Power Play

Putting Minnesota on the map with a national title was the easy part. For the Gopher women's hockey team, sustaining that reputation is the challenge.

Every once in a while, Muzzy will say how much she misses Streetsville, a rural hamlet west of Toronto, where she grew up. She'll recall how at the age of three she began figure skating, and, a true Canadian, found her soul wrapped up in a love affair with the ice. Then she will note that at her mother's urging she parlayed the natural grace she found on skates into success as a child model. With a hint of shyness, she'll talk about having an instructor who told her how to walk, how to dress, how to eat. Embarrassed, she'll admit that she once graced the cover of a Sears catalog.

And then she'll crack a joke about how she used to be a great-looking kid, but that she's 22 years old now, and things change when you get older. She'll say this and slap the sides of her steely, jeans-clad thighs. "I had the real 'girl life' at the beginning," she'll say, suddenly unrepentant. And then the woman who scored more goals than anyone else in women's college hockey last year will spit out a nervous laugh.

When pressed, Nadine Muzerall will tell you that her parents, Annabelle and Leo, split when she was three years old, and her hero was her older brother Darren. She'll confess that figure skating and modeling were fine, but that, despite her mother's reticence, she never felt the rush of anything more in her life than when she went to Darren's hockey games, and how she realized that her father was a fine hockey player, her brother was a fine hockey player, and she wanted to be a fine hockey player too.

Never mind that less than two decades ago, even in Canada, there weren't many girls playing hockey. Forget that during the day she was living sugar and spice and everything nice. The sport was in her blood. Nadine and Darren would spend hours in the backyard, in the black of night, maintaining a makeshift hockey rink, their hands frozen to the garden hose as they sprayed water onto the earth. Eventually her mother gave in and soon was carting the girl and her gear to practice at 5:00 a.m. on the back of a bike. Later Annabelle would even encourage her daughter to leave home and attend a prep school in New Hampshire that offered girls' hockey.

Muzzy will tell you this because she wants you to understand her biggest fear: that the temperature would rise, that an early spring would hit her corner of Ontario, that in her backyard, solids would turn liquid. For 19 years the end of ice-skating season has meant something sad to her, and now she finds herself feeling a deeper melancholy as she faces the close of another season, this one at the end of her college career.

As a left wing on the defending national champion Minnesota Gophers, Muzzy rose to the top, winning a national title and being named all-conference in her junior year. But her senior year has been hard: She didn't make the Canadian national team this fall, she had a concussion early in the season, she was benched for a few games because on her 22nd birthday she got caught drinking, breaking her coach's rule against alcohol. But more earth-shattering, in the waning weeks of the season, for the first time in her life, she has realized that she might want to do something outside of hockey.

 

It's senior day for the Gophers, the final home game for a group of ten who came to the University of Minnesota as girls, became women, and carried their built-from-scratch hockey program to a championship. It's the last stretch of the season and the Gophers are feeling pretty high. There's no reason to think they won't win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association women's conference title, go on to win the conference tournament, and successfully defend their national title. These possibilities and the specter of a pre-game ceremony with the seniors' parents have set an emotional tone, but Laura Halldorson is all business.

In the locker room, the Gophers' head coach goes through a checklist of things the team must accomplish in order to win. One of them is "Respect your teammates and other players." Another is "Play with heart." The third is "Stop the player we won't name"--presumably a reference to Wisconsin freshman Meghan Hunter, who at the time leads the nation in scoring. Halldorson asks what each point is, and gets a response for the first three. When she says, "Point four?" and gets nothing but quiet mumbles, she repeats the question.

"Kick the shit out of them," says senior defenseman Courtney Kennedy, oblivious to the fact that she's breaking Halldorson's no-swearing rule. Her legs are bouncing up and down, full of adrenaline.

Halldorson looks askance, arching her eyebrows. "It's discipline," she supplies.

The game starts with an all-senior lineup, and Halldorson tells the veterans they'll be on the ice together for only 20 seconds, so they had better enjoy it. The players can't make the line switch at exactly 20 seconds, and Muzerall breaks free. Twenty-five seconds into the game she scores on a long slap shot from just inside Wisconsin's zone, setting a record for fastest goal scored in the history of the program. The shot sets the tone for the whole game, and the Gophers romp, 3-1, to win the conference.

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