Just days removed from celebrating a gold medal win in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the USA women’s ice hockey team returned to where their remarkable journey all began — Wesley Chapel.
It’s where the team spent more than five months getting prepared for the Winter Olympics, training at Florida Hospital Center Ice and lodging at Saddlebrook Resort. It’s also where daily practices, off-ice testing and intrasquad scrimmages were used to determine the 23 players selected for the Team USA roster back in May.
The team spent the better part of an hour on the afternoon of Feb. 28 greeting fans, posing for pictures and signing autographs at the Center Ice facility.
The surprise visit was part of a nationwide media blitz that took them to Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and New York City.
A week earlier, the team defeated Canada in a 3-2 shootout to win gold, ending a 20-year drought for the women’s hockey program.
Moments since have been nothing short of surreal for Team USA, from celebrating the victory to the fan support.
“It’s been overwhelming, exciting, just a whirlwind,” said two-time Olympian and forward Kendall Coyne. “It’s been truly an honor to bring home this gold to the United States, and to see the reaction from everybody and the support.”
“It’s been crazy,” added 19-year-old defenseman Cayla Barnes, the youngest member of Team USA. “This has been a goal of ours for so long, and it just proves you can do whatever you set your mind to.”
Their time spent in Wesley Chapel won’t soon be forgotten, either, from top-flight training digs and hospitality, to the warm, sunny weather.
“These facilities were awesome, the staff here was amazing, and they really helped us with everything we needed,” Barnes said. “It was great to be down here, such nice weather, and really nice to train out here in preparation for the games.”
“Hockey in Florida was new to a lot of us, but I don’t think it took long for us to realize that hockey is serious in Florida,” said Coyne. “The growth is amazing, and just to see the growth in the short six months we were here just shows how much more there can be.”
Coyne added, the gold medal victory provides a “huge opportunity” to further the sport in the United States, particularly among young girls.
The 25-year-old herself was inspired by Hall of Famer Cammi Granato and the 1998 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey, the last team to win gold.
“With our win, I think we can get more girls playing across the United States,” Coyne said.
“If you look at our team currently, a lot of us are playing because we saw the ’98 team win a gold medal. So, knowing that feeling and knowing personally I was one of them… I saw Cammi Granato, and seeing her gold medal made me want to become one of them.”
Having Team USA train in Wesley Chapel was likewise beneficial to Florida Hospital Center Ice and the Tampa Bay hockey community, said Gordie Zimmerman, managing partner and developer of Florida Hospital Center Ice.
The $28 million,150,500-square-foot complex was picked as Team USA’s training ground over such hockey facilities in Boston, Chicago and others.
“It’s been terrific on every front — for the development of hockey for the girls and the boys, and just the awareness and having the girls here in the facility,” explained Zimmerman.
“I think there was a lot of pressure on them and where they train…and it turned out to be a great experience for everybody. This wave is going to continue, and you can see like with the girls’ (programs) — and that’s what it’s all about.”
As one of dozens of fans at the meet-and-greet, Wesley Chapel resident Rob Simonelli just couldn’t pass up the chance to take photos and chat it up with the newly crowned Olympic gold medalists.
He found out about the team’s surprise appearance at Center Ice through a friend who caught wind of the event.
“I had a feeling because they had been here for a couple months with their training that they’ve got to come back and take a look at the people at the rink,” said Simonelli, who plays recreational hockey at Center Ice along with his son.
“They’re really friendly, and it’s nice that they decided to come and just kind of say ‘Hey’ to the people.”
Simonelli said he watched much of the Olympic coverage on television, and even attended some of the team’s tryouts and international games at Center Ice last year.
Besides national pride, he felt some local pride, too.
“I just was excited that this was their home base. Just following them when they made this their home was kind of cool,” Simonelli said.
Another exuberant fan, Tampa resident Chad Courson, came to the event equipped with a Team USA jacket and a “Gold Medal edition” box of Corn Flakes featuring a cover picture of USA women’s gold winning hockey star Meghan Duggan.
He brought both items to get signed. He also bought about 40 other boxes of the limited-edition Corn Flakes to get signed later that night at Amalie Arena as part of another Team USA appearance.
“I met the team on previous occasions, but it’s still cool,” Courson said of the team’s stop in Wesley Chapel.
As for the team’s run in PyeongChang?
“It was amazing,” Courson said.
Published March 7, 2018