In many ways, athletic teams are like families. They play together, they pray together, they sleep together, they eat together. They support each other. So when some members of the family splinter off — for whatever reason — it could be uncomfortable when they return to the fold.
It wasn’t uncomfortable when three Olympians, senior forward Julie Chu and junior defenseman Caitlin Cahow, who played for the United States, and sophomore forward Sarah Vaillancourt, who played for the Gold Medal-winning Canadian team, returned to their Harvard University ice hockey team after taking a year off to train for and play in the Torino games. But there certainly was some adjusting to do.
And they have made a difference. Before a 3-2 loss to a well-prepared UConn team Tuesday in Storrs, the Crimson (11-2-0) had posted an eight-game win streak (the longest in the country) and ascended to No. 4 in the USCHO.com poll.
But for Olympians Julie Chu, who didn’t play in Connecticut because of an ankle injury she had suffered over the weekend against Minnesota-Duluth, and Caitlin Cahow, there were no guarantees when they left Italy to return to Cambridge.
“I really never played with two of the classes — and they are big classes,” Chu said of the players who are now freshmen and sophomores. “It was a different dynamic from when I left.” But she quickly picked up where she left off and is one of the best players, if not the best, in the nation as the season approaches the mid-way point. She leads the nation in scoring average (2.80 points per game) and assists (20) even though she has played an average of two games less than competitors. Vaillancourt is second in the nation in scoring (2.36) and teammate Jennie Brine is third (2.15).
Although Chu said she was proud to represent her country in Torino, she was so excited to return to school. “Sure I enjoyed the national team, but I only have one year left at Harvard. I want to enjoy every moment of it on and off the ice.”
Many people regard Chu as the best player in collegiate hockey, but the praise and honors that have come her way have not affected her one bit. Cahow said Chu combines those rare characteristics of one who is willing to deflect positive attention to her teammates, but at the same time is completely in touch with her own abilities and leadership role.
Against unranked UConn (11-4-1) she could only cheer her team on, but when she felt it was necessary, she talked to players about what they were doing on the ice. “They outworked us,” she said. “We had to use three lines to one of their shifts. For the players, it was a learning experience. When you get off that bus, you have to be prepared to play.”
Cahow, who has played hockey with Chu three seasons at Harvard and on the 2006 Olympic team, described her as an “incredible all-around person.”
“Her hockey game is a metaphor for her entire life: level-headed, easy-going, clutch under pressure,” Cahow said. Although she’s constantly working to improve her game, “the great thing about Julie is that she’s so grounded,” Cahow said. “There’s never a lot of change with her, either off or on the ice.”
Cahow said returning to Harvard after a year off was “a little dicey until we knew where we fit in. For me it was a great change of pace (from the Olympics) to be back into a program where I have a lot of leeway and yet expectations are for me to be a leader. But the year away was good for me in that I got to re-evaluate my education, my friendships and my family.”
She also discovered that returning from Olympic play did not guarantee her a prime playing time. “We couldn’t come back and expect to play on the first power play,” Cahow said. “We had to try out like everyone else. Nothing’s given to you — you have to earn it. It was a great way to integrate us back into the team.”
Cahow said she and Harvard coach Katey Stone go back a long way, having been on a number of USA squads which Stone has coached. But their history was no guarantee. “Coach wants to win a national championship and will do whatever it takes to win,” she said.
“Everybody earns their keep,” said Stone about the returning players. “It’s nice to have them back and they’re expected to do a lot, but we’re a team, not a group of individuals”. She said for the Olympians, “getting back into the rhythm of college life” with classes, studying, and social commitments is not easy, contrasted to a year in which they only had hockey on their plates.
It’s an experience that is familiar to Olympian Angela Ruggiero, who took two years off between her sophomore and junior years, to train for the 2002 Olympics. She graduated from Harvard in 2004 and now works for the New York Islanders on a project to expand women’s hockey in China. She was also on the 2006 Olympic team.
“It was tough for me coming back,” she said. But it wasn’t the hockey that was tough – after all she had played at the highest level – but the “biggest challenge was social. I had to figure out my niche in school.” Taking two years off meant Ruggiero’s class had graduated by the time she returned, making her more at loose ends.
The experience away from school led her to put more effort into academics and other phases of college life when she returned, she said, but the hockey was never an issue. “I dedicated my life to hockey,” so returning to the college level was not a step down, she said. “I had the opportunity to use my skills and to continue to develop as a player,” said Ruggiero, who graduated in 2004 Her final two years, with Chu as a teammate, Harvard made it to the NCAA finals and lost to Minnesota-Duluth in 2003 and Minnesota in 2004.
Ruggiero has known Chu since they played together at Choate when the latter was 13 years old. She also remembers Chu in Lake Placid when she was trying out for the 2002 Olympic team.
“She was a young, wide-eyed kid with this huge smile,” Ruggiero said. “It’s great to see how she’s matured on and off the ice into a confident leadership position.”
Neither Ruggiero, Chu nor Cahow have a national championship ring, and only Ruggiero has a gold medal. The Harvard women plan to go back into training next year for the 2010 Olympics, though Ruggiero isn’t sure what her future holds.
Chu and Cahow feel this is a special year for Harvard and they’re reading to complete the job. “We’ve always had powerful teams and we’ve even had more talented teams,” said Cahow, “but this year, we’re very deep (eight defensemen alone) and we have great team chemistry. We read each other on the ice very well. It’s all coming together,” she said.
Chu shares that feeling. “Winning a national championship has always been a dream of mine,” she said. “We came up short three times but we were fortunate to be in the position to win it.”
But there’s still that matter of the unfinished business: an NCAA championship ring to close out her college career.