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.

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.

The oldest of five children who grew up in Plymouth, Halldorson was in the fifth grade when she began begging her parents to take her to hockey games. But it was 1974, and she was forced to learn the game on boys' town and club teams in the western suburbs of Minneapolis. She recalls being embarrassed at a neighborhood rink one day when other kids noticed that she wasn't wearing figure skates, but hockey skates. In her first practice--"myself, three girls, two boys, and three Great Danes"--Halldorson wore magazines tucked in wool socks for shin guards. Eventually she played for the Minnesota Checkers, a female club squad, graduated from Wayzata High School, and joined what was then the top women's hockey program in the country, at Princeton University. She graduated in 1985 and went on to spend seven seasons as head coach at tiny Colby College in Maine.

"While I was away, there was this explosion of high school girls' hockey in Minnesota, and I thought it would be great to come home and be a coach," Halldorson says. "Then the U of M job appeared, without me thinking I would get it. When it came down to me, I realized there was no other program in the country that would give me this opportunity."

It was a chance anyone would leap at. Women's athletic director Voelz had been laying the groundwork since 1994. First she convinced the NCAA that women's hockey was ready to explode nationally. Then she convinced university officials. Eventually Voelz got commitments from other Midwestern schools to start women's programs. Minnesota focused on creating a woman's hockey program on a big budget of some $700,000 the first year--still small compared with the men's $1.2 million (both come from the same fund fed by gate receipts, corporate sponsors, and private donations). The idea, Voelz says, was to try to compete with Eastern schools right away. "It was a plan for accelerated success," she says. "We thought it was important to the fabric of the culture of Minnesota."

Girls' high school hockey programs were multiplying throughout Minnesota at a dizzying pace, thanks in part to the Mighty Ducks program, a 1995 state initiative that supplies grants to communities for girls' hockey rinks. "The timing of that kind of went hand in hand with the university's desire to have a women's team," recalls Doug Woog, who was the men's hockey coach at the time. "Christ, girls' teams are all over now. There are 120 high school girls' teams in the state, whereas in the Sixties, there were 60 to 70 men's teams. The university had to come up with a program."

The startup generated plenty of controversy. Some argued that creating other programs, such as rowing, would fulfill the letter--if not the spirit--of Title IX by serving more female athletes at a lower cost. But Voelz, with the support of longtime men's hockey boosters, overcame much of that thinking by insisting that women's hockey was the next natural step for the university. "This is part of the commitment the university and I both have to gender equity," she explains, saying a soccer program came first, and a rowing program is soon to follow. "Hockey was part of the blueprint, and it was the right sport at the right time."

 

Two weeks after the St. Cloud series, the team members are huddled near the Mariucci loading dock, waiting for a couple of vans to arrive. It's a snowy Saturday morning, and after a slow, icy ride, the players pile out into the driveway of a home in northeast Minneapolis. "Where are we?" asks Courtney Kennedy in a thick Massachusetts accent. Joel Johnson, Halldorson's first assistant coach, tells her. "This ain't Minneapolis to me," Kennedy fires back. "This ain't even the city. I don't know where we are, but this ain't Minneapolis."

Inside, Becky Johnson, mother of freshman backup goaltender Stephanie Johnson, has made an enormous pre-game spread of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, bagels, juice, and "coffee for the grownups." The house is improbably cozy.

Muzzy sits in a chair off in the corner, chomping loudly on some gum. All of the players are in "travel clothes." Halldorson insists players not wear jeans of any sort for any team function, and today most of them are wearing short black skirts and high-heeled black boots. Muzzy, dressed in a white blouse and short gray skirt, claims to be the "funkiest dresser" on the team. Her boots are the biggest.

Someone mentions the recent engagement of one of the other players, and it sets Muzzy, who seems to be having a hard time with all of this gentility, off. "I don't think you marry anyone without living with them first," she blurts out. "I had a boyfriend, and he lived with me for five days, and after that I was like, 'I don't even want to see you anymore.'"

She chews her gum quicker. "I tried to tell you," she says to the rest of the women--most of whom turn to her first for support both on and off the ice. Then she turns to the coach: "I tried to tell them that they shouldn't even have boyfriends in their freshman year, but they didn't listen to me," she complains. "You're all young, you're away from home, it's your first year at college. Why don't you just get used to being you?"

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."

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.

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."

Killewald alone seems unfazed, having played well in Duluth. "I think we played good hockey," she says. "To come up here and get a tie is a victory, in a way."

But it doesn't seem like it, and tonight's loss--this late in the season--brings uncertainty to the team for the first time. Though the score doesn't indicate it, the Gophers had never been beaten this badly. If they are to secure a place in the Frozen Four, now they likely will have to beat Duluth the next weekend in Rochester in the conference tournament. As the team leaves the convention center to board a bus for a late-night ride back to the Twin Cities, it's suddenly possible that in a couple of weeks they may not be the national champions anymore.

After practice the following Tuesday, the team is gathered in the locker room at Mariucci to review the previous weekend's series. There is nothing quite like the smell of sweaty, wet hockey gear, and the place reeks. Out on the ice, most of the players look huge in their gear and uniforms. In here, in T-shirts, athletic bras, shorts, and thermal underwear, they are revealed as amazingly lean and muscled--save for one attribute they all have: massive thighs.

The players are silent as Joel Johnson pops in a 20-minute tape of plays--good and bad--from the Duluth games. Johnson takes great pains before every game to make sure someone has a functional video camera trained on the action, and then he spends hour after late-night hour combing the tapes for "lapses in execution." Considering how poorly the team played Saturday, the session is remarkably encouraging, heavy on instruction, very, very light on accusation. He replays highlights that at first seem to have no bearing whatsoever on the game, but eventually the chain of events he follows leads to a goal for one team or the other.

