Hours of apprehension and anticipation pass as Brianne McLaughlin awaits the introduction of the United States at the 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Vancouver, British Columbia.
She looks to her left: David Backes. Her right: Shaun White. Skiers and snowboarders surround her teammates on the national women’s hockey team. All wearing the same Ralph Lauren garb. All set to compete for the same country and goal.
A bobsledder gathers all athletes for the most raucous “U.S.A.” chant of her lifetime.
Before, McLaughlin understood that few paid attention to women’s hockey but now, she and her teammates are front and center for the largest winter sports spectacle on Earth.
Twenty-seven years before that night, Brianne was delegated the task of stopping pucks for her older brother Michael, who was responsible for a surplus of broken windows in the family garage.
“Every female goalie that I have ever met has the same story,” McLaughlin said. “Their older brothers were forwards, they have their friends over to play street hockey and they need a goalie. So you just put your little sister in the net.”
That was the case with McLaughlin as well. Admitting to the desire to follow in her older brothers footsteps, McLaughlin jokes about wanting to even shave her head after her brother did so.
“I wanted to hang out with him and his friends and that is the only way I was allowed, to play goalie for he and his buddies,” she said. “Playing hockey with boys was the only exposure to the sport I got anyway.”
Access to women’s hockey in her hometown of Elyria, Ohio, was almost non-existent. After playing on men’s teams until her sophomore year of high school, McLaughlin was invited to her first U.S development camp.
“They asked what I wanted to do with my career,” McLaughlin said. “I told them I wanted to play Division I (NCAA) hockey.”
In order to accomplish that goal, McLaughlin was told that she had to make the move to women’s hockey teams. The closest squad was an hour away from Elyria, which is beyond Cleveland’s western suburbs. But the McLaughlins made it happen and the dream came true.
McLaughlin helped jumpstart one of the country’s most prolific hockey programs at Robert Morris University, as she came in during the inaugural season as starting goaltender.
“I originally chose RMU because I would play all four years but also have the chance to see what we could do with that time,” said McLaughlin. “It was great being one of the ones to lay the foundation, and show what it means to be a Colonial.”
In those four years at Robert Morris, McLaughlin helped take a five-win team to a .500 squad and set the NCAA record for most career saves. However, out of all the games in her college career, a 58-save performance against Wisconsin changed her life forever.
Wisconsin’s head coach also happened to be former Pittsburgh Penguin and United States Olympic women’s head coach Mark Johnson. McLaughlin was then invited to represent the country with the under-22 team.
“It was my first game for a national team. I was so jacked up, my family was there and I let in six goals.” McLaughlin said.
She then did not hear from the national team again until after her senior season at Robert Morris, when she got the call for the Olympic tryouts.
“They told me if they invited five goalies, I’d be the fifth” McLaughlin said, “but I played an awesome tournament and camp, and I was chosen as the third goalie to go to the Olympics.”
McLaughlin smiled as she recalled her first conversation with Johnson after being named to the team in 2010: “He sat me down and told me congratulations and that nobody thought I would make it here. He told me I was the hardest worker, the best teammate, and that I am never going to play.”
2010 was only the third time that women’s hockey was on the Olympic docket, which is largely the reason McLaughlin was unfamiliar with the process and experience.
“I didn’t realize it but it was very easy to not focus on hockey,” McLaughlin joked. “Well for me, at least. I knew I wasn’t going to play.”
Walking through the Olympic Village in Vancouver, an athlete had access to multiple shops and brand-affiliated ‘houses,’ including Nike and Oakley, which resulted in attaining free merchandise. However, one of the highlights for McLaughlin was a McDonald’s, in which she claims she “overdosed” on cinnamon buns.
Once hockey became the headliner, McLaughlin did get a chance to play in net during a blowout win against China on the road to a silver medal.
McLaughlin also made the team in 2014 that went to Sochi.
“I had a better feel for it then, but then we landed”, McLaughlin said.
Expecting snow and negative temperatures, the Olympians were greeted by palm trees.
“When you think of Russia, you think of those big hats and coats. I saw that in the mountains, but not in the village. It was awesome.” McLaughlin recalled, “I walked around in a T-shirt and jeans and watched dolphins when we weren’t playing hockey.”
The both Olympics that McLaughlin competed in, the United States lost to rival Canada in the gold medal game.
“We were all standing on the blue line watching them get the gold around their neck again, it was devastating,” McLaughlin said. “Especially after winning multiple world championships and then losing in the Olympics.”
McLaughlin did gather a championship, however. In 2015, McLaughlin joined the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League as the team’s starting goaltender. A year later, McLaughlin retired from hockey after leading the Beauts to a NWHL title.
Since her playing career is complete, McLaughlin is still heavily involved in the sport along with her husband Logan Bittle, an assistant women’s hockey coach at Robert Morris.
McLaughlin has coached U10 Elite Teams, and after requests of parents, she has developed clubs and camps for youth hockey players in the Pittsburgh area along with a training facility at the RMU complex on Neville Island, 15 miles northwest of Downtown.
Registration for Brianne’s upcoming camp in June is available here.