Wesley Chapel’s version of the Golden Girls — the gold-medal-winning U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey team, returned to the place they have called home since September for an impromptu visit on Feb. 28, greeting a small crowd of well wishers at Florida Hospital Center Ice (FHCI) and thanking them for months of support, before heading to Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa, where they were honored before the Tampa Bay Lightning game against the Buffalo Sabres.
The fans at FHCI thanked the U.S. team for memories that will last a lifetime. A few dozen hockey loyalists, many who watched Team USA practices and exhibitions at the rink over the past six months, applauded the U.S. women as they walked through the doors, roughly a week after beating Canada in a memorable shootout in PyeongChang, South Korea, to capture the team’s first Olympic gold since 1998.
“This was a major priority for us,” said team captain and forward Meghan Duggan, a Massachusetts native and former University of Wisconsin All-American. “We talked a lot about wanting to give back to everyone that has supported us along the way, from family to fans, and Wesley Chapel played a huge role in our development, in getting us ready. We’ve been back in the U.S. for 36 hours, and were already here, so this was certainly was a priority for us.”
The team’s performance in South Korea has been universally hailed as one of the greatest in U.S. Olympic hockey history, as Monique Lamoureux-Morando tied the game at 2-2 with less than seven minutes remaining to force a scoreless overtime period that led to a nail-biting shootout. Still tied after five shots each in the shootout, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, Monique’s twin, used three dekes before memorably slipping the puck past the Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados.
Szabados’ American counterpart, Maddie Rooney, saved Canada’s next shot attempt (by Meghan Acosta, who had scored during the first five shootout rounds, but was stopped by Rooney in Round 6) to clinch the gold for the U.S..
“It was amazing,’’ said Wesley Chapel’s Kristin Folch. “It was so cool that they were in Wesley Chapel, where we got to see them, and then on TV. It felt like we were connected in some way.”
Folch took her two young children, Annabella — who is already playing hockey at age 5 — and Anthony to get a picture with the team.
Annabella is one of many young girls to be inspired by the U.S. Olympians, according to FHCI general manager Gordie Zimmerman. While the Olympic gold medal winners have put FHCI on the map — a plethora of stories begin with the mention of their journey starting in Wesley Chapel at the rink — he says the impact stretches far wider. The girls hockey program at FHCI already has more than 60 players, with Under-14 and Under-16 travel teams, and a rec program that caters to younger players. Many of the young skaters were able to interact with the gold medalists at camps and practices since September, and Zimmerman says a girls youth league is not too far down the road.
“They always seemed to make themselves available,” Zimmerman said. “They inspired a lot of girls in the area and across the nation to play hockey, and they are wonderful people and great ambassadors for the game. It’s good to see we still have that in America.”
While the team will now scatter back north to their frostier hometowns in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Massachusetts, Duggan says the won’t forget the hospitality and great weather —and even enduring Hurricane Irma — of Wesley Chapel.
“I think what we’ll miss about it is the community,” Duggan said. “We’ve been welcomed with open arms since we’ve been here, from the people at the rink, Gordie, his whole staff, Saddlebrook Resort (where the team stayed while training at FHCI) was awesome, everyone was really great. That’ll be the biggest thing we’ll miss. Hopefully, we’ll be able to come back down here at some point and say hey to everyone. They were a huge reason why we were able to be successful.”