This Week in Women’s Hockey: Feb. 19, 2004

Since the NCAA Frozen Four and the IIHF World Championships are two of the premier women’s hockey tournaments each non-Olympic year, one would think that the two events could be scheduled so that their training and competition schedules do not conflict. Turns out this year, it was too much to ask for.

The competitions themselves do not overlap. The NCAA final is being held in Providence, R.I., on March 28 and the World Championships begin in Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 30 and last until April 6, but there is a conflict is between the Frozen Four and the Canadian national team’s mandatory preparation camp running from March 21 to March 27, concluding with an exhibition game against Sweden on the same day as the NCAA final. For the four U.S. college players who made the Canadian national team roster announced on Tuesday, it comes down to a choice between school and country.

Those players are No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth’s Caroline Ouellette, No. 4 St. Lawrence’s Gina Kingsbury, and No. 2 Dartmouth’s Cherie Piper and Gillian Apps. Ouellette’s team will need plenty of wins and plenty of help to make the Frozen Four, but St. Lawrence and Dartmouth are right in the thick of things. Each team has critically important games this weekend — St. Lawrence faces No. 2 Harvard in a battle of ECAC frontrunners, and former league leader No. 3 Dartmouth can snap a three-game skid with this weekend’s games at Yale and No. 8 Princeton. While this is boiling down to be one of the best ECAC championship races ever, knowing that the winners might not take their full rosters to the Frozen Four does detract from it.

The United States, which has 10 current college players on its roster, has no mandatory camp that conflicts with the Frozen Four.

The potential conflict with the Frozen Four and Hockey Canada has been known since before the beginning of this season. Both Apps and Piper have made it clear to Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak all along that if it comes down to a choice between playing for Team Canada at Worlds and Dartmouth at the Frozen Four, they will be playing for Canada. As of Tuesday, St. Lawrence coach Paul Flanagan did not know what Kingsbury’s decision would be.

“We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it,” Flanagan said.

A Conflict Years in the Making

Halifax won its bid for the 2004 IIHF World Championships in April 2002, and announced that the games would be played sometime in March and April two years hence. This did not bode well for the 2004 Women’s Frozen Four, which was awarded to the New Haven Coliseum for April 9 and 11. Such conflicts were not unprecedented. The 1999 championship, held in early March, conflicted with the ECAC quarterfinals.

When the Coliseum unexpectedly shut down, the NCAA in January of 2003 decided to move the Frozen Four location to Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center and the dates to March 26 and 28, which was back approximately around the same time the national championship had been held throughout its history.

In the same month, Hockey Canada was meeting with its program athletes to form a long-term plan up through the end of the 2005-06 season and the 2006 Winter Olympics. According to Julie Healy, the Director of Female Hockey for Hockey Canada, the plan that the athletes recommended included this week-long training camp prior to the 2004 World Championships in Halifax.

When the dates of March 30 to April 6 were publicly announced in June of 2003, it was clear that a conflict between the Canadian camp and the Frozen Four was forthcoming, and Hockey Canada informed the players and in-season coaches of that potential during the summer. Healy participated in conference calls with a variety of college coaches and told them that national team players would be expected to participate in the training camp and that Hockey Canada would not reconsider that position.

The decision to compete in this year’s World Championships would be left in the hands of the elite Canadian players. For Apps and Piper, sophomores with two more years of college eligibility left after this one, their desire to compete in their first world championship on their home soil was clear from the beginning. The decision is tougher for a senior like Kingsbury, who is playing for her last chance at an NCAA title but already has a World Championship gold medal from 2001. The Saints struggled when their senior leading scorer was absent in November, losing two of three against ranked opponents.

Flanagan said he was happy for Kingsbury but ambivalent about the consequences if the Saints do advance to the Frozen Four.

“She’s a senior and she put for years of her life into this school and into this team, and of course she loves her country and wants to represent her country,” Flanagan said. “Is she going to have to make a decision between school and country? It’s wrong that kids have to make that decision.”

“IIHF and NCAA and Hockey Canada and USA Hockey need to really hammer it out so there aren’t any conflicts, because in women’s hockey, these are the two pinnacles, the Frozen Four and the World Championships in a non-Olympic year. And to make NCAA athletes make the decision between school and country, we need to take the decision out of their hands by doing something with the scheduling.”

Hockey Canada struggles with U.S. college conflicts throughout the year, not just in March. Canada had a national selection camp in January that cost players one to two weekends of the college season, and a Under-22 tournament in February that took players away for one weekend, including two from Dartmouth in its No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup against Minnesota.

“They take the kids not only out of hockey, but right out of school,” Flanagan said. “To me, it just doesn’t make sense, but I think that Team Canada does whatever they have to do to promote their program and whatever they think is best, so I hope someday down the road we can get together and work out schedules so there aren’t the conflicts that we have now.”

That’s easier said than done, however. There are only so many days in a year.

“Finding a balance between national team programs and in-season programs is becoming more of a challenge each season,” wrote Healy. “Players are being stretched to the limit, with some of them playing hockey with no breaks from mid-August to the end of March. The growth of the game is certainly a positive problem.”

Hockey Canada is able to work on scheduling conflicts with the National Women’s Hockey League and Canadian colleges. Conflicts with U.S. college hockey have been persistent, however.

“Certainly, I would prefer to work with all of the partners to build a model that supports the best interest of the athlete, and their development,” wrote Healy. “Unfortunately the game is very compartmentalized and each league/association/country has the flexibility to do what they think is best for themselves.”

Now that Hudak has been through almost two seasons now with Piper and Apps, he questions whether Hockey Canada really is doing what’s best for Hockey Canada, given the emotional baggage that comes with leaving a team right at the climactic moments of a six-month season.

