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Olympian Kilbourne-Hill recalls women’s hockey in Lake Placid

Fans packed the stands in Lake Placid at the Herb Brooks Arena on Dec. 29, 2001 to watch Saranac Lake’s Andrea Kilbourne and the U.S. Women’s National Team take on Russia in an exhibition game that was part of a pre-Olympic tour leading up to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. (Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

(Editor’s note: In celebration of the National Women’s Hockey League coming to Lake Placid Olympic for its two-week season in a bubble starting with a triple-header Saturday, the Enterprise is running a three-part series covering the history of women’s hockey in the Olympic Village. This is the second of three stories.)

Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, a Saranac Lake native and Northwood School alumna who would eventually play on the 2002 women’s Olympic hockey team, noted the local excitement as the Americans trained in Lake Placid while gearing up for the 1998 Olympics — the first time women’s hockey was held as a sport in the winter games. 

“You have some amazing women who were on that team: Cammi Granato, Karyn Bye. They made connections in the community and really did a great job of being representatives for the sport and really great role models,” Kilbourne-Hill said. “Those players were my role models even though I was practicing and playing with them at certain times, and competing against them as well. They were still my role models, and they still are to a certain extent. They did a great job building enthusiasm for the sport.”

After a pre-Olympic hype tour that started in 1997, the team headed to Nagano, Japan, for the Olympics. They won the first-ever gold medal in women’s hockey while drawing the world’s attention to the sport. Defender Angela Ruggiero, the youngest player on the U.S. squad, described the team’s dynamic as a large part of its success. 

Saranac Lake’s Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, a silver medalist from the 2002 U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team, walks in a March 2018 parade in Saranac Lake. She was inducted into the Saranac Lake Walk of Fame immediately after the parade. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

“We were the epitome of a team,” she said. “That was 22 years ago, but the fact that we did have to be sacrificing, we knew what our strengths and weaknesses were, we knew how to play individually but collectively.

“We had a lot of fun, too; there were always practical jokes and pranks. And living on the road, we were sisters basically. So it was fun, an amazing experience for me at a younger age that I took with me throughout the rest of my career.”

Even after those first Olympics, Lake Placid continued to be a headquarters for USA Women’s Hockey. Leading up to the 2002 Olympics, the women continued to train and grow as women’s hockey sprung up across the nation. That team went on to win a silver medal in Salt Lake City, and the American women have continued to win medals in every single Olympic appearance. 

Ruggiero noted how during her time training for the first two Olympics, Lake Placid became a sort of home away from home. 

“I lived there two years prior to the 2002 Olympics, and then it was really home, putting posters on the wall in the training center, spending however many hours drinking hot cocoa, and getting to know more of the locals,” she recalled, mentioning the familiarity of the village every time she came back later in her career.

Ruggiero chuckled at one memory: “I celebrated my 21st birthday in Lake Placid and had shots at PJ’s. I kind of grew up there in some ways.”

Kilbourne-Hill played on multiple junior national teams and on occasion played in tournaments with the 1998 team while they trained in Lake Placid because she “was there anyway.” Four years later she made it onto the 2002 Olympic team. While growing up in the area, Kilbourne-Hill remarked that her experience wasn’t that different from her teammates because they were all so busy training, with the exception of seeing people she knew at Stewart’s.

Outside of USA Hockey, Lake Placid also continued to serve as a hub for other prominent hockey. In 2007, the NCAA hosted the Women’s Frozen Four at the Herb Brooks Arena. Additionally, Northwood School, a private boarding school in Lake Placid, has a highly competitive girls hockey team that allows young girls to sharpen their skills. The team trains at the Olympic Center, using the locker room specifically built for that first Olympic women’s hockey team. Many girls from Northwood have gone on to compete in junior national teams, Division I college hockey teams and even the U.S. Olympic team. 

After competing in the Olympics and playing Division I hockey at Princeton, Kilbourne-Hill returned to Lake Placid, coaching girls hockey for the public high school for three years and then at Northwood for eight. Combining her passion for education and hockey, she brought the team to great success during her tenure, helping bolster the local hockey powerhouse. 

“I think in some senses they (the girls hockey team) fly a little bit under the radar, but in other senses I think it has opened up people’s eyes to the level of competition that you can play at, because it’s definitely a step up from traditional high school hockey,” she noted.

While the official headquarters for the women’s national team program didn’t remain in Lake Placid, USA Hockey has continued to utilize the Olympic Village as a significant venue over the years, from more informal training camps to international and national competitions.

After the Three Nations Cup in 1997, Lake Placid hosted the Four Nations Cup another three times: in 2004, 2008 and 2013, when the U.S. took silver, gold and bronze, respectively. Saranac Lake local Tim Gerrish served as an assistant coach to the team at the 2004 competition.

Another prominent event has been the annual USA Hockey Women’s National Festival in Lake Placid. According to Katie Million, the current director of women’s national team programs for USA Hockey and a former New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority employee of 17 years, it’s the biggest event of the year for the USA women’s program because of the number of athletes it encompasses.

The week-long event consists of practice sessions and scrimmages with players from all over the country with the goal of evaluating the player pool for the U18 and U22 teams. The festival traditionally ends with a three-game series against Canada with a narrowed-down roster to form each team.

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