Over the first decade of NCAA tournaments, Minnesota-Duluth won half of them.
In the three years since that fifth NCAA championship in 2010, coach Shannon Miller’s Bulldogs have not won an NCAA tournament game, including missing out on the national tournament altogether in consecutive years for the first time. In 2013, Minnesota-Duluth did not even advance past the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“We didn’t have leadership last year; we didn’t have great chemistry,” Miller said. “We didn’t have a lot of talent at all. It was just sort of an ugly season.”
What caused the decline to a 14-16-4 record, the program’s only losing season? To be sure, Bulldogs were beset by injuries, including two of the holdovers from that 2010 championship team, Jessica Wong and Audrey Cournoyer. Wong was coming off of hip surgery in the off season that limited her effectiveness and back problems forced Cournoyer to retire after being available for only five games.
Additionally, the emergence of the North Dakota program has hurt Minnesota-Duluth on a couple of fronts.
The format of the WCHA schedule, where teams play each other at least four times each season, makes it very unlikely that the conference would be able to advance more than two or three teams to the eight-team NCAA field. In 2011, when Minnesota-Duluth last made an appearance, Wisconsin and Minnesota joined it in the tournament and North Dakota barely missed out. North Dakota replaced the Bulldogs in the field in 2012, and last March, only Minnesota and North Dakota received bids. None of the other four teams in the league has ever competed in the NCAA tournament. Where it was once essentially a case of three teams competing for two or three tournament spots, the ascension of North Dakota has altered the dynamic to four teams in the running for two or three berths. Plus, the more competitive the league becomes, the more the losses pile up for WCHA teams finishing third and fourth and the more likely that the conference representation will be two rather than three.
North Dakota has also hurt Minnesota-Duluth’s recruiting, particularly in Europe, a hotbed for Miller over the years.
“They got Michelle Karvinen instead of us from Denmark, but she plays for Team Finland, and they got [Susanna] Tapani from Finland instead of us,” Miller said. “If those guys are on our team instead of their team, then we’re here and they’re here.”
With that, she indicated her team positioned above North Dakota in the standings instead of below following a recent head-to-head series in Grand Forks where Minnesota-Duluth had to settle for one of six points. North Dakota is also siphoning off top talent in western Canada, another traditional source of Bulldogs recruits. This season’s North Dakota roster includes players like sophomore Meghan Dufault of Winnipeg, Man., and freshman Halli Krzyzaniak from Neepawa, Man., veterans of Canada’s Under-18 team and strong additions to the roster of any team.
Despite those challenges, Minnesota-Duluth added a class of seven freshmen to bolster the roster.
“We’re much better than we were last year at this point in time,” Miller said. “We have more talent, and they’re listening, and they’re working, and they have really good chemistry. The leaders in the locker room are really important, and they’re doing a good job. There is a lot to build on with these guys.”
Minnesota-Duluth did emerge from the recruiting battles with a coveted Manitoba native of its own, Ashleigh Brykaliuk of Brandon.
“The poor kid, she’s a freshman and she’s starting on the first line; she’s a centerman for the first power-play unit,” Miller said. “That is a lot of responsibility for a freshman, but she’s the best centerman we have, so that’s who is going there, and she’s going to learn as she goes.”
Through six games, Brykaliuk is tied for fourth on the team in scoring with five points.
Another rookie, defenseman Lara Stalder of Luzern, Switzerland, leads the way with nine points.
“She’s a great addition to our team,” Miller said. “She’s got great feet, she’s got great hands, she’s got great vision, and she works. And she listens and she is unselfish; she’s a real team player. She’s the complete package, so we’re thrilled.”
Stalder likes her new home as well.
“It’s great to play here,” she said. “It’s amazing how the facilities are and how popular hockey is here, because in Switzerland, it’s not that popular. Here, you feel like a star.”
To date, she is playing like one.
“I like to play offense, too, to be involved in the offensive rush, and I hope I can continue that because the coaches give me the free ticket to be offensive,” Stalder said. “But also, I have to play solid defense.”
Like Brykaliuk, the team is relying on Stalder to do a number of things well immediately.
“I’m a freshman, and they gave me so many roles to step in there,” Stalder said. “It’s great the support of the coaching staff. They believe in me, and that’s great to have as a player, because I get confidence and I can play better.”
The Bulldogs needed an offensive boost after losing their primary scoring threat from the blue line.
“We lost Brigette Lacquette late,” Miller said. “We didn’t find out until May or June that she was centralizing with Canada. You can’t replace her then. Other kids, you know they’re going to centralize, because they’re that good. They’re pretty much on the team. Brigette got invited late, like we found out late, so it’s like, ‘What are we going to do?’ So Stalder has really helped with that situation.”
Unfortunately for Minnesota-Duluth, it may have to make do for a time without Stalder as well. She said that the country’s Olympic roster has not yet been decided, but she has a good chance at making it.
“When I was 16, I could go to the championship with the ‘A’ team in Switzerland, and it was there where I started to believe it,” Stalder said. “It was three years ago, and Sochi is a big dream of mine, and I hope I can attend, because the last two championships, I was injured two weeks before, so I hope I can go.”
Miller expects her to realize that Olympic dream, but it compromises her team’s defensive corps.
“She’s going to be gone for about two weeks in November; that’s obviously going to hurt us,” Miller said. “And she’s going to be gone for a month in February. It’s going to hurt us a lot when she’s gone. There’s no question.”
The problem is compounded because junior defenseman Tea Villila has national team commitments for Finland. A possible reinforcement could arrive in the person of Lacquette; the junior might rejoin the Bulldogs, as Jocelyne Larocque did in January of 2010.
“If Brigette does get cut, and those kids are leaving, we already know they are leaving for a month, so Brigette needs to come back,” Miller said. “You want to be on the team, you’ve got to be on the team. You’ve got to step up when your team needs you. So I’m pretty sure that will happen if she gets cut, but I hope she doesn’t. I’d rather struggle through February and have her make the Olympic team.”
Should Stalder wind up going to Sochi, she’ll face the challenge of juggling school with both an NCAA and an international team.
“In Switzerland, we have to work or go to university the whole day,” Stalder said. “Here, we can arrange that with hockey. Yeah, it’s hard to miss something in school, but I think I have good mentors here who help me very well.”
A pair of Swiss goaltenders, Patricia Sautter-Elsmore and Riita Schaublin, played for earlier Minnesota-Duluth teams. Stalder said she received both an endorsement of the program and help with the transition from Sautter-Elsmore, who still lives in the area.
Stalder has seen the benefits in the weeks she has been playing and practicing with the Bulldogs.
“The speed is great and it’s for me like I would play in the national team,” Stalder said. “In Switzerland, we have a league, but here it’s such a huge difference. The passes are faster and I like that. I can prove myself here.”
Minnesota-Duluth is settling into its schedule with a 2-3-1 record, including 0-3-1 in the WCHA, but come March, Stalder’s team may prove itself as well.
“We have to grow as a team and that comes with time,” Stalder said. “We will see at the end of the season, because we are a great team.”