Ice-cool goaltender Rooney reflects on PyeongChang 2018’s ‘Best Game’

When it came to the biggest moment in USA women’s ice hockey history – a shootout for an Olympic gold medal against fierce rivals Canada – the pressure was on for 20-year-old goaltender Maddie Rooney. The Minnesota stopper became an instant heroine but is hoping it’s just the start for a resurgent USA side.

The USA could have been forgiven for going into the women’s ice hockey final at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 with a degree of pessimism. Canada had won the event’s previous four gold medals and, in recent meetings, had dominated their opponents from south of the border. They’d also beaten the USA in the preliminary round: the prognosis didn’t look good.

“We had a tour against Canada leading into the Olympics and played them six times,” said Maddie Rooney, the USA goalkeeper. “We lost the last five in a row. Then we lost that game in the preliminaries, too. But to be honest, we still stayed positive.

“We tried to play it to our advantage. We thought, ‘You can’t beat a team ten times in a row’. We had it at the back of our minds, maybe it was our turn to win. Canada and USA know each other so well because we play so much, and we knew it was possible. Every game we face them, both teams are at 100%. It’s a very intense, physical, smart game of hockey. We know how they play, so we waited for our chance.”

The chance came at the most opportune moment: in the final. After the match finished 2-2 in regular time, and overtime was goalless, it progressed to a penalty shootout. All eyes were suddenly on the goaltenders, including Rooney - aged just 20 at the time.

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“The final was so dramatic, I remember it all as a blur,” Rooney said. “You never think a gold medal game is going to go into a shootout. Everyone asks me how I felt in that moment and I can’t really describe it. I just remember getting energy from my teammates all around the bench. I liked having the control in my hands. That last save, being a goalie, you have to expect the unexpected and just try to react to anything that gets thrown at you. You need to be technically skilled and have quick reactions – but also have a sense of calm on the ice. If somebody scores on you, you have to be mentally tough and bounce back. After making that last save, everyone came sprinting at me. It was intense.”

The match was so dramatic, it later won the 2018 ESPY Award for ’Best Game’, beating the Super Bowl, World Series and several other thrillers.

“It was amazing, and it’s been a crazy year since,” said Rooney, who is now back in her regular role as goaltender for her college side, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. “We did so much media afterwards, went to the ESPYs, NHL games, it was super cool. But it was down to hard work. Going into the Games, we were confident we could win. We were confident in each other. Everyone had the same goal and we just worked to achieve it together. The team was so well prepared. For those eight months prior to the Olympics, we skated every day. On the ice we worked, off the ice we studied the game. Being so prepared played to our advantage.”

Rooney had a highly enjoyable first Olympic experience. “It was awesome seeing the Korean side playing together [the Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic], and you could really feel the atmosphere of friendship and sense of unity around the Games,” she said.

“It was all so well organised and the facilities were great. I enjoyed seeing some other sports, too. I know a lot of the curling team, as they’re also from Duluth, so I went to watch them [the USA men’s team] win gold, which was cool. There’s a good sense of friendship across the sports.”

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She is relishing the prospect of a title defence at Beijing 2022 – and is ready to take the pain if that’s what it takes to win.

“I was only seven months old when USA won their last women’s hockey gold [at Nagano 1998, when women’s ice hockey was introduced to the Olympic programme], so it came at the right time,” Rooney said. “It has been really big for women’s hockey here. I’m excited to see what’s to come next. There’s a stereotype that goalies are nuts, and having pucks shot at my head all day is a little odd. It can hurt depending where it hits you but I’m used to it. It’s a lot of fun, and I hope this is just the start for me.”