GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Two years ago, Michael Schofield earned a Super Bowl ring as an offensive tackle for the Denver Broncos. Yesterday, he watched his fiancé, Kendall Coyne, take home gold with the US women’s hockey team. “It’s the best sporting event I’ve ever gone to in my whole life,” he said about the hockey game. I’ve never been to the Super Bowl, but I’m inclined to agree.
By the time I got to the Gangneung Hockey Centre the second period was underway and the stadium was rollicking. I’d watched the men get eliminated in a shootout the day before on the silent televisions stationed around the main media center, but even if I had to book it on four buses from Big Air in the mountains, I was going to see the U.S. and Canada duke it out in one of the biggest rivalries in sports. It wasn’t a sellout (and, in fact, unlike the men’s gold medal game later this week, it didn’t qualify as one of the “high demand” events, which require even media members to have a ticket to get in) but the overwhelming majority of the seats were filled with mostly drunk fans hanging on every play. They shouted chants of U-S-A and CAN-A-DA back and forth through overtime, coming together only to boo when the shootout was announced.
Inside the arena was the highest concentration of noncompeting Olympians I’ve seen so far at these Games. Team Canada filled an entire section. Scott Moir drank beer, got angry about the officiating (even though it was totally biased in Canada’s favor...), and couldn’t go two feet through the concourse without being asked to pose for a photo. Schofield, watching with a group of over a dozen friends and family members wearing an even split of Coyne and Hilary Knight jerseys, never sat down. The people around him didn’t either. One mom cried through the overtime, ducking out to the bathroom when she couldn’t bear to watch.
And then they won. With a goal by Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson in the sixth frame of the shootout and a save by 20-year-old goalie Maddie Rooney, the Americans in the crowd erupted in hugs and high fives.
All Olympic events are a culmination, a public actualization of years, if not decades, of dedication to an often obscure sport. But this kind of intensity came at a very specific cost. That is: relegating the relevancy of these athletes—who will continue to play at a high level, many for teams that can barely afford to pay them, in the interim—to a game that only happens once every four years. The U.S. women had to threaten to boycott their own World Championship last year just to get a living wage. They were right to bet on themselves, regardless of whether they left Korea with silver or with gold, but this was their chance to prove it when everyone back home was paying attention. And their parents knew it.
“Makes all those early mornings at the rink worth it,” someone’s dad said as the women received their gold medals. Amanda Kessel’s mom nodded. She said that watching this game was more stressful than watching Phil Kessel in the Stanley Cup. She explained that she’d known the Penguins, with Sidney Crosby and so many other superstars, would win. Asked what this victory felt like, her husband answered before she could: “Relief,” he said.
Schofield echoed that sentiment. Watching the U.S. women was, “a thousand times more stressful,” than playing in the Super Bowl had been. Even his own family members back home in the states had been texting him about how tense the game felt on TV. He sprinted around the stadium to be able to face Coyne through the glass during the medal ceremony. Afterwards, she skated over and proudly brandished her new hardware.
After the medal ceremony, and after almost all the fans had left, the stadium was still full of family members waiting to celebrate. Down by the glass, one dad was growing desperate. His voice was raised as he pleaded with a volunteer security personnel to let him through a door out on to the ice. “Those are our daughters out there!” he kept shouting. It was a happy moment but it gave me chills. Unless something changes, it’ll be years before anyone celebrates women’s hockey like this again.