In the brief history of NCAA Division-I women’s hockey, few recruiting classes have had a bigger impact than the one that enrolled at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2002.
“I think it’s the most successful senior group that we’ve had in a long time, and maybe ever,” said assistant coach Brad Frost. “They’ve been to three Frozen Fours, in their three years already,” said Frost. “Obviously, we’re hoping to get to another one, but they have two national championships, and those are things that nobody can ever take away.”
The two most famous members of this class, Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell, spent the 2005-2006 school year preparing and competing with Team USA in the Turino, Italy Olympic Games. Both decided that they would not return to use their final season of college eligibility.
The class’ remaining members — forward Krista Johnson and defensemen Ashley Albrecht, Chelsey Brodt, and Allie Sanchez — were left to write the final chapter of the group’s legacy. They have helped their team to 27 wins this season to bring the total during their tenures to 120 — one less than the mark achieved by the class of 2005.
Now that they are approaching their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament, any game could bring the completion of their Gopher careers. By ranking in the top four at mid-March tournament selections, the seniors have ensured that their final game will be played on their own campus. Friday night’s game versus Princeton in Ridder Arena determines if their careers end abruptly or continue next door in Mariucci Arena. Either way, it will be their final time to take to the Ridder ice for varsity competition.
“I don’t know if it’s hit me or not that it’ll be my last game [in Ridder] – I try not to think about it,” said Sanchez.
“I’m going to be really sad,” said Albrecht. “It didn’t hit me until the last week — ‘This is our last [Ridder] game.'”
“It’s in the back of my head, but I’m more focused on the game,” Brodt said. “We just want to try to treat it like it’s just another game. We obviously know that it’s a huge game for us, but we want to keep the same routine going.”
The Tiger team that stands in the way of the continuation of their season and careers bears some resemblance to the Gophers in the strength of their defensemen. A key role will be played by the Minnesota blue line corps, of which Albrecht, Brodt, and Sanchez are stalwarts.
“They are different from a lot of teams in our league, where their defensemen aren’t their strength — obviously for Wisconsin, they are huge,” Frost said of Princeton. “Princeton’s defensemen are very dangerous when they have the puck. They love to quick counter on you and transition very quickly, and jump in on the offensive end periodically. They are very offensive minded, they’ve got great speed up front, similar to us, and good goaltending.”
Against a team like the Tigers, who boast one of the nation’s best offenses, Minnesota will need contributions from the senior defensemen on both ends of the ice.
“Their roles have increased, in particular this year with three of them being seniors,” said Frost. “They started out a little slow this year, and I think that’s when our team struggled. They’ve really taken it upon themselves to play hard, play better, and to take more responsibility in particular in our own zone, which is allowing us to keep the puck out of our net. In turn, they’re jumping in offensively when it is appropriate and putting the puck in the net as well.”
The offensive contribution from the defenders is crucial to the Gophers, who are down about two goals per game from their production of last season. Minnesota’s improved record down the stretch resulted in part from scoring from a number of unexpected sources.
“We know this year that we can’t rely on just certain players, and everyone has stepped up and been working on their game,” said Johnson. “In any game, at any time, anyone on our team can be the one to score. We all have confidence in each other.”
“I just love the way they’ve really matured,” Frost said. “Krista Johnson and Allie Sanchez both came in as forward/defenseman, and we tried them in both spots. Krista up until this year had been playing D most of her career, and this year made the transition to forward, and just had a fantastic season for us.
“Allie has to be one of the most underrated defensemen in our whole conference. She’s a rock out there. You can put her anywhere — on the power play, on the penalty kill, offensive style, defensive style and she does it very well.
“Ashley and Chelsey are so offensively gifted and can skate so well. That’s just a huge strength of theirs and in turn it is a strength for our team, because they can transition the puck very quickly. They can help skate the puck out of our zone, where other defensemen would be looking to pass.
“It all starts in our end, and we take a lot of pride in that. We’ve always had great offensive teams, but I think we get overlooked for how well we play in our end as well. Our defensemen realize that responsibility and do what they can to help us get the puck into the offensive end.”
“Once we lose those kids, it’s certainly going to change our team a little bit,” Frost concluded.
But before their Gopher days are over, there remains that game with Princeton and the big prize that awaits the winner — a spot in the NCAA semifinals.
“It’s huge, obviously,” said Sanchez. “It would be great to make it back to the Frozen Four again, especially with the group of girls that we’ve got this year — a special team. We’ve really bonded, having to work so much harder without the Olympians.”
The seniors, all Minnesota natives, couldn’t ask for more than to participate in that final championship run on their home campus, so that they can share it with those who have supported them throughout their careers.
“My whole family and everyone can come and they don’t have to fly out,” said Albrecht. “It’s exciting, a great advantage.”
Conversely, how would it feel to lose in the quarters and have this year’s Frozen Four experience only as spectators?
“It would definitely be disappointing,” said Johnson. “Hopefully, it won’t be like that.”
Among the highlights of their days as Gophers, all four mentioned the people that they met and the friendships made along the way.
“Just the little things — coming to the rink every day, and the funny things that happen with the team,” said Brodt. “Little memories just add up.”
Albrecht, so similar to Brodt in playing style, took much the same view to the experience in retrospect.
“So many little things, so many memories, stories from every day coming to the rink,” she said. “You laugh every day.”
Overall, they leave happy with what was achieved.
“I don’t think there was a game where I could say that I didn’t try my best,” said Sanchez. “So whether I was successful or not, I think it’s been a good career, without regrets.”
Still, it went so quickly, but for that one remaining tournament.
“It went by so fast — in the beginning, you think it’s going to be forever, and then all of a sudden, it is over,” said Johnson. “It’s just important to be ready and to continue to play like we’ve been playing.”