Finally Johnson singles out one play in particular, almost as an afterthought, as a "lapse in fundamentals." Senior defenseman Kelly Olson was chasing the puck deep in her own zone, with her back to most of the other players, to Killewald's right. Olson is in good position to clear the puck, Johnson notes, except that it's on the wrong side of her stick--toward the goal, not toward the boards. It seems like a minor infraction, until Johnson lets the tape roll, revealing how a Duluth player skated from behind, tapped Olson's stick, and sent the puck to another Duluth player directly behind the net. As Olson chases the puck, the first Duluth player slides into position in front of Killewald. A quick pass from behind the net, and Duluth scores its second goal of the game.

Suddenly it's a deflating moment. It lasts all of five seconds, but the Gophers never really recover.

 

Three days later the team travels to the Rochester Recreation Center to play Ohio State University in the second round of the WCHA tournament. It is truly a recreation center, with one main ice rink set off by bench seats on each side, a practice rink, and a swimming pool in another part of the building. The "press box" is literally up in the rafters, where card tables and makeshift plywood walkways are laid out over heating ducts and water pipes. The ice is in bad condition and the players keep falling, and the boards in front of the team benches are too high for the players to hop over. Why the tournament is being held here is a question that never garners a sure answer.

The Gophers play Ohio State and are out-played and out-hustled. It's like a continuation of the games in Duluth, except that Ohio State is an inferior team. Killewald lets in a couple of fluke goals, but they aren't her fault. The Gophers simply allow too many shots without clearing the puck away from their own net. Furthermore, offensively they seem to be intent on running plays and making passes, reluctant to take shots. All night it seems as though Muzerall's ready to explode, scoring goal after goal, but it never happens.

One of Ohio State's assistant coaches is up in the press box, wearing a headset and yelling instructions to another assistant on the bench. "They are getting ready with Muzzy," she says whenever Muzerall gets ready to enter the game on a substitution. "Here she goes, get on her now, now, now!" An Ohio State player shadows Muzzy for the entire game. Ohio State wins 4-0.

The next day Minnesota takes on Wisconsin in the third-place game. The match is brisk, the small rink helping Wisconsin keep pace with the much quicker Gophers. The Gophers dominate the first period, getting 13 shots on goal to Wisconsin's 5. With less than a half a minute left in the first period, Muzzy finally scores, and it feels as though a huge weight rises from the Gophers bench. After the goal, Muzzy, Olson, and Kennedy--who two days earlier was named the WCHA's player of the year--come down to low-five Killewald.

In the second period, Wisconsin scores right away, and the game becomes a seesaw battle tied at 3-3. The Gophers have a five-minute run where their skating is crisp, their defense is unforgiving, and the passes and plays are working in the offensive zone. Plenty of shots, but they still can't get a goal. Wisconsin pulls ahead.

Toward the end of the game, Killewald is pulled from the goal, and Minnesota has six of its best scorers--Muzerall, Kennedy, Clarke, Olson, Ambria Thomas, and Ronda Curtin--peppering the Wisconsin goalie, but to no avail: Time runs out, and the Gophers have dropped another game.

A week later the NCAA will announce the bids for the inaugural Frozen Four. The tournament is to be held in the Twin Cities, a nod to Mariucci Arena, the quick ascension of the Gopher program, the 25 years Laura Halldorson has dedicated to the game, and the national title these players won last year. When the four teams who will vie for a national title are announced, the Gophers--whose late season slide pulled them down to as far as sixth in the nation in some rankings--will be left out in the cold.

 

At the end of what turns out to be her final game as a Gopher, Muzerall stands at the net, her face shield up, gasping for air and dousing herself with Killer's holy water. The rink is small enough that she can be heard violating Halldorson's swearing ban. "Shit, shit. Fuck them. Shit."

As much as nights like this one indicate that no matter who plays it, hockey is a blood sport, it is also very much a game. Hang around Muzzy long enough and she'll tell you how much that game has meant to her, but she'll also let you know that she's conflicted about why, at this point in her life, she's still playing. "No one understands how it goes when you are young," she will say. "Suddenly you say, 'Oh my god, I'm gonna be out in the real world. What am I gonna do?'"

Muzzy will reflect on how good hockey has been for her, how she needed to grow up and get out of Streetsville. She'll talk about how she has found the best friends in the world playing hockey, but it's been hard to keep those friendships because it's been so transitory, so geared toward being a great hockey player and nothing else.

Muzzy will talk about how happy she is to take La Toya Clarke--one of two black women in college hockey--under her wing, and how they related to each other because they both came from outside of Toronto and were raised by single mothers. She'll tell you how wonderful Laura Halldorson has been to her, and she'll talk about how her teammates picked her up this season.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster, and I didn't feel very good about myself," she'll say. "I didn't know what to do about this thing that I had based my life on that was failing me." And here the iconoclast will get a little misty at the concept of leaving a team that she helped build.

"Nineteen years is long time to be playing hockey," she'll say. "It's my life. It's my identity. When I don't have that, I feel like I'm gonna be lost. I'm not gonna know who Nadine Muzerall is anymore."

All of these doubts have plagued Nadine Muzerall as her last season with the Gophers winds down. At the end of the loss to Wisconsin, it's hard not to imagine that Muzzy is rolled up in the complex emotions that accompany defeat, doubtless contemplating life after hockey. But, being Muzzy, she puts down the holy water, shrugs off whatever is bothering her, and turns to join her teammates, who are shaking hands with the Wisconsin players. On her way, though, she looks over her shoulder at the adjacent practice rink. Through the windows, on the other side, a group of about ten girls is going through the motions, learning how to figure skate.

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