This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey: December 21, 2009

Time flies. Or maybe one’s sense of it changes with age.

So it is with women’s hockey.

The fight to bring the sport under the NCAA umbrella is still fresh in mind, but it’s been 10 years since that battle was won. And now we’re about to witness women’s hockey make its fourth appearance in the Winter Olympics (56 days and counting).

Has it really been a dozen years since Gold was struck in Nagano? Guess so.

One thing is certain and that’s that the D-I colleges have played in the growth of the sport. Then, as now, every member of the four U.S. Olympic squads either played or was on her way to honing her craft in college. A bunch more have played for other countries. Better than half of the 2010 squad (newly minted as it is) stepped directly from college last year to this year’s National Team.

Somebody has been doing some coaching.

“The level of play has gone up huge,” said Olympic coach Mark Johnson, who is on leave from his “day job” as Wisconsin bench boss. “Especially in the last three or four years. There are a lot more players playing at a high level, and that bodes well for college hockey and the people who are watching it.

“I think the coaches, whether it’s Division I or Division III, are well equipped to help train these athletes.”

Four of Johnson’s own Badgers will be playing for him in Vancouver. That’s some recruting tool, of course. With that, though comes the expectation to turn every recruit into an Olympic contender.

“I think it puts a little bit of pressure on us as coaches,” he said. “These young ladies have set up goals and aspirations. A lot of them want to wear that USA jersey. Their dreams are to put that jersey on. I think the college game and (those) who are coaching in it are doing a great job. They’ve elevated the players that they’re bringing in. They’ve worked with them for one, or two, or three, or four years. And the end result is that we’re producing better hockey players.”

That view is shared by Jocelyne Lamoureux, who along with twin sister Monique are among the host of Olympic newbies.

The Lamoureuxs played last year at Minnesota, but will move on to North Dakota next season. (Their NCAA transfer furlough year couldn’t have come at a better time, eh?)

“I’d liked to have believed that I would have been ready,” said Lamoureux. “But there’s no question about it that playing college last year has made me a better player. Going from high school to college is a big step. But having that stepping stone, having the years fall the way they did definitely helped out.”

High schoolers have made the Olympic jump before. Returnee Natalie Darwitz did it back in 2002. But no youthful phenoms made it out of this year’s Evaluation Camp, much less got any Olympic sniff this time around. Or maybe ever again.
These days talent is not enough.

It takes coaching and high level competition to get those skills “Ring-ready”.

“Playing with better players only makes you better,” said Lamoureux. “Having to compete in the WCHA every weekend can only make you better. I think that having my college year, last year, was definitely a beneficial factor.”

The Olympians (you don’t have to call them Nationals anymore) have a few tuneups left on their pre-Vancouver schedule. One of those happens to be the Jan. 5 visit to Wisconsin, where Johnson – as well as erstwhile Badgers Erika Lawler, Hilary Knight, Jessie Vetter, and Meghan Duggan – will be returning in the uncustomary role as the opposition.

“It’s going to be goofy,” said Johnson, who had the same experience as a player with the 1980 Gold Medal squad, “because, I’m going to be in the visitor’s locker room and behind the wrong bench. (But) it’s something nice. I think for our players who have played at Wisconsin, it will be a special evening for them. It will be an exciting night, and an emotional night. It will actually be fun for me, because I’ll get to stay home for one day. I haven’t been home too much, the last four months.”

Yeah, time’s been flyin’.

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