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.

Two weekends earlier, the Gophers played a "home-and-home" series with St. Cloud State University, meaning that one game would be played at Mariucci, the second in St. Cloud. It was hard to imagine a more dominant team on Friday night as the Gophers won 7-1 with 60 shots on goal to St. Cloud's 14. Muzzy, who possesses blazing speed, great shooting accuracy, and a half-joking intimidation shtick à la Dennis Rodman, nailed a hat trick--three goals in one game. Kennedy, a burly player with a cannon of a slap shot, had two assists, as did freshman La Toya Clarke, who was easily the fastest player on the ice. Goaltender Erica Killewald, a senior, seemed bored with only a handful of saves to make.

But on Saturday night, things fell apart for the team and the Gophers lost 7-6. A year ago this loss would have been unimaginable. Minnesota was the bully on the Midwestern hockey block (followed closely by rival University of Minnesota-Duluth), and other area programs were struggling to catch up. The level of competition is up this year, however, and every other team in the country is gunning for the Gophers.

Muzzy, who holds pretty much every scoring record for the team, seems to be able to score when she wants to. Whether she wants to is another question: "Her streaks," says Doug Woog, assistant to the U of M men's athletic director, "are directly related to her moods."

After her first goal on senior day, Muzzy denied herself the pleasure of showboating and celebrating, choosing instead to skate down to goalie Killewald--better known as "Killer" to her teammates--and pat her on the shoulders. Earlier Muzzy had taken a swig from the squeeze bottle Killer keeps on top of the net; the jug contains holy water, Muzzy insists, and taking a drink always means she's going to score. After the game she finds herself explaining this to the tiny press corps in attendance (exactly three reporters). "I just wanted to let her know that her holy water works," Muzzy explains. "I wanted to let her know that I couldn't score goals without her in the net on the other end."

Muzzy, Killewald says later, is "the most eccentric person I've ever met in my life."

 

On Valentine's Day the Gophers run through a midafternoon bloodletting disguised as a practice. The February daylight filters onto the ice in Mariucci Arena, and the squad--half in maroon practice jerseys, the other half in gold--is immersed in a puck-clearing drill wherein the maroon team shoots the puck from one end of the rink so the gold team can chase it. It's an exercise designed less for skills than for conditioning, and the players are gasping for air.

Laura Halldorson doesn't use a coach's whistle. Instead, she controls the practice with tongue-whistles through her front teeth. Halldorson and her three male assistants are dressed in black breezer pants and windbreakers. And though in a sense the drill is a punishment for a loss, the coaches dole out plenty of instruction while the players slice down the ice. The day before, the team ran through a two-hour practice that didn't involve a single puck. Muzzy is putting on surly airs, and Halldorson keeps commanding her to center ice for attitude checks.

Halldorson has a team-first policy, one that precludes showboaters and superstars. Practice is all about discipline; there is no yelling or theatrics. The coach remains a detached--if somewhat intense--presence, quietly orchestrating efficient routines on the ice without ever showing anger or cracking a smile.

Later, in her office at the Bierman Building in Dinkytown, Halldorson explains that the tail end of the season is the hardest, and working through a grueling schedule is important for her players. "We hit a turning point last year to give the players more responsibility," she says, sitting on a cushioned, cream-colored chair amid a television, VCR, boombox and dry-erase board. "When we started out, there were only four teams that could really play against us, and I already taught the players about consistency and focus. The team told me they wanted to shoot for a high bar, and I always asked if that was realistic. Last year we won the national championship. This year they wanted to win the conference, win the conference tournament, and win the championship.

"Those are their goals," she stops to point out, "not mine. So it's important that they know how to motivate themselves."

If that sounds simplistic, it's not. Up until a few years ago, hockey was pretty much exclusively a men's sport. East Coast schools such as Princeton, Brown, and New Hampshire have had women's hockey programs for upward of 20 years, but the sport has just recently exploded in the Midwest. Gopher women's hockey was born in 1997, the result of a campaign by Women's Athletic Director Chris Voelz to make Minnesota a national leader in the sport, and a massive infusion of cash thanks to Title IX, a 1972 federal law aimed at creating gender equity in higher education.

Thanks to some $1.1 million in startup money from Coke and equipment from Nike, suddenly the University of Minnesota boasted a world-class women's hockey program: In the first season, Halldorson led her team to a fourth-place finish in the American Women's College Hockey Alliance, then the equivalent of a national Final Four. Two seasons later, led by a core group of ten juniors Halldorson recruited in her first year, the team won the national championship. It took the Gophers just three short years to become the dominant team in women's college hockey.

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