“It's an honor and a privilege to skate for my country,” Shiann Darkangelo, a forward for the U.S. Women's National Ice Hockey Team and the National Women's Hockey League's the Connecticut Whale began, leaning across the table in Starbucks on a rainy afternoon.
This is a common refrain among national team members, so often said that, just maybe, it’s something they’re told to say.
“No!“ She said in protest, leaning back and laughing in surprise. “No, they don't tell you that. We say it because it's true.”
It's an honor and a privilege Darkangelo, 22, has been chasing for nearly two decades at this point; her drive to play hockey and be the best has taken her from childhood to Division I colleges to the NWHL and the national team. Coming from an athletic family—she has siblings who compete in everything from horseback riding to volleyball to football to wrestling, and her whole family gets on waterskis and wakeboards in the summer—it was only a matter of time before Darkangelo found her sport. Enter hockey: she's been on skates since she was in single-digits, when she decided to take up the same sport her younger brother played.
“He didn't play hockey for too long,” she said, laughing. “Now he plays college football. He's an athlete, though, so it worked out.”
Darkangelo started out playing on a boys' team. Did she like that? “Yeah,” she said. “It was all I knew. Some people have stories of them, I don't know, stuff where they felt uncomfortable playing with boys or things like that but I felt like, no. There was nobody ever who was like, she shouldn't be playing with them or that type of thing.”
As she got older, though, Darkangelo's father started a girls' team at the local rink, the first of its kind in Brighton, Mich. “There were no girls' teams around, aside from a couple high school teams,” she said. “This is what led me to play Honeybaked and Little Caesar's AAA hockey. I think a handful of us [from that first team] ended up playing D-I hockey but once I got to Honeybaked there were a lot of older girls to look up to. I followed their success and that inspired me.”
Darkangelo initially went to Syracuse University in 2011 as an 18-year-old, much of which came down to the fact that she didn't want to do a post-graduate year that a few other schools asked her to do. She felt she was ready for a new challenge, and college hockey seemed to be it for her.
However, once she got to Syracuse, she stopped getting invited to USA Hockey camps.
“I don't know if I was still on their radar,” Darkangelo said. “I wouldn't change the process I went through of going to Syracuse and then Quinnipiac, but I don't know if that was the best thing for me to get where I am now.”
“The environment [at Syracuse] just wasn't for me, hockey-wise. Maybe it was the group of girls, even though I loved them. It was just a different mentality, almost. Like, if we had won the [College Hockey America Conference] at the time, we would have gotten a Nationals bid right away. But everyone kind of laughed at the idea of winning a championship,” Darkangelo fell silent for a moment, letting that sink in. “Do you want to stay with this, or...?” she asked.
Or did she want to stretch herself.
So Darkangelo had to search out a system that would demand more of her and of her teammates, and hopefully put her back on track to a place on the national team. This led her to transfer to Quinnipiac in 2013.
“If I could have hockey from Quinnipiac and academics from Syracuse...” Darkangelo raised her right hand, then her left, put them together and smiled. “The best of both worlds.”
At Quinnipiac, Darkangelo ran into a good hockey program with a coach who, though hockey smart, was eventually removed after an internal investigation revealed myriad inappropriate behaviors toward his players. Darkangelo's hockey improved, though, to the point where she was invited to a national team August camp the summer immediately following her junior year. The only issue was she had just had surgery for a torn hip labrum.
“When they called me I was fresh out of surgery and had no idea if I was going to be able to go to the August camp,” she said. Darkangelo's target date for getting back on the ice was October—she was projected to miss the first few games of her second season with the Bobcats. “I called them the next day and was like, 'I'm coming.' I just had my mind set on it.”
Darkangelo was back on the ice after three and a half months, a full four weeks earlier than she had been told to hope for. Camp was the first time she had flat-out skated since her surgery, and it hardly showed.
“They didn't remember I'd had surgery,” said Darkangelo. “When we did speed tests, which are a bunch of reps, red line to blue line, they came to me afterwards and said, 'You're a little slow.' I just said, 'Well, that's probably the surgery...'” and all of a sudden the coaches changed their tune. She grinned a little, remembering.
Fast forward two years later, Darkangelo has participated in two Four Nations Cups, winning a gold and a silver in the other, and is playing in the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championships in Kamloops, British Columbia. This time, however, she takes the ice after a knee injury suffered on the Connecticut Whale in February that sidelined her for much of the remainder of the regular season. Darkangelo made it back on the ice for the last game of the season and three postseason games, just in time to see their season end in the semifinals.
“I didn't have that spring in my step,” she said about those last few frustrating games. Darkangelo, normally a difference-maker on the ice, did post three points in her last four games, but was frequently a step or so behind the play, leaving her somewhat discombobulated.
As she headed to Worlds in Kamloops, Darkangelo set her mind on staying positive and proving herself a contributor.
“Everyone on the national team, you're an Olympic hopeful, right?” Darkangelo said. “That's the end goal, that's been my dream since I started skating. So it's just stepping stones each time you go to camp, each time you get to wear the jersey, make a roster.
“You just have to prove to yourself and everyone there that you deserve to be there and that you can succeed.”
Darkangelo plays the role of a power forward for Team USA, someone who tires out the defense. She can snipe from almost any angle on the ice; her shot is one of the strongest parts of her game. Her focus is on her quickness and explosiveness in the first few steps, rather than building too much muscle.
But when it comes to the Worlds games, Darkangelo sees the key to playing well as both a physical and a mental game.
“Hockey is a game of mistakes,” she said soberly. “It's about not letting one moment, one mistake dictate your entire time there. You have to be able to move forward.”
There’s plenty to look forward to. After a perfect 3–0 run through the preliminary round at the Worlds, the U.S. will face Russia in the semifinals on Sunday, a squad it already beat 8–0 in a game Darkangelo notched a goal and an assist for two of her three points so far in the tournament. At stake is entry into the gold medal game on Monday, and if Canada holds up its end of the bargain against Finland, a rematch between the sport’s biggest rivals.
As she prepares for the semifinal, Darkangelo feels she owes her spot on the national team to persistence, sweat and the group of women she trains with and competes against for a spot on the 20-player Olympic roster.
“We're all being evaluated,” said Darkangelo. “There's a group of 40 of us that work very hard to make each roster. If I don't make one roster it might not mean that I don't make the next. You just keep training to hopefully prove yourself. I'm confident in whoever goes because we're all working towards the same goal. Yes, we're competing against each other but we also are all doing the same thing. In a way, we can hold each other accountable.
“Everyone's still part of the process, even the girls who aren't on that roster can help this team. Everyone has a role in it. You just might not make the next roster.”
How long does she want to do this?
“I don't know,” Darkangelo paused. “That's hard to say. Right now obviously I still love the game and love what I'm doing. But I mean, until I lose that passion for it. I don't know when that will be, sitting here right now. So we'll see.”