“Are they really getting the best performance out of those kids?” Hudak asks. “Because the kids are going away and are a little distracted thinking, ‘Here’s my team and they might in the Frozen Four and I can’t be with them.’ I don’t think it’s healthy for the kids and I don’t think it’s healthy for hockey as a whole.”

Hockey Canada nevertheless stands by its decision.

“Our position to have players participate in one or the other event is not a decision we have taken lightly, and we have considered all of the factors,” Healy said. “We are encouraging players to make a decision for themselves and we will support that decision, whatever it may be. The [Frozen] Four weekend is a big weekend for the players involved, and although everyone would be more than willing to go from one event, travel, and then begin another, we do not feel this supports a player’s best interests.”

Another question, aside from the Frozen Four is whether the Dartmouth and St. Lawrence players would be able to compete in the ECAC championships on March 20 and March 21 at Union. Healy wrote that discussions were still ongoing and that she was awaiting confirmation from the individual athletes as to when they would be arriving in Nova Scotia for the training camp.

Hudak said that Apps and Piper will be able to compete in the ECACs, should Dartmouth advance that far, because they have arranged to travel from Albany on March 21. On Tuesday, Flanagan said he was unaware that there would be any conflicts with the ECAC tournament.

Momentum Swings

Aside from the Kingsbury situation, things couldn’t be rosier for the Saints. The sweep of No. 1 Dartmouth last weekend was the biggest achievement for the program, since, well, the last time St. Lawrence beat a No. 1-ranked Dartmouth team — the 2001 NCAA semifinals. As in that game, senior Rachel Barrie was a big part of both victories, stopping 53 of 55 shots en route to winning Defensive Player of the Week honors. She improved to 5-3-2 for her career against Dartmouth, and her save percentage against the Big Green is well above her career average.

While Barrie has matched up well against Dartmouth, the same can’t be said for Harvard. St. Lawrence is 0-3-2 in her last five outings against the Crimson, and each of the five losses she gave up five goals or more. The last outing was a 6-1 loss to Harvard. The first was a 7-1 loss in the ECAC semifinals and it was the first worst outing by far of Barrie’s freshman season.

“We’ve had high scoring games against her when she’s had awesome years — she’s an awesome goalie,” said Harvard co-captain Lauren McAuliffe. “I don’t know, maybe we’re in her head.”

Key to the Crimson wins over St. Lawrence has been getting to Barrie early on. In the 7-1 win, Harvard had three first-period goals. In the 5-3 win of 2002, Harvard scored two first period goals on just three shots. In the 6-1 win last year, Harvard scored in the first 30 seconds of both the first and second periods.

The Saints will have to do a good job around Barrie, while Harvard will have to battle for every re bound — if there are any — if last weekend’s games against Dartmouth are any indication.

“Everybody did a good job defensively, obviously a goaltender of the stature of Rachel Barrie, that gives you a whole lot of confidence, but I thought everybody did a great job after she were to make the initial save, we didn’t give them a real good quality second and third chance, that’s where the defensive mindset of the kids,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan will look to keep momentum swings mostly in his team’s favor, as against Dartmouth. He felt a key to the game two win was the momentum boost from scoring to tie the game at the end of the first intermission when the Big Green had dominated the period. Another way to keep the momentum to edge was to avoid pressure.

“Against Dartmouth, we were the underdog for the first time in a long time in terms of our schedule,” he said. “Let’s let the pressure be on Dartmouth. If we can get up on them, maybe they’ll start gripping the stick a little tight. We’re away from home, so let’s go with it. More of the same this weekend.”

St. Lawrence did give Harvard one of its toughest tests of the season last year in a 3-3 tie at Appleton Arena, which Flanagan said many felt was the most exciting hockey game played there, men’s or women’s, a year ago. That game, both goalies Barrie and Jessica Ruddock made amazing stops down the stretch. St. Lawrence had great success breaking the Harvard forecheck for odd-man rushes, but the Crimson was able to adjust and take that advantage away in the 6-1 win the next day.

This weekend’s games will be just the sixth and seventh women’s matchups ever between two teams ranked in the top four at the Bright Hockey Center. Four of the previous five such meetings make up the top four attendance figures all-time for Harvard women’s hockey, including January’s record of 1,921.

Getting Back Together

Just when it seemed Dartmouth was going to get its full lineup back for the first time in month in the series against St. Lawrence, Apps sprained her shoulder in the first game and missed the second game. Her status for this weekend against Yale and Princeton is questionable.

Dartmouth, after starting the season 17-1-2, has suddenly dropped three straight to top four teams. Losing players to injuries and Canadian commitments has unquestionably been a factor.

“It has hurt us in the last three or four weeks missing kids from our lineup,” Hudak said. “It’s tough to get that rhythm back and the timing. Some of it is the confidence. It’ll help when we get the team back together and hopefully we’ll have a good run here at the end.”

Hudak classified the Minnesota loss and the first St. Lawrence loss as games in which Dartmouth did not play particularly well. The second St. Lawrence loss was a different story, but defensive breakdowns on the penalty kill led to two St. Lawrence goals.

“They’ve got a goalie and they’ve got a good team, and we’re playing those teams right now where it’s all very close,” Hudak said. “And if you make a mistake the other teams are going to capitalize, and we made mistakes in both games against St. Lawrence and they capitalized.”

This Just In

As this column has often focused on what national team players might be unavailable for the Frozen Four, here’s some good news for a change.

Minnesota forward and U.S. Olympian Natalie Darwitz, once thought to be lost for the season, has been cleared to play this weekend against Ohio State.