The truth is, they've already been through an obstacle course of shared experiences that no sports psychologist could have imagined, including a hurricane and a high-profile labor battle, not to mention huge wins and a couple of heartbreaking losses. The team might be distinguished on the ice next month in South Korea by its talent level, but the squad knows its bond is what could finally make the difference and help propel the Americans to an elusive gold medal.
"You would like to think that every team you're on has that unique bond," said Monique Lamoureux-Morando, who was on the teams that took silver at the past two Winter Games. "This group, it's at a whole other level and so much more than I've ever experienced."
Under ordinary circumstances, this squad might draw motivation from the disappointment of settling for silver four years ago in Sochi or perhaps inspiration from bouncing back and winning the world championship in each of the three years that followed.
But this PyeongChang-bound team was forged through its off-ice experiences as much as anything.
In March, upset about wages and resources afforded to women's players, the team vowed to boycott the world championships. USA Hockey didn't pay the women at all in non-Olympic years, and it gave each player a total of $6,000 in the year leading up to a Winter Games. They knew the only way to ensure change was to stick together.
"You really had to trust each and every single player," forward Hilary Knight said. "Someone could just decide to hop on a plane and go play. So there's a lot of trust that was built, just banding together and trying to fight for something bigger than ourselves."
The sides struck a deal just three days before the world championships were scheduled to begin, an agreement that should earn most players $70,000 per year, with the possibility of even more via performance bonuses. USA Hockey also agreed to pay players a $20,000 bonus for winning gold at the Olympics, or $15,000 for silver.
"Our whole battle in the spring for equitable support really worked wonders for us in terms of our internal cohesiveness that you guys don't see day in and day out," Knight said. "No team-building or anything can really help build what we were able to build."
With the labor battle settled, the bulk of the team has been living and training together in Florida since September — more than five months of day-to-day interaction and training. For the sake of comparison, the U.S. men's team has yet to assemble as a group. They'll get all of four practice days together before the Olympic tournament begins — which is actually more than before recent Winter Games, when players had obligations to their NHL teams.
The U.S. women's players are around one another nearly seven days a week, meeting at a rink about 20 miles north of Tampa most days from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. But rather than scatter and go their separate ways afterward, they stick together, usually breaking off in smaller groups to grab lunch or coffee, see a movie or go shopping. They all live in a nearby resort community, rooming together in luxury apartments.
"We have so much fun together," goaltender Alex Rigsby said. "It's a culture that I've never been a part of before. It's pretty incredible to think about how deep our talent is and how close we are as a team."
They'll hang out together around the swimming pool at their complex, and when the weather was a bit warmer, they would venture to the beach or a golf course. They've done pottery classes together and gone into Tampa for nights on the town.
"We're doing enough where, if you don't feel like doing something one day, there's always people doing something the next day," said Lee Stecklein, a defender who will be competing in her second Olympics.
"It's similar to college," goaltender Nicole Hensley said, "without the schoolwork."
Four years ago, the team trained in Boston, but players were spread across the city and often gathered only at the rink for practice. While knowing a teammate's coffee order or food preferences might not seem like a big deal, the players are convinced that trust and tightknit relationships make them better.
"We learned a lot about off-ice communication with each other," Hensley said, "and I think that really translates on the ice. The way I talk to Lee may be different than the way I talk to [forward Amanda] Pelkey. You learn the way people like to be talked to, the way people learn."
While living in Florida helped the team focus on hockey, it also put the players in the path of Hurricane Irma in September. They were spared the brunt of the storm, but for 24 hours they took shelter together in the lobby of a building in their resort community. Stores had run out of air mattresses, so they slept on inflatable mats intended for swimming pools and passed the time chatting, playing cards and doing puzzles.
"I don't think any of us have experienced or will ever experience something like that again," Pelkey said.
While most of the players have been working together every day for the past five months, the preparation for many actually stretches back years. Twelve of the team's 23 players were part of the 2014 Olympic team that lost to Canada in the gold medal game — and six were on the 2010 team that also lost to Canada in the final.
Lamoureux-Morando keeps her medals in her nightstand, taking them out only when she's invited to events or to meet with school groups.
"Whenever I do take it out, it's kind of like that constant reminder that there's unfinished business for a lot of us," she said.
Since the 2014 disappointment, the U.S. team has topped Canada three straight times at the world championships — in overtime the past two years — and many expect the nations to square off again in the gold medal match next month. The American players, who are scheduled to board a plane Wednesday for South Korea, feel the past year has prepared them for anything.
"The group we have now is such a special group," Lamoureux-Morando said. "You like to think every team you play on every year is special and can do something amazing. But when you're on a team like we have now, I think you really know it's a really special group."
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