After losing to Canada in the last two women’s ice hockey finals in 2010 and 2014, and without a title since the inaugural women’s competition way back in 1998, the US team finally got the better of their North American neighbours in a five-goal thriller at the Gangneung Hockey Centre. Meanwhile, the men’s competition culminated in an even more dramatic contest between the Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR) team and surprise finalists Germany, with the former coming from behind to claim a golden goal winner.
US take bragging rights in North American derby
Eventual finalists Canada and USA were placed together in Group A of the preliminary round, along with the other two IIHF top-ranked teams, Finland and OAR. The Canadians won the initial North American showdown on 15 February 2-1 before going on to top the group unbeaten. Together with the USA, who finished second, they secured direct qualification for the semi-finals, with the other two teams left to navigate their way through the quarter-final stage.
Finland and the OAR team were joined in the quarter-finals by the top two from Group B, featuring the sides ranked 5-8 by the IIHF. Switzerland finished with three wins from three to claim one of the spots, with second-placed Sweden taking the other. That left Japan and the unified Korea team to battle it out in the classification matches to determine places 5 to 8.
In the first quarter-final, the Swiss were overpowered 6-2 by the OAR team, while Finland defeated Sweden by an even more convincing margin, 7-2. However, both European collectives saw their progress abruptly halted in the semi-finals with 5-0 defeats to Canada and the USA respectively.
The match for third place on 21 February saw the Finns prevail over the OAR team 3-2 to secure the bronze for the third time in their history. It was a particularly joyous occasion for Riikka Valila, who at 44 became the oldest ever female ice hockey player to win an Olympic medal… a full 20 years after she won her first at Nagano 1998!
The following day, Canada and USA locked horns in the final for the third Games in succession. It was the Americans who opened the scoring through Hilary Knight at the end of the first period.
However, the Canadians came back strongly in the second period, scoring twice within the first seven minutes through Haley Irwin and Marie-Philip Poulin to take a 2-1 lead. Poulin’s goal meant she had scored in the third final in a row.
The match took another twist when Monique Lamoureux capitalised on a defensive mix-up in the Canadian ranks to go one-on-one with goaltender Shannon Szabados and score the equaliser with just six minutes left on the clock.
That sent the match into overtime, and with no further scoring the destiny of the gold medal was decided by a penalty shootout. Both Szabados and her US counterpart Maddie Rooney stopped three out of the first five efforts against them. It all came down to the final penalty for each team.
After Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson slotted her effort beyond Szabados, and Rooney kept out Canada’s Meghan Agosta, the US team rushed onto the ice to celebrate a long-awaited victory, throwing their helmets into the air and embracing the hero of the moment, Rooney.
“I can’t put it into words,” said US defender Kacey Bellamy, who was on the losing side in the Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 finals. “This whole year is for everyone that came before us. This is for Julie Chu [the former USA team captain] and for all our families at home, the schools that we went to, everyone supporting us. It’s a feeling I have never experienced.”
Meanwhile, Canada’s star player Poulin said her disappointment was tempered by an acknowledgement that having another team break the Canadian stranglehold on the Olympic gold was a good thing for the sport. “I think it’s good for women’s hockey, but obviously it’s a tough one to swallow. This team really gave their heart out tonight. It’s my second family and I’m so proud of all of them. This team was very special.”
Korean unity on the ice
Another special team that didn’t get anywhere near the podium, but which scored a major victory for Olympism, peace and friendship, was the unified women’s Korean team, drawn together from players from the host nation and their neighbours, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea thanks to an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation brokered by the IOC.
The unified team may not have won any of their games, but they won plenty of fans and admirers, and opened the door to possible future collaborations between the two countries in the sporting arena and beyond it.
“As North and South Korean players work together in harmony, I believe this can be connected to the unification process in Korea,” said Park Sun-hwa, a teacher and hockey fan who watched the unified team’s final match against Sweden, in which their goal in a 6-1 defeat was met with rapturous applause.
“Since the North Korean and South Korean people have so few chances to meet each other, this team has provided the chance for both players and spectators to meet each other. We will learn about the differences in our cultures, but also we can learn how to improve our relationship.”
OAR team end Germany’s fairytale run… but only just
Twelve teams competing in three groups of four contested the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Gangneung Hockey Centre.
Eight of the teams (Sweden, Czech Republic, USA, Canada, OAR team, Finland, Slovakia and Switzerland) qualified for PyeongChang 2018 by virtue of their ranking by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), while the Republic of Korea did so automatically as hosts, and the remaining three – Germany, Slovenia and Norway came through a qualification tournament.
The Czech Republic and Canada (Group A), the OAR team (Group B) and Sweden (Group C), were the best four teams in the preliminary round-robin stage, and qualified directly for the quarter-finals.
The remaining four quarter-final places were determined on the basis of a knock-out round for the other eight teams. Germany upset Sweden 4-3; Canada secured a narrow 1-0 victory over Finland, the Czechs defeated the USA 3-1, while the OAR team cruised past Norway with a 6-1 win.
In the semi-finals, Germany produced another dramatic 4-3 win, this time surprising the reigning champions from Canada, while the OAR team were comfortable 3-0 winners over the Czech Republic.
The battle for bronze between Canada and the Czechs produced a spectacular goal-fest which ended in a 6-4 victory for the North Americans. That meant their 16th podium finish since ice hockey made its Olympic debut at the Summer Games of 1920 in Antwerp, which includes a record nine golds.
In the following day’s final, which took place a few hours before the start of the Closing Ceremony, the OAR team came from behind to overcome Germany 4-3 thanks to a last-gasp equaliser from captain Pavel Gusev at the end of regulation time – his second of the match - followed by a golden goal from Kirill Kaprisov, assisted by Gusev.
Until Gusev’s second goal in the 59th minute, which had levelled the scores at 3-3, the match had been finely balanced. After the OAR team had opened the scoring through Vyacheslav Voinov in the dying seconds of the first period, Germany equalised midway through the second courtesy of Felix Schutz.
As the game opened up in the final period, the balance of power swang first to the OAR, who restored their lead through Gusev, only to see Dominik Kahun draw Germay level again 10 seconds later. And a major upset looked to be on the cards when Jonas Muller handed the underdogs a 3-2 lead with just over three minutes left on the clock. But then up stepped that man Gusev to send the match into overtime.
The decisive blow came when Germany found themselves a man down after Patrick Reimer was sent to the sin bin for dangerous play. The OAR team took full advantage of the power play, scoring the golden goal that handed them the title.
OAR team captain Pavel Datsyuk admitted the collective relief when Gusev’s last-minute equaliser sent the match into overtime.“The hearts of all the players on the bench stopped. We were waiting for this. And when [Gusev] scored, our hearts started beating.”
“In truth, being the favourites always weighs down on you,” added Datsyuk. “You saw how we started playing with the Czechs [in the semi-final] and how we started today with the Germans. We were very cautious because there is such pressure."For silver medallists Germany, whose last ice hockey medal had come way back in 1976 in Innsbruck, their journey to the final had far exceeded expectations.
“It's a little tough right now because we all felt we could have won that game, but that's hockey, that's just the way it is,” reflected German coach Marco Sturm.
“We all thought we would sit at home and watch the final on the couch. But here we are. The boys are going to bring silver home and they should be proud.”