When the U.S. women’s hockey team wraps up practice, the players will take off their skates and they’ll huddle around a computer to Skype with a sports psychologist once a week.
They’ll go through a series of team-building exercises designed to bring them together before they head to the PyeongChang Olympics.
The truth is, they’ve already been through an obstacle course of shared experiences: A hurricane and a high-profile labor battle, 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.
“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.”
The 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.
“You really had to trust each and every single player,” forward Hilary Knight said.
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.
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.
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.
After practice, 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.”
“It’s similar to college,” goaltender Nicole Hensley said, “without the schoolwork.”
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.