BEIJING — Brianna Decker was less than ten minutes into her third Olympic appearance for the U.S. women’s hockey team when a routine shift turned into a nightmare. Behind her own net on Thursday night, the 30-year-old American collided with Finland’s Ronja Savolainen. As both players fell to the ice, Decker’s left leg buckled underneath the weight of her opponent.
Decker screamed in pain, the desperation in her voice amplified by a mostly empty arena. She twisted her body in agony near the five Olympic rings painted by the corner boards and trainers frantically waved for a stretcher.
More medical personnel arrived in blue gowns and carefully loaded Decker on a stretcher before wheeling her off. She unbuckled her chinstrap and bowed her head as her teammates, never expecting to be this rattled this early in the tournament, gingerly tapped their sticks in support. Their captain, Kendall Coyne Schofield, gathered the players and urged everyone to stay poised. She could see the devastation and nervousness in the eyes of her teammates.
Even after they dug deep for a 5-2 win to open their gold medal defense at these Olympics, the screams they heard still haunted them afterward, as they eventually learned that Decker would miss the remainder of the Games with a left leg injury.
“You never want to see someone go down like that. The fashion with how it did — it just felt like a UFC thing,” Decker’s teammate Hilary Knight said. “We have a great purpose with wanting to be here … but when you see someone that you love and who you’ve gone through the trenches with [get hurt], you want to get it even more for her.”
The injury galvanized Team USA for the remainder of Thursday night’s opener, which included two goals apiece from Coyne Schofield and Alex Carpenter, along with a stifling defensive effort that allowed just seven shots on goal over the final two periods. But the Americans now face a new reality without Decker, one of the world’s top players.
Decker is not only Team USA’s top center and a catalyst to its attack — she is also one of its foremost leaders. Team USA doesn’t have a taxi squad of replacement players in Beijing and on Thursday night it relied on shuffling around forwards with little to no experience playing center at the Olympics to accommodate for Decker’s absence.
“This team has depth. And everyone has a role and that role may change … our line shifted when Brianna went down,” Coyne Schofield said. “There’s no replacing Brianna Decker in that situation, but everyone stepped up to the plate the way they were asked to.”
The team’s coach, Joel Johnson, did not rule out possibly adding a replacement player to the 23-member roster, though it remained unclear how that process would unfold. There were already unprecedented challenges getting to Thursday night — the pandemic wreaked havoc on Team USA’s training schedule, which also had an impact on its ability to cultivate team chemistry. And the U.S. athletes face what every Olympian must in Beijing: constant testing, isolation and playing in nearly empty arenas.
Still, there were enduring reminders of Team USA’s firepower and leadership after Decker went down. Within the next five minutes, the Americans quickly made it 2-0 on goals from Amanda Kessel and Carpenter. Some players and coaches spoke to the team during the first intermission, and Johnson paced up and down the bench as the second period was set to begin, tapping each of his shellshocked players on the top of their helmets.
“I think there was some extra emotion that took place in everybody,” Johnson said.
Finland arrived in Beijing with a veteran roster hungry to finally break through North American dominance at the Olympics. No other country outside the United States or Canada has ever won a gold medal in the event since it premiered in 1998, and Finland claimed bronze medals in two of the last three Winter Games. At the 2019 world championship on its own home ice, Finland nearly upset the United States in the gold medal game — only to have a potential game-winning goal in overtime waved off. The Americans then clinched a 2-1 victory in a shootout.
If Finland had any plans to make a statement Thursday night, the Americans left no openings, especially not after their teammate went down. Finland managed just 12 shots — including just two in the second period, when Coyne Schofield pushed the lead to 4-0 with a pair of goals.
By the final minutes of the game, Decker came out of the locker room on crutches and waited behind the glass for her teammates. Finland’s players came off the ice first, and Decker was greeted by Savolainen, the other player involved in the injury.
“I just asked how she was feeling,” said Savolainen, who was not penalized on the play. “I didn’t want to hurt her.”
After Finland departed to the locker room, each American player embraced her injured teammate.
That included Coyne Schofield, who hugged Decker before simply telling her: “We got this.”
This story has been updated.