SOCHI, Russia — For three decades at Harvard, she has been known as Katey, except maybe by the payroll people across the river. Here at Olympus, she’s Kathleen Stone, head coach of the US women’s hockey team that is favored to win the gold medal.
Stone has sent nine of her Crimson players to the Games during the past 16 years and watched them come back bemedaled, often from adjacent steps on the podium. This time she’s here with a quartet of them — forwards Julie Chu and Lyndsey Fry and defensemen Josephine Pucci and Michelle Picard — nearly a fifth of the squad.
“It’s great, it’s fun, but they’re just four of 21,” said Stone, who’s in charge of a menagerie of Gophers, Badgers, Eagles, and other collegiate fauna who’ll begin their golden quest Saturday against Finland. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that.
“I’m very honored to be in this situation, and if there were zero Harvard kids, it wouldn’t be any different for me. They had to earn their way here. I’m proud of them for that.”
Stone, who’s the winningest coach in women’s college hockey (402 victories and counting), earned her way here as well with an exceptional résumé: a national title, nine NCAA Tournament trips and three appearances in the finals, half a dozen winners of the Patty Kazmaier Trophy as the country’s top player, and distinguished duty with the US under-18 (a global crown) and under-22 teams as well as two gold and one silver medals at the last three World Championships.
The fact that she’s the first woman to coach the Olympic women’s team Stone regards as a footnote.
“I don’t think about being a role model, honestly,” she said. “I understand the importance and significance of it. I wish I wasn’t the only female coach in the tournament but that’s the way it is. I hope that I’m not the last because this is an incredible opportunity.”
When Stone was playing at the University of New Hampshire in the late 1980s, the women’s game still was in its teething stage. Little more than a dozen colleges had teams, and a Frozen Four was a fantasy. Since then, that number has soared to 90, and the NCAA Tournament is an eight-team extravaganza.
While the college pipeline has kept world-class talent flowing into the American team, it also has been a boon to its rivals, whose top young players have been refining their skills on scholarships in the States.
“US college hockey has been developing Canadian players for a long time — very nicely I may say,” said Stone. “You’re seeing it with the other countries now because there are so many more resources. They can go across the pond and grab Russian kids, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, wherever they might come from, and bring them here, give them a great educational experience and develop them as hockey players in a setting where it’s very difficult to duplicate that in those other countries.”
Nine of the Finns, including lights-out goalie Noora Raty, played for top-tier varsities at places such as Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ohio State, as did five of the Swedes and a trio of Swiss. That’s one of the byproducts of the American victory at the inaugural Olympic tournament in 1998, which created a massive groundswell of interest that spawned hundreds of girls’ high school teams and increased the number of college squads from 30 to 50 in two years and to 70 by 2003.
The Canadians, who’ll be shooting for their fourth straight gold medal here, have 16 players who honed their games on US varsities, most notably Boston University, Cornell, and Minnesota-Duluth.
Raty, whom Stone considers the best goalie on the planet and who is playing in her third Olympics at 24, backstopped Minnesota to a 41-0 record and the NCAA title last season. When she stoned the Yanks with 58 saves en route to a 3-1 upset at the Four Nations Cup in November, it reminded them that a gold-medal showdown with the Canadians isn’t inevitable.
“Four Nations for us was that wake-up call,” said Chu.
Four years ago in Vancouver, Canada and the US dominated the rest of the field by such a large margin (86-4) that the International Olympic Committee was considering dropping women’s hockey from the program. Since then, the gap has narrowed, with Switzerland and Russia each making the podium at the world tournament.
“We, of course, know that progress takes time,” acknowledged International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel, “but there is no reason why the women’s tournament would be excluded from Pyeongchang 2018.”
Though the Americans are certain to make the quarterfinals under the new format, which guarantees the top four seeds’ advancement, they won’t take any game for granted.
“They know that for sure,” said Stone. “They learned that in November.”
They may be the world champions, having reclaimed the crown from their northern neighbors in Ottawa last April, but that doesn’t give them a hall pass at Olympus. The Yanks lost their first three meetings with the Canadians during last autumn’s tuneup run and never led in any of them.
Stone’s diagnosis was simple: The squad had to work harder and smarter, had to play with more urgency and take care of business in its own end.
“That’s obviously where you’ve got to be the best,” she said. “We certainly have people that can score goals but if you can’t keep the puck out of the net, you’re going to have some problems.”
The Americans doubled down on their defensive diligence, took their final four meetings with the Canucks, and arrived at the Games on the rise. All it took was a mid-course correction, which is one of Stone’s specialties.
“Coach Stone’s a very hands-on coach,” said Chu. “She wants to give feedback because she wants you to get better.”
Stone is not afraid to dish out tough love as required. Clear-eyed candor is her style. Chu might have three medals on her résumé but Stone made it clear that she still had to be able to play a significant role to make this team. All of them may have gold medals from world tournaments but none of her players has the one that they hand out once a quadrennium. Losing the final to their archrivals in Vancouver was searing.
“That burns in your heart every single day,” said captain Meghan Duggan.
Stone was on campus that day, prepping her varsity for a tournament series with Princeton. This time, her assistant Maura Crowell is handling things on an interim basis and the Crimson are humming along in their usual midwinter mode.
“I feel great about my staff and team at Harvard knowing that they’re in tremendous hands,” said Stone. “So I was able to walk away from it without having to worry about it and just be able to watch them with pride and interest.”
In other years, the Olympics might as well have been on another galaxy, with Stone thinking about Beanpots and trips to New Haven. Now, she’s figuring out what to do if the Finnish goalie stands on her head again.
“These opportunities,” said the woman temporarily known as Kathleen, “are once-in-a-lifetime.”