It’s a story that’s been told over and over again for four years.
With less than two minutes left on the clock an a one-goal lead in the gold medal game, Team USA missed an empty net that would have clinched their first gold medal since 1998. You know the rest: Marie-Philip Poulin tied the game for Canada and ultimately scored in OT, snatching victory from right under the Americans’ noses.
The player who missed the empty net? Kelli Stack.
If the silver medal has haunted fans for years, you can bet it’s haunted Stack. It seemed like she was finally going to get her chance at redemption in 2018. A player in Team USA’s pipeline for a decade, and part of the 2017 gold medal-winning team at the IIHF World Championships, Stack was poised for her redemption arc.
That all came screeching to a halt in May, when Stack wasn’t named to the initial US centralization roster. No one saw it coming, including Stack herself.
“When I was told I wasn’t going to be on the team, it was shock. It didn’t feel real; it felt like I was in a dream,” said Stack. “I honestly thought [head coach Robb Stauber] was joking when he said, ‘This is the hardest decision we’ve had to make.’ And I thought he was going to say ‘Just kidding, congratulations,’ but that never came…they were very straight faced, no hint of emotion whatsoever.
“It was kind of like, everything that I’ve done in the program over the last eight years meant nothing. That’s the way I felt… I couldn’t even really look him in the face after that.”
Gold medal coaching controversy
The two-time Olympian had to watch from the sidelines as her teammates won gold without her. She didn’t necessarily pay attention to the Olympic tournament, she says. But you can bet she was watching when the squad faced off against Canada in the final.
“I mean, it was out of my control, nothing I could do about it. I would have loved to be there and have been with the team; I have really good friends on the team still, so I was happy for them,” said Stack.
While Stack said she knew this would be the team that finally broke the curse, she’s very clear that the players on the team should get the sole credit for the win.
“That team was going to win the gold medal no matter who was coaching,” said Stack. “It was in no part due to the coaching staff or the management staff in place. It was the bond between the team and the hard work that they’ve put in over the four years.”
This is a coaching and management staff that’s gotten a fair amount of scrutiny from fans and media alike during the Olympic cycle. Stack wasn’t the only superstar cut from the roster — though they were named to the original Olympic roster, forward Alex Carpenter and defender Megan Bozek were the final two cuts. If the US had lost the gold medal game, undoubtedly there would have been a lot more criticism about those cuts. But a gold medal has a way of erasing questionable decisions.
After her exclusion from the centralization roster, Stack had a decision to make — where did she go from here? Ultimately, she signed with the Kunlun Red Star, one of the CWHL’s Chinese expansion teams, and has spent this season dominating the league, and coaching and promoting the team as a player ambassador.
“She is the consummate professional,” said Kunlun head coach Digit Murphy on Stack. “She deserves every penny that she gets paid as a sport ambassador, because she has walked the talk from August to now and has molded these Chinese (players) into what you saw today. When you saw them drive the net, or pick up the puck on the wall, or battle on the wall, this is a direct reflection of the people like Kelli…but she in particular is the leader who has really done it the most on our team, and really owned it.”
Not only has she stood out as a coach, she’s been incredible as a player. Stack ran away with the scoring title, scoring 49 points in 28 games — the highest single-season point total since 2011-12, when Meghan Agosta scored 80 points in 27 games.
The 2017-18 CWHL scoring champion and Angela James Bowl winner is Kelli Stack of @KunlunCWHL! Join us in honouring this incredible performance at the CWHL Awards Show! ️ https://t.co/SqnKthG9pt #WeAreTheGame #ClarksonCup2018 pic.twitter.com/D1bWyWQd22— CWHL (@TheCWHL) March 14, 2018
Now the scoring champion has her eyes fixed on another prize — the Clarkson Cup. Kunlun will face off against the Calgary Inferno in the first round. Though the Inferno have more depth than the Red Star, Stack has been a game-changer all year and wants a shot at the Cup.
“Winning it this year would be incredible. I mean, our expectations going into the season were just kind of streamlined,” said Stack. “We didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know what the talent was going to be like on the other teams, but we knew that we were going to be able to compete with the best teams in the league.
“Winning a championship would be one of my greatest hockey memories, to do it with this group of girls.”
Future in hockey?
But after the CWHL season is over, where does Stack go from there? She’s not sure. Despite her Olympic snub, could we see her on a Four Nations or World Championship roster if the management decides they want her back?
“I think if I kept training and wanted to play in the next Olympics I could from a physical standpoint, but I would want no part in what that group of management and coaching staff is doing,” said Stack.
It’s possible that Stack could stay on Kunlun, if Murphy’s glowing praise is any indication. Stack’s contract is a one-year deal, but playing abroad is taxing, and she isn’t ready to make any decisions just yet.
“I think [Kunlun] will evaluate what they’re going to do next year, who they want around. I’m still kind of up in the air, taking it one day at a time,” said Stack. “I’m getting married in the fall, so I’m kind of coming to that stage where I have to make a decision if I want to keep living abroad, away from my home and my fiancé and my dogs, and I’m at the age where I might want to have children of my own. So it’s going to be a big decision this summer.”