As 10 of the 24 women named Wednesday to the preliminary roster of the 2007 U.S. National Team were marked by their collegiate opponents during their Division I hockey games, they were being watched equally carefully by other, more important, watchers.
The coaches and scouts of USA Hockey spent much of the 2006-07 hockey season going to games of potential team members to come up with a roster mix of college alumni, current college players, and in the case of Hilary Knight who is still at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, one prep player.
The 24 players announced at a press conference Wednesday in Colorado Springs will be cut to 20 following a camp in Grand Forks, N.D. from March 21 to April 1in preparation for the 2007 World Championship April 3-10 in Winnepeg and Selkirk, Manitoba.
The format has nine countries divided into three groups. The U.S. will begin group play April 3 against Kazakhstan in Selkirk followed by a game April 5 against China in the same location. For those teams that advance, the playoffs will be in Winnipeg, April 7 and 8, with the bronze and gold medal games April 10.
The U.S. is the 2005 defending World champs but their goal is to come away with a Gold Medal, a goal that eluded them in the 2006 Olympics when they were eliminated by Sweden in the semi-finals. Canada beat Sweden to take home the gold.
The new coach of the women’s team is Mark Johnson, who last season coached the University of Wisconsin to its first NCAA national championship. With Johnson still at the helm, the Badgers are in the hunt to repeat this season.
“With the mix we have of veterans and former Olympic players and the leadership they can provide to the younger players, we should have a great tournament,” Johnson said. He said the talent pool at a holiday camp at Lake Placid convinced him and his staff that the U.S. could do well in the championship. “It will also be a huge help to have a lengthy training camp in Grand Forks,” he said.
Those connected to the women’s program of USA Hockey said a lot of positive changes have occurred since the last world championships including the recent appointment of former Bowdoin coach Michele Amidon as the first ever director of women’s hockey operations.
Johnson’s assistant coaches are Hilary Witt, head coach at Yale, and Erin Whitten Hamlen, associate head coach at the University of New Hampshire. Because both are former national players, Amidon said they “will help make players comfortable.” She said her job will be to help facilitate communication between the organization, coaches and players.
Johnson knows the value of having collegians on the team, both at the international level and at the university level.
“The biggest asset we have with these college kids is that they’re playing at the highest level and when they come back to their colleges, they understand what we talk about as coaches when they see how veterans prepare for games, how they practice,” Johnson said during a conference call. “It’s a huge learning tool for these kids because when they come back they can spread that wealth and knowledge to others on their teams.”
And if experience and leadership at the highest level is spread around, that can only help the sport of women’s hockey, he suggested.
Julie Chu, a veteran of the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, returned to Harvard University this year for her senior year. She said during the conference call that it was a “fairly easy” transition and that her former team welcomed her like a family member after she took last year off to prepare for the Olympics.
She will be joined on the 24-man roster by Harvard teammate Caitlin Cahow and other collegiate players, Helen Resor (Yale), Sarah Parsons (Dartmouth), Allie Thunstrom and Kelli Stack (Boston College), Gigi Marvin (Minnesota) and Jessie Vetter, Meghan Duggan and Erika Lawler, who play on Johnson’s Wisconsin team. Eleven of the 24 named to the preliminary team have played on Olympic teams.
Among the veterans named to the team was Jenny Potter, a three-time Olympian, who had her second child Jan. 7. “She said she feels better this time than she did after her first delivery,” Johnson said. “With her we’ll play it by ear … her body will dictate what she can and cannot do. She’s been down this path before.”
The rest of the women named Wednesday are out of school; several are working or are playing on semi-pro teams in the U.S and Canada. Among those on Wednesday’s call was Angela Ruggiero, a three-time Olympian and one of eight players named who were on the 2005 World Championship team which won the title in a shootout against Canada. Ruggerio is currently working full-time with the New York Islanders to develop youth hockey in China.
She said the secret to handling her schedule is “time management.” She tries to work out whenever she can but balancing all of her commitments takes energy. Ruggerio said it will be good to get back into a team setting. After the intensity of the Olympic year, she said she missed her team when the world games were over.
The third player on the call was Krissy Wendell, who attended the University of Minnesota for three years before quitting to prepare for the 2006 Olympics. She is currently playing in Canada with the Etobiocoke Dolphins. “I had no college to go back to,” she said referring to the post-2006 Olympic period “so I really missed out on competition. It’s been a long year since the Olympics but it will be great to get back into a competitive structure.”
Johnson said the obvious goal is to win the world championship but he also hopes to create “a culture that will make our team successful” and that includes fun as well as competition.
Although some anticipate a U.S. vs. Canada Gold Medal game, Johnson said whatever shakes down, the bottom line is that it will benefit the sport of women’s hockey.