Prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, defenseman Jincy Dunne was just 16 years old and was one of the last players cut from the U.S. Women's Hockey Team. She would have been the team's youngest player by over three years and only the second player to ever make the team at such a young age.
She'd go on to play for the national team at the U18 World Championships a total of three times. Her overtime goal at the 2015 tournament, where she was captain of Team USA, secured gold for the Americans. But her ascent as one of the nation's most promising young national team players was derailed by a head injury shortly after that golden goal.
She sat out for the entirety of the 2015-16 season, what would have been her freshman year at Ohio State. It wasn’t clear when she’d be able to play again.
On Sept. 30, she skated out for the announcement of Ohio State's starting lineup paired on the blue line with her sister Jessica a junior on the Buckeyes. It was her first game in 581 days. "It was a little bit nerve-wracking at first, but once I was out there it was just great. It was so nice to be on the ice again," Dunne said from Madison as the team prepared to face the top-ranked University of Wisconsin Badgers on Friday.
It was a long road back. During that season away, she only caught her team's home games, unable to travel because of the injury. "Physically, I did not feel well at all," she says. "It wasn't fun being out for a whole year. But in the same breath, I was able to step back from hockey and kind of get a break and take time to reflect on why I love the game so much."
That time away could be detrimental to some, but it only steeled her resolve to be the best player she can be. "You know what, I think I am [approaching the game differently]. It's day-to-day. You never know what you're going to get. You never know what's going to happen in a game and you don't know when you're last game is going to be. So, this season, I just want to enjoy every second of every game."
Though she was quick to point out that approaching the game differently had nothing to do with being tentative. "I think it could [make you tentative], but I don't ever want to be a tentative person. I don't think you can live life that way. You have to have confidence and be sure of yourself in everything you do."
Her return for Ohio State's season-opening series against RPI read like a comeback out of a Mighty Ducks-esque film. It almost too well scripted. She scored in the first period and the primary assist went to her sister Jessica, the other half of the team's top defensive pairing. "To go out there and have my first goal and for it to be from my sister with my mom watching in the stands it was just... I just felt so grateful," she said.
On the ice, Dunne didn't look like she had been away for 581 days. Coach Nadine Muzerall, Ohio State's third head coach in the last three seasons, had Dunne out in every situation as the Buckeyes took a pair of wins over RPI. Dunne walked away from the first series of her college career with a goal, an assist, four shots, and a plus-2 rating. If she was shaking out the cobwebs, it didn't show.
Adding a player who could be the lynchpin of their blue line for the next four years is huge for the Buckeyes. They are a team in transition, but hoping that this is the year they start trending upward.
A big part of the renewed hope is the arrival of coach Muzerall, a former assistant coach at the University of Minnesota. She was a late summer hire and an indication that Ohio State could start to improve soon. Muzerall quickly hired former Connecticut Whale forward Jessica Koizumi, who retired from the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) to take a position as an assistant coach.
"We couldn't ask for better coaches," Dunne said. "They have been encouraging. They've had to discipline us. They are what this program needs.
"I don't really have the words. I'm grateful. For them, it was a big decision. Jess decided that she wasn't going to play anymore. Nadine has a family. The fact that they decided to be all-in for us and the team, that earned our respect."
For now, Dunne is focused on adapting to play at the college level, but for a player of her skill, there's always a higher goal. "Right now, I'm just getting back into it. It's day-to-day," she says. "My focus is on the game we have tonight. Then my focus will be on the game we have tomorrow. But [the Olympics] is definitely, in the long run, one of my goals. I'd like to be a part of that Olympic team.
"It's such an honor to not only get to wear the Ohio State jersey but to wear the USA jersey. There's no greater honor, personally.” That path begins with her freshman season at Ohio State, where she was the only defenseman to get a preseason WCHA Rookie of the Year vote.
As USA Hockey showed with Amanda Kessel, another national team player who missed more than a full season due to head injury, the door to the national team isn’t automatically opened once you’re healthy. It takes time, and Dunne is cognizant of that.
“If that's a door that opens up down the road,” she says, “then it's one I'm going to take."