It wasn't until the clock read 00:37.3 in the women's Olympic hockey final last Thursday that U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero let the unthinkable creep into her mind. With her team setting up for a face-off in its own zone and unable to pull goalie Jessie Vetter for an extra skater, Ruggiero realized she would not win a gold medal in her fourth—and likely final—Olympic Games. "You almost see your dream in those last 30 seconds," she says. "You're doing everything you can, but it's just slipping.... The last few moments are always the hardest."
When it was over, Canada had defeated the U.S. 2--0 to win its third straight Olympic gold, with Marie-Philip Poulin, a shifty 18-year-old winger, scoring the only goals of the game. Team USA came up empty on two five-on-three power plays in the first 30 minutes, stonewalled by 23-year-old Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados, who finished with 28 saves.
As the women in red and white rejoiced along with the majority of the record 16,805 fans at Canada Hockey Place, the players on the other side of the rink tried to focus on something—anything—else. The 21 members of Team USA couldn't bear to watch their archrivals revel in the victory they had believed for more than two months would be theirs. This was supposed to be the culmination of the four years USA Hockey had spent revamping a program that had settled for a bitter bronze medal in Turin. The team got a new coach, its own director of hockey operations and a residency program at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn.
The results were encouraging. After losing to Canada in the 2007 world championships, Team USA went on to win the worlds in each of the last two years and to believe it could recapture Olympic gold.
But while the U.S. prepped for the Games by occasionally playing high school boys' teams, Team Canada played 30 games against boys clubs from the Alberta Midget Hockey League (age range: 15 to 18), and was better prepared for the Americans than ever. Since November it had won its last five games against Team USA. Even after arriving in Vancouver, Canada sneaked in clandestine games against a local Midget team. "We had to stay sharp," said coach Melody Davidson. "We were winning [our Olympic games] 18--0."
The Canadians' training schedule was tacit admission they weren't going to get good enough to beat the U.S. playing anybody else in the women's draw. The sport has always been bipolar, dominated by the U.S. and Canada since its Olympic debut in Nagano. Sweden's silver four years ago in Turin, highlighted by a 3--2 semifinal defeat of Team USA, offered hope that stronger programs were emerging. But lopsided scores in Vancouver—the U.S. and Canada outscored their opponents 86--4 through the semifinal round—brought back familiar concerns about parity. "I would personally give them more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement," says IOC president Jacques Rogge, who hours before the gold medal match hinted the sport might eventually be cut from the Olympic program. "We cannot continue without improvement."
With Canada and the U.S. locked in an arms race of sorts, they get better at a rate that makes it difficult for other nations to catch up. "It's very frustrating," Ruggiero says of defending the game. "As an advocate of women's sports [I tell people] you can't expect a nation to adopt a sport overnight."
Or catch the Canadians in four years.