They approach her with well-worn gloves, pads and helmets to sign. Some simply ask for hugs. She responds with a smile while extending her 586-gram gold medal. It’s heavier than one might imagine, and she wants fans to hold it because the U.S. women’s hockey team’s first-place finish in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics was not simply for the 23 players on the roster.
It also served as a decades-long vindication for a sport that has struggled in the United States, one that endured the losing side of an intra-continental rivalry and a domestic labor dispute. And it belongs to the nation’s fans and the next generation of women’s hockey players.
“We’re hoping to be as big an inspiration for the next generation as the last one was for us,” Rooney said, who was 7 months old the last time the American women won a gold medal.
On Friday, several hundred young girls’ hockey players — and several hundred more well-wishers — packed Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va., for a meet-and-greet and youth clinic with the Olympians. And if it is a sign of the legacy the team has created after its thrilling run in South Korea, the sport’s future is promising, players said.
“Women’s hockey is growing everywhere,” said Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who scored the winning shootout goal against Canada.
“That’s our goal: to make kids smile and make kids love hockey,” added defenseman Cayla Barnes.
Eight-year-old Dagny Richardson, of Laytonsville, Md., was on the ice for the clinic. She practiced passing, skating and puck-handling with Olympians Hilary Knight and Amanda Kessel.
She learned to skate as a 3-year-old and practiced with the goal of lacing up hockey skates until she was 7. Now she plays on a co-ed recreational hockey team and an all-girls travel team based out of Rockville.
Her father, Joe, put her to bed at 5:30 the night of the gold medal game, then woke her up at 10 in time for puck drop. They stayed up until the shootout ended around 2:30 a.m.
“I told her, ‘One of these days when you think I’m not the coolest dad, remember this,’ ” Joe said.
The next morning, Dagny wore her Haley Skarupa jersey to school. Skarupa is a U.S. forward and Rockville native.
“When they went into the shootout, I knew they would win,” she said.
The buzz from that victory has increased the national conversation about women’s hockey and the U.S. program, which is already among the United States’ most consistent international winners.
That status was in jeopardy almost a year ago when the players threatened to boycott the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship without a new labor contract. Players were paid $1,000 a month around Olympic cycles, they said. The new contract, resolved three days before the world championship, guarantees athletes $70,000 in annual earnings, and that number could reach $129,000 this year after the gold medal performance.
It’s a deal players say will allow future women’s hockey players to suit up for their country without personal economic sacrifice.
But it was also a process that united this Olympic team beyond what practices or close games or even decades-worth of time spent playing together could have.
“What we went through last spring, there’s no team building, there’s no in-game scenario that creates a bond or a trust factor like we had,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “You go through the ups and downs of a season, and you get through those things together. This is a group and a team that’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of.”
That was clear watching the players interact in Arlington. Poses for selfies with their medals catching the light just right are a matter of muscle memory by now. When their meet-and-greet stations were spread too far apart for their liking, the teammates habitually pulled tables and stools closer together.
As fans took photos with Olympians one at a time, others would quietly slide into the background to hold their medals aloft and make silly grins.
And still the enormity of a paradigm-changing gold medal is still not quite clear to this team, which Saturday was honored with thunderous applause at the NHL’s Stadium Series game at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
“The support has been overwhelming and so exciting, but I don’t think it’s truly sunk in,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “It still feels like, when you wake up, did this really happen?”