U.S. women’s hockey off to encouraging start

PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games - Day Two

John Walton is taking a break from his seventh season as the radio play-by-play voice of the Washington Capitals to call women’s hockey at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Walton serves as the Capitals’ Senior Director of Broadcasting and has also called the action during the Stanley Cup playoffs on NBCSN. 

What sort of resiliency did Team USA show after going down with seconds to go in the first period?

I saw [U.S. head coach] Robb Stauber, and it sounded like a little adversity might be a good thing.You knew it was going to be a hard-fought game, and the Finns were certainly going to bring their best. You knew that you had a goaltender at the other end who was going to make life difficult, and Noora Raty did exactly that. 

But Team USA has never given up more than one goal in women’s Olympic history in any opening game, and even though they found themselves down a goal here, they ended up not giving up anything else. I thought Maddie Rooney was very good when she needed to be—a little bit shaky during the third period on a couple shots—but all in all for her first Olympic outing, I thought she was good. I thought Kendall Coyne was terrific. Kind of an unsung hero back there, Lee Stecklein was really good. In a defensive corps that’s youthful and inexperienced, Stecklein is one of the veterans coming back, and I thought she was terrific. You put it all together, and it’s a nice opening win for the United States.

Given Team USA’s recent Olympic history—having not won a gold medal since 1998—captain Meghan Duggan mentioned that she wanted the squad to have a focused, workmanlike approach to this year’s tournament. Do you get that sense from being around the team?

I do. It’s a little difficult to say because they’ve been at this since Sochi ended [in 2014], but we’ve only been around them for a week. But they certainly seemed to be focused and ready to do what’s needed. We saw a lot of blocked shots [against Finland] in what I thought was a fairly dominant effort. I think the goal from Venla Hovi was a bit of wake-up call, and it turned into a definite positive here today in the first game of the tournament.

Coach Stauber picked a lot of younger players for this Olympic squad. How do you think they’re fitting in with the very accomplished veteran core?

When you look at this team as a whole, that will tell you how deep the American women’s program is. The team on the ice Sunday was the faster team. They went through a dominant stretch in the second period where they outshot Finland 23-5, and they looked really good doing it. Coyne’s goal was a thing of beauty, and I think the younger players seem to be fitting in pretty well.

But I will say this: Maybe the most impressive newcomer to me was Cayla Barnes. You could see the energy she brings, she’s got good wheels, she’s poised with the puck, and adds some offensive potential to the blue line.

Does the addition of players such as Barnes add a different dimension to this Olympic roster?

That’s a tough question. Everything is different each time this tournament comes around every four years. There is a difference by definition on age alone.

But with the youth in goal, I think there’s no question it’s a different team. We didn’t know until this game started that Rooney was going to be the starting goaltender—we found out just a couple of hours before puck drop. I don’t know when the players found out, but to hear Stauber tell it during the week, I’m not sure that they had much more advance warning than we did. He said all three goalies need to be ready. We thought he might have been leaning Alex Rigsby early in the week because she was on one end of the ice tending the net by herself, but not even a week ago, Rooney and Nicole Hensley were at the other. As it turns out, the Minnesota native Rooney got the start, and a big moment for her to be able to win her first start at the Olympic Games.

Thoughts on Team USA’s next game against the Olympic Athletes from Russia?

The Olympic Athletes from Russia team is in—I don’t know if turmoil is the right word—a lot of transition. It’s almost an entirely different roster from Sochi with not very much experience. They’re the youngest team in the tournament, and they are stuck in Group A, which is not a friendly place to be. For the Americans, I think it’s about building on what they did today and being able to come out and do the same thing against [OAR] and then moving forward with, of course, the game with Canada coming.

Speaking of which, do you think the USA-Canada rivalry has grown after the two teams played multiple exhibition games in the lead up to this year’s Games?

I don’t think the exhibition games fueled it: I think it’s always been there. You go back to Sochi—to come that close to gold and not get it, and the same thing happened in Vancouver. They don’t like each other. They’re pretty honest about that on both sides, so I think the USA-Canada game will be terrific once it gets here.

One last thing: Despite the lopsided result, how was the atmosphere in the Switzerland vs. Korea game? What was the moment like watching a unified Korean team taking the ice for the first time?

It was amazing, and I think the most amazing part was at the end of the game. I’ve been fortunate enough to be an NHL announcer for some time—I’ve called Game 7s in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a moment like the end of the game between Korea and Switzerland, when you had the sister of the North Korean leader, the South Korean president, the IOC president and the entire team, and you have fans who are serenading them for 15, 20, 25 minutes after the game. It was terrific. I’ll never forget it. We all stayed and watched and marveled.

The game itself made no difference—it was the fact that they had come together. The chant was, “We are one,” and it gives you chills just thinking about that moment because this is more than sport. This is the intersection of politics and sport. It felt like a flashpoint on the planet and the Korean peninsula, where there is a lot of tension on a good day, and there can be bad days, too. It’s hopefully something to build on for something bigger than hockey and bigger than sport—maybe a new day for Korea.

Scott Charles contributed to this report

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