Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Minnesota. The Gophers had struggled the year before after winning a national championship, and Laura Halldorson’s inaugural recruiting class graduated at the end of the season.
The Gophers returned just three seniors for the 2001-02 season and were woefully thin on defense as well as going into the year without a proven goalie.
The result: WCHA regular season and playoff championships and a third-place finish at the NCAA championship.
Although they lost three seniors, including co-captains Tracy Engstrom and Laura Slominski, the Gophers return WCHA Player of the Year and Patty Kazmaier Award finalist Ronda Curtin as well as 2000 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Winny Brodt, who missed the last two seasons due to her commitment to the U.S. National Team.
Add to that the addition of U.S. Olympic Team members Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz, who combined for nine points in the Gophers’ 10-0 exhibition win over the Toronto Jr. Aeros, the talent level on the team is exceptional.
Minnesota men’s coach Don Lucia, whose own team is coming off a national championship, opened his press conference on media day by saying “Our penalty kill is going to be really good this year because we’re going to practice against the women’s power play.”
He may have been kidding, but he underscored the point that talent abounds on this year’s edition of Gopher women’s hockey.
Does that make them a lock to win it all? According to Halldorson, it doesn’t.
“Women’s hockey is going to get a big boost this year from Olympians who are coming back to their college programs,” she said. “People who realize how talented our team is going to be also need to know there are going to be a lot of great teams out there this year and I think the level of play, as a whole, is going to be a couple of notches above what it has been.”
Without question, however, Halldorson’s Gophers have had high expectations placed upon them.
“I think we have to accept the fact that we have higher expectations this year,” she said. “Our goal is to take all of the positives that we created last year, in terms of work ethic, character, heart and chemistry, add talent to that, and, hopefully, our players remember what made us successful last year and we can build on that this season.”
Not only do they bring the aforementioned firepower to the rink, they return their top forward line of junior La Toya Clarke and sophomores Kelly Stephens and Kristy Oonincx.
“We talk all the time about every player on the team having a role,” Halldorson said. “They’re all important and they do evolve and change over time. Having depth may affect some people’s roles.
“The great thing is that, besides the talent we’re bringing in our freshman class, we have great returners and they’re going to benefit from having more talent around them.
“Clarke, Stephens and Oonincx were tremendous last season and, although they stood out more last year than they will this year, they will still be very involved in our offense and I believe contribute a great deal.”
The trio ranked second, third and fourth on the team in scoring, combining for 54 goals and 123 points. They also accounted for 17 of the team’s 28 game-winning goals.
As a whole, the team returns five 20-point scorers with junior Jerilyn Glenn, who had 12 goals and 20 points, joining Curtin, Clarke, Oonincx and Stephens in that group.
Halldorson also said both Curtin and Brodt could see time at forward. Kelsey Bills, who will serve as an assistant captain, Cecilia Retelle and Melissa Coulombe performed well on defense and will be joined by Ashley Ahlbrecht, the 2002 Ms. Hockey Award winner in Minnesota, Chelsey Brodt (Winny’s younger sister) Krista Johnson and Allie Sanchez.
The elder Brodt, who will anchor the defense with Curtin, is glad to back in the Maroon and Gold.
“It’s great to be back,” she said. “It’s fun to be practicing again. The break that I had last year was good for me personally and now I’m ready to play.”
Brodt sat out last year as a red-shirt after being cut from the U.S. National Team, one year after spending a full-season with the program, culminating in a silver medal at the 2001 World championships.
Curtin feels she is still developing as a defenseman, despite her impressive campaign last season.
“I don’t know what position I’ll be playing this year,” she said. “If I play defense I still need to learn more because I’ve only played it for a year. My goal is just to improve.”
With what appears to be a solid, and improved, defense, things should be really good for the Gophers in their end of the ice as they return sophomore standouts Jody Horak and Brenda Reinen in goal.
Each started 16 games last season and posted nearly identical numbers. Horak was 14-2-2 with a 1.43 goals against average, .947 save percentage and four shutouts. Reinen was 12-0-5 with a 1.39 GAA, .948 save percentage and one shutout.
“We want them to build on what they accomplished last season,” Halldorson said. “I really think they were two of the best goalies in the country as freshmen.
“We split them almost exactly evenly last year. We kept thinking that someone would emerge as a top goalie and they kept having awesome games. They’re both extremely competitive. They have different strengths, but they’re both mentally strong and their objective is to keep the puck out of the net, and they find ways to do that.
“What I’ve told them is that we’re starting a new season and we’re going to always reevaluate but, if they both deserve to play, they will.
With all that they’ve got going, the Gophers also open the new Ridder Arena this season. The brand-new facility is the first in the country built primarily to house a women’s hockey team. The arena will feature a standard (200 by 85 feet) sheet of ice which, according to Winny Brodt, will help their game.
“I think it’s going to be an advantage to our game,” she said. “The game is going to be a lot quicker and things are going to happen that much faster.”
That, says Halldorson, will help build excitement.
“Ridder Arena is a perfect facility for us,” she said. “We hope to generate great enthusiasm and an exciting atmosphere for our fans and our players with an intimate setting.”
Ridder Arena, which is adjacent to Mariucci Arena, will seat approximately 3,000 in a bowl configuration, with a club room and suites totaling another 400 seats.
The first game in the new arena will be the Gophers’ WCHA home opener, Oct. 19, when they take on St. Cloud State. Minnesota opens its season Oct. 12-13 at Findlay.