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.

A stroll through Mariucci is like a visit to a museum dedicated to the history of hockey itself, seen from the perspective of Minnesota, the "state of hockey." Photos of nearly every U of M team adorn the walls. Players and coaches like Neal Broten and Herb Brooks are immortalized in trophy cases. The names of hockey Olympians from the University of Minnesota grace flags on the walls. Countless maroon-and-gold championship banners for conferences, titles, and tournaments hang from the ceiling.

Tucked away in the far northwestern corner is the only acknowledgment of the women's hockey program in the entire building: a small banner emblazoned with "A-WCHA National Champions 2000."

The second that Halldorson set foot in the facility, she ran smack into John Mariucci's ghost. In the Fifties Mariucci began the U of M men's hockey tradition of recruiting Minnesota players only. But the way Halldorson saw it, that was a token gesture that wouldn't make her program competitive nationally. "The Minnesota girls' feeder programs are great, but they are young, and the cream of the crop gets used pretty quickly," she explains. "There are seven Division I women's hockey teams in the area. With everybody recruiting here, I had to look elsewhere or I wouldn't find the best players to put this program on the map."

It was this attitude that eventually landed Halldorson the job, says Chris Voelz. "Laura had written me a letter saying this would be her dream job, to come to Minnesota and coach," she explains, noting that the university conducted a long nationwide search. "But her condition was that she had to be allowed to recruit out of state to compete with the eastern schools, and that showed me that she understood hockey from a national perspective." Of course, this rankled some of the state's hockey purists, and Halldorson says it's something she still has to explain to fans and local media alike. (More recently, Halldorson notes, the men's team has started recruiting out of state again. "They had to do it," she says. "They started losing.")

The men's team rarely plays a home game that isn't sold out, while the women's games draw somewhere around 800 to 1,200 spectators, in line with attendance for Gopher women's basketball. The team leads the nation in attendance for women's hockey. Nonetheless, Mariucci's size creates the illusion that there's no interest in the women's games, Woog notes. "The men's games are 'under-seated' and that creates a demand for tickets," he explains. "The aura around the women's games is that they are 'over-seated.'"

None of this matters to Halldorson, who only thinks about coaching women to be better hockey players and teaching them skills for later in life, the kind that can be gleaned from Division I college athletics. And yet neither she nor her players ever seem to escape the fact that they are women. "The tradition of the men's program cannot be denied," Halldorson says. "Are we overshadowed by it? Sure, but it doesn't matter, because we are building a very new program."

By 2003 the university will complete a smaller, $20 million facility for the women to share with the tennis teams. Until then the two hockey teams will simply continue to negotiate for ice time. Right now the men practice immediately after the women on weekdays. And as the women leave the rink after one recent, exhausting workout, they run into a clutch of reporters and camera crews waiting impatiently for the men's hockey players to appear to answer questions. Men's goalie Adam Hauser, especially, is reveling in the attention, affecting a rock-star swagger and winking at a female reporter during their interview.

Needless to say, this doesn't happen to the women players. "Hey, look," one of them says, "we're gonna be on TV." She slides behind Hauser and into view of the camera before letting out a sarcastic "Whoo!"

 

Several weeks later, on a Saturday night in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, the mood is wild. The UMD women's hockey program is two years younger than the Gophers, but some smart recruiting in Finland and Sweden by head coach Shannon Miller has brought the program's level of play up rapidly. The two Minnesota teams are now archrivals, both nationally ranked in the top four teams, and Duluth is the Gophers' biggest obstacle in repeating for a national championship. The crowd of about 600--it looks bigger in a venue a quarter the size of Mariucci--heckles the Gopher players during warmups and the school band taunts Killewald as she takes her team's shots.

Last night the teams battled to a 2-2 tie (the Gophers had beaten Duluth twice at home earlier in the season), but Gopher assistant coach Johnson says Kennedy and Killewald were unnerved. Several Duluth fans had unfurled a poster that read "Campbell's Chunky Kennedy Soup: A penalty in every period." Kennedy is not fat, but even if she were it's hard to imagine the same sort of taunting--about physical appearance--happening to a male player.

From the first drop of the puck, it's clear that Duluth plays an entirely different kind of hockey--much more physical, less skill-oriented, and almost thuggish. The Gophers are held off the puck and off their concise passing game, but Kennedy manages to score on a wicked slap shot in the first period. Still, the quality of play deteriorates rapidly, and Duluth scores three unanswered goals to win 3-1. After the game the bitterness is palpable among the Minnesota team. "They are very strong," Halldorson says. "God, I hate losing here."

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