A silver that offers no solace
For trailblazing US ice hockey stalwart Julie Chu, there's no point in pretending second-best is any more than being a loser
We often hear that the law of averages eventually catches up to you. But try telling that to Julie Chu.
The first Asian American to play on the US women's national ice hockey team, Chu was competing in her fourth Olympic Games at Sochi. She had already captured two silver medals and a bronze, a serious haul by any standards. There were 11 women on her team who had won silver in Vancouver in 2010, but there was no one on the team who finished third with her in Turin in 2006 and second at Salt Lake City in 2002.
She will be turning 32 in a month and is three years older than anyone else on the squad. She also has a psychology degree from Harvard where she became the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history as captain of the women's hockey team and has also won gold at five ice hockey world championships. She has done some modelling for Ralph Lauren and features prominently in a series of advertisements on US Olympic broadcasts.
Her father immigrated to the US from Hong Kong when he was 16; her mother is of Puerto Rican and Chinese descent. She is a multi-ethnic, vivacious and bright role model who can do glam just as easily as she can go into the corners to aggressively fight for a puck. This girl is the real deal on so many levels and while women's hockey is not exactly a high-profile sport in the US, thanks to the likes of Chu the popularity of the game is growing.
There is, however, one thing that would push the game over the hump in the national consciousness: a gold medal. The only thing standing in the way of that goal was their bitter rivals from Canada, who have not lost an Olympic game since the gold medal match against the US at Nagano in 1998 when women's hockey was introduced to the Olympics. Of course, hockey is a religion in Canada and the national women's team is a tough and skilled collection of players who were in no mood to relinquish their title to the Americans as they sought an unprecedented fourth straight gold.
The two superpowers of the game, over the years they have had some bruising, brawl-filled games that were, uhm, very unladylike to say the least.
But this is hockey and once you lace up the skates and strap on the equipment, gender is irrelevant. Hockey is by far the highest-profile team sport at the Winter Games, particularly since the inclusion of NHL players in 1998, and the men's hockey gold was the one medal that Russian president Vladimir Putin openly lusted for. But a loss to Finland in the quarter-finals devastated the country and left the puckish stage, temporarily at least, to the American and Canadian women and a gold-medal clash.
As the puck was dropped, one thing became instantly clear; the calibre of play in women's hockey has improved dramatically since the 1998 Olympics.
The passing, skating and contact was of the highest order and a hungry and indefatigable US team found themselves up 2-0 with only a little more than three minutes remaining in the game. The gold medal was basically around their necks before Canada scored and then somehow from a wild scramble added a tying marker with only 50 seconds remaining. Devastated is too mild a term to describe the US psyche, but there was no time to mope as they had to prepare for sudden-death overtime. But eight minutes in, Marie-Philip Poulin rifled a shot through and it was a golden goal for Canada.
Crestfallen and stunned, the announcers tried to soothe the American team and fans by claiming that this was the greatest display of women's hockey ever. In the end it didn't matter if it was men, women or barnyard animals on blades, this was great hockey and it was as simple as that.
As the medals were awarded a dignified and sobbing American team hung their heads in shame because in Olympic hockey, you win a gold medal and lose a silver. As Chu watched, a gold medal was hung around the neck of Canadian stalwart and star Hayley Wickenheiser. Along with Chu, they are the only two women on the ice who have competed in the last four Olympics.
Wickenheiser has four gold medals, Chu has three silvers and a bronze. Someone please tell this Harvard psychology grad that eventually the law of averages catches up to you and things even out. Because in this, her most heartbreaking moment, she ain't buying it.