably the hardest six months of my life. We all had to move to Calgary, you're in a very competitive environment and there's a lot of unknowns. They (Hockey Canada) were picking the team by December and our training before that, it was crazy, I think the motto that they had was Learning To Play While You're Uncomfortable or something along those lines.

Shannon Szabados (Canada goaltender): The start of it really was the boot camp, which we hold every June and it's pretty long, stressful and tedious. Our committee tried to get it in our contract to make it shorter and somehow it ended up being a day longer. I think it ended up being 31 days.

Rebecca Johnston (Canada forward): By October-November, I think a lot of the girls started to feel the exhaustion and people were starting to get hurt. We had so much on our plates; we had the games, a lot of road trips, a lot of on-ice practices, but off-ice workouts as well.

Marie-Philip Poulin (Canada forward): I think they pushed us to limits that sometimes you're like, are we going to make it? We get to the rink and we all love hockey, but sometimes we're like why are we here? We didn't want to be at the rink because we were so exhausted mentally and physically.

Laura Fortino (Canada defenceman): Boot camp alone was probably one of the hardest months of my career and training in general.

A typical day could include a two-hour ice session in the morning, then weights for an hour to an hour and a half right after. Following lunch, the team would do track, yoga or have a video session followed by another two-hour practice in the evening.

Szabados: We had a few player-only meetings about how long we think this could possibly go on and that maybe if we stuck it out another month, hopefully they would start tapering. October, November, December came and nothing changed.

Cassie Campbell-Pascall (CBC Sports Color Commentator, former Canada captain): I truly believe and I'll say it to this day that the Canadians were by far over-trained.

Hayley Wickenheiser (Canada forward): At one point in time I think we had 17 of 24 players injured, taped or braced, so we had our share of wounds along the way and lost several games also, so there was a lot of adversity there. And then obviously mentally it is a grind when you’re in that type of an environment.

Szabados: People have no idea what it takes. I’m playing down south in a men's professional hockey league and it's hard work, but I'm at the rink, we practice for an hour to an hour and a half per day and maybe get a lift in after. I mean I don't want anybody down here to be mad, but that’s a piece of cake compared to what we did at the Olympics and even talking with men's Team Canada telling them a little bit about our days, they thought it was insane how much work we were putting in.

Fortino: There were days, I mean girls probably can tell you, you didn't even want to get out of bed because we were so sore, we were so tired but it's that little voice inside you saying you got to get up today and continue to do your best no matter what because somebody will take your spot.

Sami Jo Small (Former Team Canada goaltender): It was the first Olympics where social media allowed fans to really follow along really closely and get the inside scoop. Obviously I had more of an inside scoop . . . There was a lot of chaos going on with the team and I played with a lot of those players and played against a lot of those players as well. I don't know that there was more drama or controversy than we had any other year, I just think that it was expanded because of social media.

The team also dealt with major change. The captaincy would go from Wickenheiser to Caroline Ouellette and just two months before the Olympics in mid-December, head coach Dan Church resigned. The day after he stepped down, Kevin Dineen was offered the job after recently being fired as head coach of the Florida Panthers.

Spooner: That was a whole other basket of worms - who's going to make the team now? The coach probably already was close to making the team and picking the players, because we were so close to having the team chosen.

Wickenheiser: Dineen coming in was the best thing that happened to our team.

Johnston: The first practice, we put on our nicknames on our helmets like we were in tyke again, which was pretty funny, just so he could get familiar with who we are. He did a lot of research and watched game tapes and kind of had a sense of what each player was like coming into that last month and a half before the Olympics.

Campbell-Pascall: A lot of those girls that got to play under Kevin Dineen, they thought he was the best coach they've ever had and I think they truly wanted to win for him.

Ron MacLean (CBC Sports/Hockey Night in Canada Host): The one thing we all knew is that for all the chaos, whatever the internal politics or the situation behind the coaching shuffle, it's Kevin Dineen. We all know his father Bill, who had one of the greatest sayings in hockey is that yes it's just a game, but it's because you work so hard at just a game that you succeed. And Bill with his kids, Gord and Kevin are considered one of the first families of the game. So we knew they were in good hands.

Fortino: We were losing game after game after game and we were at a very low point. I think that in the end, it helped us become resilient and it helped us just grow as a team and individually. And Kevin came in and it was like a breath of fresh air.