SOCHI, Russia – Kelli Stack knew it as she watched the puck beeline 115 feet toward the empty net.
“I could kind of tell it was going to hit the post,” Stack said.
The U.S. came that close to winning its first Olympic hockey gold medal since 1998.
The Americans were up 2-1 on Canada, about 90 seconds from victory at the Bolshoy Ice Dome when Stack swatted at a loose puck from inside her own blue line. It took maybe three seconds to reach the open goal. It smacked the middle of the right red post, ricocheted and trickled outside the edge of the crease. The crowd of about 10,000 let out gasps.
Canada had pulled goalie Shannon Szabados. An empty-netter would have given the U.S. a two-goal lead, surely insurmountable.
“An inch to the right and we would have won the gold medal,” Stack said.
Americans didn’t think much of the play at the time, since they still had the lead. They were on the verge of winning the first Olympic gold medals for the entire 23-woman team.
“It didn’t really matter at that point,” Stack said.
What did the Canadians think?
“Relief,” Hayley Wickenheiser said. “We’ve got another life.”
They made it count. Gold-medal game starlet Marie-Philip Poulin scored the first of her two goals with 54.6 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
“After they tied it up it was kind of like, well, that would have been nice if that went in,” Stack said. “An inch to the right, it would have bounced in off the post. It wasn’t meant to be.”
Not quite the quarter of an inch Gordon Bombay agonized over in the “Mighty Ducks” movies, but still quite remarkable and an addition to an epic U.S.-Canada rivalry. It has seen crazy happenings over the last 24 years of major championships – mythic flag stomping, head shots and a Molson, Zamboni and cigar celebration among them.
This was a first.
“If it hits a chip of ice halfway down, it goes the other way,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. “That’s what they call puck luck. Sometimes it goes in your favor. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Canadian Caroline Ouellette had forgotten about the play after receiving her gold medal. So much took place on the ice in the minutes following Stack’s post shot, including Poulin’s overtime winner.
Reminded of it, Ouellette took a two-sided view, saying Canadian defenseman Catherine Ward was interfered with by a referee, allowing Stack to swoop in with her swat.
“It was in a way the unluckiest play because our player got tangled; and then on the other side the luckiest play,” said Ouellette, who became the first Winter Olympian to enter at least four career events and win them all. “It hit the post and came out. It allowed us to keep playing and come back.”
“There is a God,” Ouellette said.
Two-time Olympian Stack is 26, an avid retweeter and back from a Dec. 1, 2012 torn ACL. She hopes the next four years pass as quickly as that puck did, and that she gets another chance to win gold.
“It will probably bother me for a while,” Stack said, “but there’s no use in letting that pain set in.”