GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The journey to gold started four years ago, but the fight started in 2012. It started before Canada forward Marie-Philip Poulin scored two goals to seal the overtime comeback for gold against the United States women's hockey team in Sochi. It started well, well before they clinched their first gold medal in 20 years on Thursday, flipping the script and beating arch-rival Canada via shootout at Gangneung Hockey Centre.
The fight started when Hilary Knight pulled her car into a Star Market parking lot in Boston six years ago, crying, and needed to call home. She'd packed her bags after winning two national titles at Wisconsin and moved to New England to train full-time with Team USA. In a life in which she'd always had purpose—to maximize her time playing hockey, to play for the U.S. national team, to win an Olympic gold—Knight felt aimless, like the shopping carts being collected around her.
"I can't afford living in Boston," Knight told her mom.
"Can you get another job?" her mom asked.
"Mom, you don't understand," Knight said. "With what I want to do in this sport, I can't have another job. That takes away from what I'm trying to accomplish: an Olympic gold medal."
Golds are tough to come by when a national team lacks funding, as Knight discovered. The women scraped by on stipends and gave private lessons in their time off. Nothing had changed since 1998, when the U.S. last won gold, the first year women's hockey became an Olympic event. As the men's program grew, the women remained stuck within USA Hockey-imposed financial constraints. According to Kevin Allen and A.J. Perez of USA Today, they were being paid $1,000 per month in the six months leading up to the Olympics. The men's team never shared hotel rooms like the women and flew business class rather than coach.
So in March of 2017, the women announced a boycott of the IIHF Women's World Championship if USA Hockey, the sport's governing body, did not increase their wages. USA Hockey tried to put together a replacement team, but the women stood together as one. And they won.
They earned the same travel and insurance provisions as the men's national team and were granted salaries between $70,000 and $100,000 in an Olympic year, per USA Today. They could finally train without financial stress. Instead of worrying about paying rent or putting food on the table, the women could focus on the gold.
That's how Knight and 22 other American women accomplished their dream on Thursday, when the U.S. women's hockey team finally beat Canada, who'd beaten them in the last two gold medal games. And they did it by fighting for equality.
"This performance transcended our sport specifically, because we weren't receiving the right support for a gold medal-winning team," Knight said after the game. "This is what a gold medal-winning team looks like with the right support. We are taking steps in the right direction."
The gold medal, the very reason they put the careers at risk with a boycott, became theirs in the fifth round of the shootout. Head coach Robb Stauber turned to Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson for the final effort, and as the 28-year-old North Dakota native approached the net, she made the decision to go with a move she'd practiced over and over again. "Oops, I did it again," Lamoureux-Davidson calls the faked wrist shot/faked backhander/slide into the right side of the net. The puck slipped past Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados, and the attention shifted to American goalie Maddie Rooney.
Rooney smiled as the moment came, and her teammates pointed at her. All it took was one more.
"One more save," Rooney told herself. "One more save."
As Canadian forward Meghan Agosta approached the net, Rooney anticipated her five-hole move and made the stop before swiping the puck away again just for safety's sake. It was all over, and after Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" blared over the loudspeaker, after the national anthem played and the medals were awarded, the Americans struggled to come up with any words to describe how they were feeling.
"Just take a picture of my face. It's worth a thousand words," said forward Gigi Marvin. "I don't know what else to say other than joy, appreciation. It's just a snapshot of everything we've been through. I could speak for hours on what my team has overcome."
For so many of the Americans, the loss in Sochi was a fork in the road. Lamoureux-Davidson spoke after the game on Thursday about putting her family life on hold. Her twin sister, Monique Lamoureux-Morando, re-evaluated whether she had another Olympic run in her.
"The loss in Sochi was tough on us," Lamoureux-Morando said in September. "We were trying to figure out which ones of us were going to go for another four years."
Knight, who many consider the face of women's hockey in America, felt checked out. She couldn't quite envision another four years of training. Though she was the most marketable player in the game, with sponsorships with Nike, Red Bull and GoPro, Knight wasn't sure she could take heartbreak again.
"I thought I had done everything I possibly could to influence the game as best as I could, and I still was coming up short," Knight told Bleacher Report in September. "I continued to train, because I didn't want to be fully done. I happened to work at a camp and the U-22 and U-18 teams were playing, and I hopped over and I saw the younger kids. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I love this game. I can't give it up yet.' They inspired me to come back and continue to play."
When the American women needed to bring their best, they did by outshooting Canada 42 to 31 and dictating the pace of play. Lamoureux-Davidson led the way with five shots. When the Canadians appeared tired in the third period, the Americans still looked fresh and maintained possession in the offensive zone. Their speed advantage manifested when, down 2-1 in the third, Lamoureux-Morando broke away for one-on-one with Szabados, hit the twine top shelf and pushed the game to overtime.
But as extra time began, all they could think about was the collapse four years ago.
"That sticks with you," Lamoureux-Davidson said. "It really does."
The locker room was calm. Four years ago, it had been quiet. But this time around, Knight said, the vibe was different: confident, prepared, excited. About a half hour later, they would become Olympic champions. Like with their boycott, their focus had become singular, and they were prepared to do everything to make it happen.
"They should make a movie on it," Knight said after with a laugh.
That movie might begin with the handwritten letter Knight wrote apologizing to her mom after the heartbreaking loss in Sochi, two years after the supermarket call.
"I was sorry that I put them through all of that, that they went through all of that stuff for us to lose," Knight said in September. "It doesn't feel like it's worth it right now, but hopefully we can come back and do something bigger."
After the game, Knight recalled the letter.
"I just got chills when you mentioned it," Knight said. "I felt so sad and heartbroken, and I let everybody down the last time through. That was the feeling after the last Olympics—so powerful to slip through your fingers."
Knight and the American women didn't let it slip this time. Rather, they grabbed the opportunity by the throat, to fight for a living wage, to fight for women's hockey, to fight for a gold-medal rematch. And with that gold finally draped around her neck, Knight fought back different tears than the ones six years ago in Boston. This was everything they'd ever worked for, on and off the ice. In as memorable of a gold-medal hockey game as has ever been played, Knight and her generation of women's hockey players had sealed their legacy.
"That was one of our goals, that off the ice, we grow and promote the game and try to inspire the next generation as best we can," Knight said. "We wanted to build a future for them, even better than what came before."