OF THE HUNDREDS OF CANADIAN FLAGS THAT SEEMED TO WALLPAPER THE INSIDE of Canada Hockey Place, one in particular stood out. Beside Team Canada's bench, the fans in the front row flaunted a flag with a maple leaf of gold. By the end of the night, after the Canadian women had defeated their U.S. archrivals 2-0, the banner migrated to the ice and ended up draped on the shoulders of goalie Shannon Szabados, an appropriate replacement for the pressures of an expectant nation. ¶ The 23-year-old goalie, a first-time Olympian and the least experienced of Canada's three netminders, turned aside 28 shots and earned her second shutout of the tournament—much to her own surprise. "I was standing on the blue line thinking, Did I really just get a shutout?" Szabados said. ¶ The Edmonton native, who has played on elite-level boys' teams since she was 15, flashed a winning glove hand, swatted pucks out of the air with precision and seemed at ease before 16,805 fans in the stands. "Cool as a cucumber," defenseman Carla MacLeod said. "From the first glove save, I knew she would be good."
Szabados wasn't the only one playing beyond her years. Although veterans like Hayley Wickenheiser and Jayna Hefford remained integral players, Team Canada was led to its third straight Olympic gold by a newer generation—six core players age 23 and younger. An hour before the gold medal game, Cassie Campbell-Pascall, the former team captain who won gold in 2002 and '06 and is now an analyst for TSN-CTV, raved about the youngsters. "They're poised; they don't seem to care about the pressure," Campbell said. "I'm 100 percent comfortable saying Marie-Philip Poulin, at the age of 18, is 20 times better than I was at that age."
From Campbell's mouth to Poulin's hands, it seemed, as the forward netted both of Canada's goals, launching a one-timer that whizzed over U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter's left shoulder 14 minutes into the game and scoring off a face-off three minutes later. Poulin, the team's youngest player, has drawn comparisons with Sidney Crosby for her talent and innate hockey sense; now add to the analogy her ability to seize a big moment.
The young generation of stars has made the loss of groundbreaking players like Campbell and Danielle Goyette easier for Team Canada to weather as it continues its Olympic dynasty. "I knew I had to retire when a girl I used to coach at a hockey school when she was nine years old made the national team," says Campbell, now 36.
That little girl was Meghan Agosta, a speedy forward out of Ruthven, Ont. Agosta, now 23 and in her second Olympics, has emerged as the darling of Canadian women's hockey. In leading the team with 15 points, she set a record for most goals scored in an Olympic Games with nine, passing Goyette's mark from 1998, and was named tournament MVP. It's no wonder, considering that in 2008-09 Agosta scored 41 goals and led the NCAA with 2.44 points per game as a sophomore at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. To prepare for the Olympics, she put off a year of school and moved to Calgary, along with her 20 teammates, to train at Hockey Canada's headquarters.
THE GOAL WAS TO WIN GOLD ON THEIR HOME SOIL, and the only real obstacle was a U.S. team that last April won its second straight world championship. A humiliated Canada had finished second two years in a row, and with the Vancouver Games just 10 months away, the team needed to get better.
As part of its 50-game pre-Olympic schedule, Team Canada embarked on its so-called Midget Series, a 30-game season against teenage boys' teams in Alberta. Coach Melody Davidson hoped this would prepare her team for anything it could face along the road to gold: travel, fatigue, injury and the ability to hold firm against unyielding opponents. "They take our game to a high level and keep it there," Wickenheiser said of the boys' teams. "We can play at any tempo in this [Olympic] tournament and be fine."
Even during the Games, as Team Canada trounced Sweden 18-0 and Slovakia 13-1 en route to the semifinals, the team secretly slipped away on off-days to scrimmage against a local Vancouver AAA Midget boys' club, "to stay sharp," said Davidson. Sometimes the boys were asked to mimic the playing style of the U.S. women.
The preparation proved invaluable, and never more so than after Hefford and defenseman Becky Kellar took penalties 23 seconds apart early in the second period of the gold medal game. The U.S., which had been scoring at a 59.1% clip on the power play, suddenly had a two-man advantage. In a pivotal stretch of the game Canada's penalty killers, which included Wickenheiser and the 22-year-old defenseman Catherine Ward, obstructed passing lanes, skillfully blocked shots, minimized Team USA's chances and, most important, kept the Americans off the scoreboard.
Well after the gold medal game, after the celebration, the ceremonies and the media interviews, a handful of Team Canada players returned to the ice at Canada Hockey Place. In a much quieter setting they celebrated a hard-fought win the way that hockey players do—with beers, cigars and cameras in hand, on an empty sheet of ice, all to themselves. Agosta and Poulin basked in the glow, and then on the other side of the glass a familiar face appeared. "Cassie!" one of the players called out. Another player handed the old teammate a beer.