The latest victory for the U.S. under-18 women’s ice hockey national team marks more than just an #UltimateTeamMoment for this group of elite athletes—it’s part of an entire team experience.
In today’s article, learn about the long-standing rivalry among some of the United States’ and Canada’s most gifted young hockey stars, and discover how Team USA’s collaboration and camaraderie isn’t just limited to the ice rink.
Ultimate Team Effort Drives U.S. U18 Women to Another Hockey World Title
The United States-Canada rivalry in women’s ice hockey starts when kids become old enough to play for their respective countries, said Alex Gulstene.
“Kids on both teams want to play for their country,” Gulstene, the goalie for the U.S. under-18 women’s national team, said. “I want to play against Canada, and I want to beat Canada winning gold.”
That’s exactly what happened for Gulstene and her American teammates Jan. 14, at the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship gold-medal game in Zlin, Czech Republic. Team USA scored twice in the third period to down Canada 3-1, marking the third time in a row the Americans defeated their northern rival for a U18 world title.
The effort took more than a strong goalie like Gulstene.
It’s more than sharpshooters like Grace Zumwinkle, Cayla Barnes, and Natalie Heising.
It’s defense, penalty killing, and power plays.
It’s bringing together a team that comes from all over the country, from New York to Alaska and Minnesota to Texas, and everywhere in between.
It’s the ultimate team experience.
“It can be difficult to jell, but we all have a common goal in mind,” said Gulstene, who had 27 saves in the game. “We start building as a team from the first camp all the way until now.”
Gulstene said team bonding comes from the whole experience, including dinners, road trips, the long flight to the Czech Republic, playing games at the hotel, and hanging out in the foreign country.
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together is up to the coaching staff, led by U18 coach Joel Johnson. He takes different personalities and playing styles, and he melds them into one cohesive unit in a very short timeframe.
“We’ve mixed some things up like the line combinations and the penalty-kill set,” Johnson said. “They get used to their teammates quickly, and we just ask the girls to trust the coaching staff.”
The Americans navigated their pool play round by going 2-1, with a 6-1 win over Russia and 4-0 win over Sweden. Canada defeated Team USA 1-0, but both teams got a first-round bye into the semifinals to set up a rematch in the final. The United States actually defeated Canada with matching 3-2 overtime wins in the two previous championships.
The teams played a scoreless first period before Delaney Drake put the United States ahead 1-0 off an assist from Clair DeGeorge on a power play.
Canada tied the game midway through the third period, making it look like the teams would go to overtime for a third-consecutive world championship game.
“We were up 1-0 and playing well, but when you have a goal lead you tend to play more defensively,” Johnson said. “Grace Zumwinkle scored, and that kind of turned the tide for us.”
Zumwinkle’s goal to make it 2-1 also came off an assist from DeGeorge. Emily Oden iced the game with an empty-net goal with five seconds remaining on the clock.
“We got better as the game went on,” Johnson said. “Our players continued to work hard, and good things started to happen for us.”
Gulstene said winning gold is a dream for a crop of athletes striving for moments like these, although she was a little nervous before the game began.
“There were some nerves before the game for sure,” Gulstene said. “When it came down to it, the puck dropped and we were ready to play.
“This means everything. It makes all the early mornings, the late nights, and 16-hour drives to tournaments worth it.”
The team trained in New Jersey and took in a professional hockey game as part of their bonding experience. Gulstene said the team would celebrate with their families and teammates at the hotel, and then start looking toward their futures. For some, that might mean a shot at the PyeongChang 2018 or Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
“Making the national team isn’t something we talk about, but I know we have some players who are certainly thinking about it,” Gulstene said.
Johnson said though he might have some girls who could compete, what they’re doing now is preparing them for further down the road.
“The national team is very deep,” Johnson said. “Where our girls might not be ready to be evaluated for the next Games, there’s the possibility of four years, maybe eight years away. And that’s what we’re getting them ready for.”
Scott McDonald has 18 years’ experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.