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US women's hockey bonded by strife and by storm

In this file photo, the U.S. women's national hockey team stands for the national anthem before their "The Time is Now Tour" game Oct. 25, 2017, against Team Canada in Boston, Mass. REUTERS / Brian Snyder

TAMPA, Fla. — Once a week or so, the U.S. women's hockey team will wrap up practice, players will take off their ice skates and they'll all huddle around a computer to Skype with a sports psychologist. They'll go through a series of team-building exercises, designed to somehow draw them closer together before they hit the ice at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The truth is, they've already been through an obstacle course of shared experiences that no professional ever would have imagined, including a hurricane and a high-profile labor battle, not to mention huge wins and a couple of heartbreaking losses. The team might be distinguished on the ice next month by its talent level, but the U.S. team knows its bond is what could finally make the difference and help propel the Americans to an elusive gold medal.

"You would like to think that every team you're on has that unique bond," said Monique Lamoureux-Morando, a three-time Olympian who was part of the American 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."

Under ordinary circumstances, this squad might draw motivation from the disappointment of settling for silver four years ago in Sochi or perhaps inspiration from bouncing back and winning the world championship in each of the three years that followed. But Pyeongchang-bound team was forged through its off-ice experiences as much as anything.

In March, upset about wages and resources afforded to the female players, the team vowed to boycott the world championships. USA Hockey didn't pay the women at all in non-Olympic years and gave each player a total of $6,000 in the year leading up to a Winter Games. They knew the only way to enforce change was to stick together.

"You really had to trust each and every single player," forward Hilary Knight said. "Someone could just decide to hop on a plane and go play. So there's a lot of trust that was built, just banding together and trying to fight for something bigger than ourselves."

The players struck a deal just three days before the world championships were scheduled to begin, an agreement that should earn most players $70,000 a year with the possibility of even more from performance bonuses. USA Hockey agreed to pay players a $20,000 bonus for winning gold at the Olympics and $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. "No team-building or anything can really help build what we were able to build."

With the labor battle settled, the bulk of the women's team has been living and training together in Florida since September, more than five months of day-to-day interaction and training. For the sake of comparison, the U.S. men's team has yet to assemble as a group. They'll get all of four practice days together before the Olympic tournament begins, which is actually more than recent Winter Games, when players had obligations to their NHL teams.

The U.S. women's team is around each other nearly seven days a week, meeting at the rink located about 20 miles north of Tampa most days from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. But rather than scatter and go their separate ways, they'll stick together, usually breaking off in smaller groups to grab lunch or coffee, hit 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."

They'll hang out together around the swimming pool at their complex, and when the weather was a bit warmer, they'd venture to the beach or a golf course. They've done pottery classes together and head into Tampa for nights on the town.

"We're doing enough where if you don't feel like doing something one day, there's always people doing something the next day," said Lee Stecklein, a defenseman who will be competing in her second Olympics.

"It's similar to college," goaltender Nicole Hensley said, "without the school work."

Four years ago, the team trained in Boston, but players were spread across the city and often gathered together only at the rink for practice. While knowing a teammate's coffee order or food preferences might not seem like a big deal, the players are convinced that the trust and tight-knit relationships make them better, one that's always in-sync with one another.

"We learned a lot of about off-ice communication with each other," Hensley said. "and I think that really translates on the ice. The way I talk to Lee may be different than the way I talk to [Amanda] Pelkey. You learn the way people like to be talked to, the way people learn."

While living in Florida helped the team focus on hockey for weeks on end, it also put the national team in the path of Hurricane Irma in September. They were spared the brunt of the storm, but for 24 hours took shelter together in the lobby of their resort community. Stores had run out of air mattresses, so they all 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 team has been working together every day for the past five months, for many the preparations actually stretch back years. Ten of the 23 players were part of the 2014 Olympic team that lost to Canada in the gold medal game, and six were also on the 2010 Olympic team, which 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.

"Whenever I do take it out, it's kind of like that constant reminder that there's unfinished business for a lot of us," she said.

Since the 2014 disappointment, the U.S. team has topped Canada three straight times at the world championships - in overtime the past two years - and many expect the two nations to square off once again in the gold medal match next month. The American players, who are scheduled to board a plane Wednesday for South Korea, feel the past year especially has prepared them for anything.

"The group we have now is such a special group," Lamoureux-Morando said. "You like to think every team you play on every year is special and can do something amazing. But when you're on a team like we have now, I think you really know it's a really special group."