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.

Up on the mantle is an array of Johnson-family photos, including one of a very young Stephanie figure skating. "Oh look, there's the figure-skating picture," someone says, and a quiet, needling laughter fills the room. Virtually all of these players first took to the ice as figure skaters. Their parents' homes are also graced by such relics, clearly embarrassing to any athlete who'd rather be known as a hockey player than as a woman hockey player.

Muzzy can't take all of this. "You won't find any of those in my house," she snorts.

She must have figure skated, someone insists. "Okay," Muzzy concedes, "I have those pictures, but they're all in a box somewhere."

Diana Watters

Her teammates aren't going to let up. Someone points out that there was a figure-skating shot of her in her prep-school yearbook. Muzzy looks stunned. "It's true," she finally admits. "My boyfriend put a picture of me figure skating in my yearbook."

Three hours later, when the team hits the ice back at Mariucci to warm up for a match against the University of Wisconsin, the discipline of Halldorson's team is immediately evident. The players are split into two squads, which run through passing drills and set plays before anyone takes a shot on the goal. Wisconsin's players, by contrast, skate around aimlessly and half-heartedly poke pucks into the net. Trina Bourget, head coach for Wisconsin, talks excitedly about the standard set for women's hockey by the Gopher program. Bourget is a veteran of the East Coast hockey scene, having played at the University of New Hampshire and coached in Division III at Sacred Heart University in Massachusetts. When Wisconsin--also a Big Ten school with a rich men's hockey tradition--started its program two years ago, she jumped at the chance to coach the Badgers.

"The WCHA is now the premier league for hockey, and the atmosphere in the Midwest and the tradition at Big Ten schools is something that's lacking out East," she says. "It really has to do with the excitement and progress surrounding the Minnesota program."

When the game starts, Kennedy immediately pulls down a Wisconsin player who had bumped into Killewald. Detractors of women's hockey will bemoan the fact that "checking"--blocking a player in mid-skate or hitting a player into the boards-- isn't allowed, saying the game isn't physical enough. But Courtney Kennedy is very physical--and very skilled. "She's a classic player," says Doug Woog. "Put Courtney in a man's uniform and nobody could tell the difference."

The game starts off a little sluggish, but the Gophers are somewhat energized by Clarke, who nearly scores on two breakaways. Killewald, the perennial all-conference player who at breakfast had been saying that she couldn't wait to try life without hockey, seems particularly tired and uninvolved, making "Killer" seem like a misnomer. By the end of the first period, the game is scoreless. In the second period, the Gophers break loose and dominate the Badgers. Minnesota wins 6-2.

Toward the end Muzzy gets into a scuffle in front of the Wisconsin net, and she shoves a player after the whistle. She had been showboating the whole game, dropping to her knees in mock prayer after one goal, and the Wisconsin players are tired of getting whupped, tired of Muzzy's act. The Wisconsin player shoves back. Muzzy raises her fists, but then waves it off and skates away.

The Wisconsin goalie is injured in the fracas, and later one of her teammates seeks retribution. With just minutes left in the game, Muzerall's down, injured. After the game she laughs it off. "Well, that was a stick in the, uh, inner groin area," she says. "Most players wear jills [protective gear similar to a men's jockstrap], but not me. I don't like the way they rub the shit out of my thighs." She goes up to the main concourse at Mariucci to join her teammates at a table signing autographs for a line of little girls and their fathers, like they do after every game.

 

Ask Nadine Muzerall why she visited the University of Minnesota as a recruit even though her dream was to go to Princeton, and she says that ultimately her mother liked Laura Halldorson, "that coach at Minnesota," who dropped by and chatted with Annabelle for five hours while Nadine was away at school. Ask Courtney Kennedy, who was recruited by Halldorson to play at Colby, why she considered Minnesota and she says it's because the coach had the patience to recruit her twice. Ask Erica Killewald, who once played for a men's hockey club in Troy, Michigan, and never even aspired to play college hockey, and she says it's because she could joke around and be herself on the phone with the coach. Ask La Toya Clarke, and she says it's because Halldorson convinced Clarke that she should attend a business school and told her that the University of Minnesota had one of the best in the country.

Ask all of them why they finally begged off on those Ivy League schools and those fabled East Coast programs, and eventually they all offer the same answer: Mariucci Arena. The 8,500-seat shrine to John Mariucci, the most influential coach in the history of Gopher hockey, was completed in 1992. The stylish venue was built mostly from revenue generated by the men's hockey program and donations from a few old-boy networkers, including former North Stars owner Norm Green. This is where the university will hold the inaugural women's Frozen Four national championship (an idea lifted from college men's basketball's Final Four tournament) the weekend of March 23.

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