A golden reunion: 1998 women’s Olympic hockey team reunites on the ice in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

A golden reunion: 1998 women’s Olympic hockey team reunites on the ice in Aspen

Reality hits hard sometimes, and AJ Mleczko could feel it all too well on Saturday when she joined a handful of former Olympic teammates in the 18th annual Stirling Cup all-star game at Lewis Ice Arena in Aspen.

"Any time I have a chance to get together with my teammates and relive some of the best times of my life, I'll take it," she said before the game. "I feel it hasn't been that long. It doesn't feel like it's been 20 years. I played in Salt Lake so it's been 16 years since I played in the Olympics, but physically it sure feels that long."

Mleczko was part of the 1998 U.S. women's hockey team that won gold. It was a milestone moment for women's hockey worldwide, as it was the first time it had been included in the Olympics. About half of that team took part in Saturday's game, which is a fundraiser for Aspen Junior Hockey.

On the other side of the ice was the University of Colorado women's hockey team, which included senior Renee Dreher, an Aspen native who grew up playing with AJH. The Stirling Cup all-star game is typically a matchup of National Hockey League alumni, so getting the chance to compete in the event herself was a bit of a dream come true for Dreher.

"It was definitely a bit overwhelming. We didn't really know what to expect coming out," Dreher said after the first period of Saturday's game. "It's been a long time since I've gotten to play on home ice and obviously the opportunity to play against these women is incredible. They obviously still have a lot of talent. It's a lot of fun."

In the end, the younger legs of the CU women prevailed, beating Team USA, 7-4. But for those Olympians, the score hardly mattered. For most of them, it was their first time being on the ice together since beating rival Canada in that gold medal game two decades ago.

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"Just having half of us here is a special occasion for us," said Shelley Looney, who gave the U.S. a 2-0 lead in that game against Canada, which proved to be the game-winner. "We will always have something special with 20 years ago and what we did. Sometimes we don't talk very often, but when we see each other it's like it was yesterday."

That team is credited for the growth of girls hockey in the country after the 1998 Olympics. That theme was played out Saturday between periods when AJH recognized its own girls' 16U AA team that made the national tournament in April. It also recognized Aspen's longstanding Mother Puckers women's hockey team.

"We are all very, very proud of it," said Mleczko, who now works as part of the NBC broadcasting crew covering hockey. "I also think there is a lot of humility that goes along with knowing there were a lot of women who went before us. We maybe got the last couple of bricks in that paved road, but so many women went before us and played on the national team."

And it all came full circle last winter when the 2018 U.S. women's hockey team won Olympic gold, also beating Canada in the final. It was the first Olympic gold for women's hockey in the U.S. since that inaugural 1998 team.

"We were so blessed to see them do it," Looney said. "Every year we were hoping it would happen and it was well overdue. That group was special and they knew they could do it, just like we did 20 years ago."

The Stirling Cup weekend, which raises scholarship money for local youth hockey players, concludes Sunday with the annual golf tournament at Aspen Golf Club.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

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