Published: February 3, 2014
The U.S. women's hockey team remains focused on winning gold in Sochi.
They also realize what prevailing on the world's largest stage would mean to the girls they have mentored at clinics around their nation.
"It would be a tremendous boost for the game," said Team USA general manager Reagan Carey, whose organization announced equipment donations to all the players' home youth associations, ranging from Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota to much of New England. "It is important to have a skilled team that provides role models for young girls. This is for something bigger than themselves."
Those donations, clinics and exposure helped the sport grow nationwide to the point that Colorado Springs' Taylor Gross (Penn State) and Molli Mott (St. Cloud State) honed their skills enough for the Division I college ranks.
U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, a former Wisconsin standout, will worry about her sports' future more in March. She has plenty to worry about when Team USA opens pool play against a strong Finland squad Saturday.
"Winning a gold medal would be great for women's hockey in this country," she said. "But we need to bring our best game whoever we play. That is how we know we will be successful."
Canada, the three-time defending Olympic champion, and the top-ranked U.S squad, which includes 11 Olympic veterans, are in the same pool with Finland and Switzerland. The United States won the first gold medal in women's ice hockey when the sport was added to the Olympics for the 1998 Nagano Games. Since that triumph in Japan, the American women have won silver in Salt Lake City, bronze in Turin and silver in Vancouver.
The Finns, Swiss and the Russians have each won bronze at the world championship over the last three years.
The hosts, 2006 silver medalist Sweden, Germany and Japan play in the other pool. The format with the best in one pool and lower seeds in another aims to prevent blowouts such as Canada downing Slovakia 18-0 in Vancouver.
Canada and the U.S. will play Feb. 12, probably for the top seed out of their pool.
"It has been wonderful to have opportunity to play Canada early in other (world championship) tournaments," Duggan said. "It has been great for the exposure of women's hockey. We feel great, and we're playing great hockey."
Canada and Team USA remain the favorites, and the gap between them and the also-rans remains significant - thousands more girls play hockey in North America - but perhaps not in four years.
"Our goal is to be more competitive in (South) Korea in 2018," International Ice Hockey federation president Rene Fasel said after the 2013 world championship. "We need that time to go there."
The IIHF committed about $2 million a year toward development programs and it has shown most in goalie play. That has allowed teams to be more aggressive offensively and stay in games longer, U.S. coach Katey Stone said.
Both the U.S. and Canada enjoy tremendous depth which has led to a rivalry that occasionally boils over.
"The passion behind that rivalry fuels all our players every day," Duggan said, referring to the runner-up finish in Vancouver. "It is always an incredible hockey game when you play Canada, regardless of what end you come out on. They are fierce competitors and so are we.
"We want the gold and they stand in the way of that."
The U.S. hopes a challenging pre-Olympic schedule will pay dividends.
"We are building our armor," Stone said. "It takes time to build confidence and trust in each other. We will be strong offensively and (since Vancouver) we have learned to play better in our zone. We are physically and mentally tough."
"None of us are rookies anymore and we all know what we need to be doing," Duggan said. "We are a group of 21 players who are ready to show what we can do."