Wide assortment of paths lead to Sochi

Florence Schelling (Northeastern - 41) - The Boston University Terriers defeated the visiting Northeastern University Huskies 3-2 on Saturday, January 28, 2012, at Agganis Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Florence Schelling, who played for Northeastern, is just one of the many NCAA players competing in the Olympics. NCAA players are on seven of the eight national team rosters. (Melissa Wade)


Eight women’s ice hockey teams will begin competition at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi this week: Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and United States.

There is an NCAA hockey component for each of them, including Japan, which hasn’t been home to many NCAA recruits over the years. Former Wisconsin Badger Carla MacLeod won gold with Canada in 2006 and 2010. She now returns to the Olympics as an assistant coach for Japan. Thanks to her presence, the Japanese scheduled a number of exhibitions versus college teams as part of their preparation.

For most of the other teams, there are multiple connections to Minnesota-Duluth, the most international program since its inception. Coach Shannon Miller has served as a mentor to the Russian team and former players Iya Gavrilova and Alexandra Vafina are on the roster of the Olympic hosts.

Sweden has former Bulldogs Jenni Asserholt, Pernilla Winberg, and Kim Martin Hasson, a top-three finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award in 2008.

Quinnipiac also boasts a link to the Swedish roster. Forward Erica Uden Johansson would have been a senior for the Bobcats had she not elected to remain in Sweden and compete with the Sundsvall Hockey Wildcats as she prepared for her first Olympics. While Quinnipiac could have used her production up front this season, it is safe to say that they’ll need her next year as well with Kelly Babstock graduating.

UMD placed goaltender Jennifer Harss on the German roster, but North Dakota can claim bragging rights with both alumna Susanne Fellner and current sophomore Tanja Eisenschmid. For the German players, uncertainty revolves not only around making the roster, but in their nation qualifying for the Olympics in the first place. Germany is back in the competition after missing out in 2010.

Switzerland’s roster provides some intriguing Olympic stories beyond its surprising presence in the top tier and a guaranteed minimum of a spot in quarterfinal-round game.

Nina Waidacher, a junior star at Division III St. Scholastica in Duluth, shares a college city with teammate Lara Stalder, a freshman at UMD. Phoebe Staenz is also a Bulldogs’ freshman, but in her case, it’s the Yale Bulldogs.

Their teams will have to make do while they are away. Teams like North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth figure to have their players back from the Olympics in time for the conference tournament. That could prove to be too late for Yale, because only the top eight of 12 teams reach the ECAC Hockey postseason. The Bulldogs will need to find a way to crack the field without Staenz, their leading scorer, and she’ll have to keep one eye on results back in the States while she is gone.

The Swiss team features several NCAA alumnae as well. Florence Schelling was another goaltender to reach the Kazmaier final three during her senior season at Northeastern, where she was a teammate of Julia Marty. Marty’s sister Stefanie graduated from Syracuse.

Jessica Lutz played at Connecticut for three seasons. Unlike her Swiss teammates, she didn’t have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to play college hockey, because her hometown is Rockville, Md.

“Since I was pretty young, it was like a dream to go to the Olympics,” Lutz said. “Then in high school, I realized it’s really competitive for the U.S. team. I kind of realized that wasn’t really realistic.”

Lutz had another option. Because her father was a native of Switzerland, she has been a Swiss citizen since her birth.

“For my high school team, I had a coach that had been the Swedish national coach, so he had contact with the Swiss coach and he knew them,” Lutz said. “He was the first one that gave me that idea [to play for Switzerland] and actually got me into contact with the coaches.”

While at Connecticut, she decided to pursue the Swiss route.

“I went to a tryout after my freshman year of college,” Lutz said. “I found then about the IIHF rules about switching countries [and] that I would need to live and play in Switzerland for two full consecutive years to be eligible for official tournaments with them — to switch the license, since I’d been playing in the United States.”

It is one thing to learn that another possible path to the Olympic Games exists, but to commit to that plan is something else.

