BELMONT, Mass. — Meghan Duggan teed up a slap shot from the wing, a loaded weapon most defensemen would just as soon avoid, and let it rip.
She chased the rebound into the corner and fought for it. Then she was backpedaling as the defense cleared the zone, going hard until coach Katey Stone’s whistle halted the drill and sent skaters back to their respective benches.
A leader and winner everywhere she’s been, from Cushing Academy to the University of Wisconsin, the Danvers, Mass., native is now wearing the “C” for the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team, which spent its last few weeks of practice in the Boston area before leaving for the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
That means not just doing every possible thing to make your team better, but doing it with the eyes of everyone else on the team on you.
“That’s kind of my role right now,” said Duggan, after a 90-minute practice at Belmont Hill School last month. “I want to do as many things on the ice as I can do to help the team win, whether it’s the little things — blocking shots, chipping pucks, playing big in the corners, being physical — things that win games.”
Even as the Americans settled for another non-gold medal four years ago — silver, after losing to Canada in the championship, 2-0 — Duggan was one of the breakout stars in Vancouver, scoring four goals in five games.
This time around, she was picked as the team captain after a November practice. It’s a bigger, more visible role, which includes everything from leading by example to motivating other players to doing national TV interviews with NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick (Marshfield, Mass.) during the Winter Classic.
It also puts a little more pressure on her 5-foot-10 shoulders.
“There’s always pressure,” said the 26-year-old. “It’s the Olympics, right? It’s a huge event. We’ve been working for this for the last four years, and some of us even longer, our entire lives to get on this team and go to these Games. There’s pressure, but there’s a lot of excitement, and we’re playing really good hockey right now.”
This is the first U.S. Olympic team that doesn’t have a playing tie to 1998 in Nagano, the first time a gold medal was awarded in women’s hockey and the only time the Americans won it. Canada has won the past three.
“I was 4,” said forward Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass.), the 19-year-old Boston College star playing in her first Games. “I didn’t watch much of it but I’ve heard stories because I play for (1998 gold-medal winner) Katie King (Salem, N.H.) at BC. It’s definitely something we’re looking forward to, trying to complete it.”
This U.S. team is an almost evenly split mix of players who’ve been to an Olympics (or three, in elder stateswoman Julie Chu’s case) and those who haven’t, but are currently the brightest stars in the college game.
Your veterans include Duggan, the 31-year-old Chu (Fairfield, Conn.), defenseman Kacey Bellamy (Westfield, Mass.), goalie Molly Schaus (Natick, Mass.), and forwards Hilary Knight (Hanover, N.H.) and Kelli Stack, who starred at Boston College.
Your newcomers from the region are Carpenter, the high-scoring daughter of former Sports Illustrated cover boy Bobby Carpenter (Peabody, Mass.); forward Kendall Coyne, the Northeastern star; and defensemen Michelle Picard (Taunton, Mass.) and Josephine Pucci (Harvard).
“We’ve got a great mix of seasoned veterans, as I like to call them, and youthful enthusiasm, and a tremendous amount of skill and talent and speed,” said Stone (Watertown, Conn.).
They made be in different stages of their international careers, but they’ve enjoyed these last five months spent largely in the Boston area, practicing at local rinks, scrimmaging boys prep teams and interacting with fans, some of whom they knew growing up.
“It’s been incredible to be close to home,” said the 5-foot-4 Picard, who plays for Stone at Harvard. “I went to Nobles, so I’ve been able to see a lot of old teammates, a lot of old coaches. It’s good to know I have that support around me.”
Outside their temporary locker room at Belmont Hill were three full-size banquet tables, with jerseys, team photos and “Road to Sochi” banners awaiting their signatures. In a sense they’re right in their own backyard, but everywhere they look — from staff members in USA Hockey apparel, to the few dozen curious fans who take in their practices — are reminders that their worlds have gotten a whole lot bigger.
“I know for me, personally, to be around the Boston area, have my family catch a couple games, I feel at home,” said Duggan. “Driving around’s easy; I feel at home. I know where all the rinks are, so there’s a little bit of comfort in that.”
And, if many of the faces this time around are different, the biggest rivalry in the women’s game is very much the same.
The Athens and Sparta of women’s hockey have played seven times during the “Bring on the World” tour that led to the Jan. 1 announcement of the U.S. team. The Canadians won the first three (3-2, 6-3 and 4-2), but the Americans won the last four, including the 4-1 win on Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., that was capped by a late-game brawl that saw Bellamy, Gigi Marvin and the feisty Lamoureux sisters — Jocelyne and Monique — assessed rare fighting majors.
Sums up the rivalry perfectly — as well as the U.S. frustration from these last three Winter Games, and their insistence that they won’t be pushed around.
“At the beginning of our tour we struggled a little bit against Canada,” said Carpenter. “When we got back here we had two hard weeks, and the last four games against Canada really showed what kind of team we are.”
The U.S. could be tested right off the bat in their Feb. 8 opener against Finland, a team that beat Team USA in the Four Nations Cup in November, 3-1. But most figure it will again come down to the Americans and Canadians, who play a Pool A game on Feb. 12 and could meet in the gold-medal game on Feb. 20.
The veterans still remember the taste after the 2-0 loss in the gold-medal game four years ago, but also feel they’re individually more prepared for the spectacle that just can’t be duplicated.
“It’s definitely different,” said Schaus, the former BC star who is battling Jessie Vetter for the starting goalie job. “The first time around, you don’t know what to expect; it’s a big unknown coming up. Now at least, a big group of us can say we’ve been there, we’ve done it.
“Not to say we’re not just as excited. It’s going to be completely different. But at least knowing how to check your emotions, knowing how to deal with all the distractions and hype that come with the Olympics … we went through that once and we learned what to do, what not to do.”
“My first time, in Vancouver, it was more of an excitement, nervous feeling,” said Bellamy, who starred at New Hampshire. “Now it’s more pure motivation, pure hard work.”
Nobody’s working harder than Duggan, who was one of the last players off the ice at Belmont Hill last month. She played on three national championship teams at Wisconsin around Vancouver in 2010, and now she, Stone and the rest of the Americans would like to write a little more history.
“I think the staff has done an incredible job to transition all of us to be playing the best hockey right now that we’d ever played,” she said. “I feel comfortable saying I’m playing the best hockey I’ve played in my career right now.”