“Once I moved over here, sometimes [asked], ‘Is it worth it to keep living over here?'” Lutz said. “Not being able to study further or get a job, is it really worth it to not be able to do those things, just to be able to play hockey and go to the Olympics, and play with the national team? Is it worth it for all of the stuff that I’ve had to give up, I guess.”

Those are likely questions that any Olympic athlete has to face regarding sacrifices made along the way.

“Having made the roster, because I was never sure either, now it definitely feels like this was the right decision,” Lutz said. “Before, nothing is a given, so you could put everything toward this goal and then it doesn’t work out, like you get injured or something like that. It’s definitely exciting now.”

Finland has three current NCAA athletes on its roster: senior captain Michelle Karvinen and freshman Susanna Tapani of North Dakota, and junior Tea Villila of UMD. The Finnish roster includes four WCHA alumnae: Minnesota State’s Nina Tikkinen, Ohio State’s Minnamari Tuominen, and Minnesota’s Mira Jalosuo and Noora Räty.

It’s not just athletes that travel to the Olympics. The North Dakota and Minnesota connections led to a couple of other additions to the Finnish delegation in UND video coach Max Markowitz and Minnesota goaltending coach Andy Kent.

“It’s a big dream,” Kent said. “You don’t really put it on your radar, that’s for sure.”

Kent said that if he ever were to daydream about winding up at the Olympics, he’d expect to be representing the United States, his home country. That was before he started coaching Räty for the last three seasons with the Gophers, and she went on to set numerous NCAA records. Already a two-time Olympian, Räty hoped to continue their successful partnership in Sochi.

“She pretty much took over from her end,” Kent said. “She went and talked to all the powers that be in the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation and all that sort of stuff, and I ended up going through all of the steps that Noora had me do to get accredited through the International Olympic Committee, through all the hoops I had to go through with that.”

Now all of the red tape has been handled and a dream that Kent never thought to have is about to come true.

“I’m pretty honored to be a part of it, and I’m excited to be going,” Kent said. “It’s one of those things as a volunteer goalie coach, you put in a lot of time and effort, and this is kind of a payoff.”

As would be expected for the North Americans bound for Sochi, players having a background including NCAA experience tend to be more of a rule, rather than an exception.

Sixteen Canadian players went the NCAA route, attending eight different schools. Only Boston University’s Marie-Philip Poulin and Brianne Jenner of Cornell have a year of college eligibility left.

All 21 members of the U.S. roster played NCAA hockey, representing nine different schools. Seven players have eligibility remaining. For at least a couple of them, injuries presented another obstacle to their hopes of competing on the Olympic stage.

Defenseman Josephine Pucci had to delay her senior season at Harvard due to a concussion, and for a time, it was unknown when or if she’d be able to resume playing. The Olympic experience likely looks differently through her eyes now than it would have before her injury.

Surgery and further complications cost Amanda Kessel the Four Nations Cup and all of the exhibition games with Canada leading up to the Games. Those who witnessed her level of play during her Kazmaier-winning season as a junior at Minnesota know that being hampered by an injury does not preclude Kessel from making an impact in Sochi.

Even for healthy players, the odds of reaching a North American roster can be daunting at times.

“There were definitely times where making the team seemed like a long shot, and in the very beginning of this process I was too focused on whether or not I’d make the team,” said Minnesota’s Lee Stecklein, the youngest on the U.S. roster by 10 days.

Stecklein appeared to be caught on the wrong side of the numbers game even after being one of nine defensemen named to the preliminary roster.

“After Thanksgiving, I changed my mind-set and instead, I tried to focus on just playing the best hockey I could and doing everything the coaches said,” she said. “Changing my focus from making the team to playing better hockey is what I believe actually helped me succeed. I didn’t truly believe I had made the team until I heard my name read off of the final roster, and I’m still not sure if it has really hit me yet.”

The true impact may not hit any of the first-time participants until their first game in Sochi.