Right wing Nadine Muzerall was practicing with her Minnesota
teammates last Thursday in Boston when she tripped and fell
awkwardly, snapping her head back against the ice. The next thing
she knew, her upper body was being immobilized with braces and
straps, an ambulance was backing up to the rink at Matthews
Arena, and she was being rushed in a panic of flashing lights and
sirens to St. Elizabeth's Hospital. This happened on the eve of
the national championship tournament.
"I was thinking, Just let me play," said Muzerall, the leading
goal scorer in women's college hockey this season, with 49. "I
had a sharp pain right on my spine, but I could feel my limbs.
When I realized they were just taking every precaution, I started
saying, 'Please, I want to play.'"
Muzerall was, of course, hoping to lead the Golden Gophers to the
national title. First, however, she wanted desperately to have
the last word in what has fast become the best rivalry in women's
hockey. To her great relief she was released from the hospital
within two hours, having suffered no serious injury. By Friday
afternoon she had been cleared to play in the semifinal that
night against Minnesota-Duluth--a game that would help open up the
borders of her sport.
Minnesota has been a ranked outsider since it put its first
women's team on the ice, in 1997-98. Muzerall, a Canadian who
graduated from Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., was among
its initial recruits. The Gophers' debut happened to coincide
with the launching of the national championship tournament, a
sparse four-team event managed by the American Women's College
Hockey Alliance (AWCHA), a new adjunct of USA Hockey. Minnesota
finished fourth in 1998 and third last season while serving as
the token noneastern school to be invited to the tournament. The
national championships in those years were won by New Hampshire
and Harvard, respectively, and fittingly, for they and their New
England rivals had been competing in the sport decades before
anyone had dreamed that 1) women's hockey would be recognized as
an Olympic sport and 2) a victory by the U.S. at the 1998 Games
would raise the sport to a new level of popularity.
Before Muzerall and her teammates could figure out how to
overtake New England, they were dealt a new threat by an upstate
neighbor. Minnesota-Duluth, a traditional rival to the Gophers in
men's hockey, announced that it was going to assemble a women's
team this season. Duluth as much as declared war by handing a
three-year, $210,000 contract to Shannon Miller, who coached
Canada to the 1998 Olympic final in Nagano. Miller recruited
players from Canada, Finland and Sweden, including four
Olympians. She also spirited a pair of players away from
Minnesota: star forward Jenny Schmidgall, whose 93 points this
season led the nation, and defenseman Brittny Ralph, who would
serve as the Bulldogs' captain. Just like that it seemed as if
the first-year team had overtaken the state's third-year team.
This season Duluth would lose just once to the Gophers in their
first five meetings, which included a 2-0 Bulldogs victory in the
final of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament.
That defeat forced Minnesota to sweat out an at-large bid to the
national championships. No longer could the Gophers worry merely
about overtaking the New England schools--they had enough on their
minds just trying to become the best team in their state. "We
make each other better," Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said of
her team's rivalry with Duluth. "We push each other."
They did more than that when they met on Friday night at Matthews
Arena. They shoved and slashed and ran each other into the
boards. Checking of any kind is supposed to be illegal in women's
hockey, but the Minnesota schools staged a violent protest to
that rule. Not that anyone was complaining. With nine minutes
remaining in the second period and the Gophers trailing 2-0,
Muzerall produced her 47th goal of the season. At the same
juncture of the third period, her 48th (a power-play goal) evened
the score. At one point she absorbed a shot that whipped her head
back, forcing her to steady herself momentarily before renewing
her chase after the puck. "That one knocked snot bubbles right
out on the mask," Muzerall announced afterward.
With 6:45 remaining, center Tracy Engstrom scored Minnesota's
second power-play goal of the night. It stood up for a 3-2
victory, even as players from both teams kept knocking each other
flat in front of the Gophers' net during the frantic culminating
minutes. Minnesota goalie Erica Killewald, the tournament's MVP,
stopped 16 shots in the final period. "We killed off four
penalties and still outshot them 16-5," Miller said. "That means
that five-on-five we absolutely dominated, but when you're in the
penalty box that much, you don't deserve to win."
Brown took a less breakneck approach to reach its second national
championship final in three years. This season coach Digit
Murphy, who has been building her program since 1988, used
virtually every player on her bench and eventually wore out
opponents. She even went so far as to take the advice of a
volunteer assistant coach by allowing her centers to take turns
choosing the wings on their lines, like kids after school picking
touch-football teams. There was no arguing with the result--her
team withstood a season-ending ACL injury to its best player,
U.S. Olympic defenseman Tara Mounsey, and went on to win nine
straight games entering Saturday night's national championship
Brown took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, but 4:47 into
the second period Minnesota equalized when senior left wing
Shannon Kennedy fed her younger sister Courtney, a junior
defenseman, who scored off her own rebound. Muzerall would assist
on the next goal and then score as the Gophers ran off four
unanswered goals against Ali Brewer, who on Thursday night had
been named winner of the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as women's
national player of the year.
After celebrating Minnesota's 4-2 victory by having ice-cold
water dumped all over her, Halldorson shivered as she considered
the new lay of the land. The NCAA, having deemed women's hockey
big and popular enough, will take over management of the national
tournament next year, though it has not yet responded to
suggestions that the field be doubled to eight teams. Fewer than
30 schools play Division I women's hockey, but others may be
encouraged by Minnesota's breakthrough. In the meantime the AWCHA
wants to continue with a championship for Division III schools in
the hope that the NCAA will take command of that as well (there
is no Division I-A or II women's hockey). Last week in Boston,
Middlebury (Vt.) completed a two-game sweep of Augsburg (Minn.)
to claim the inaugural Division III title.
It has been proved now that anyone can win--even someone who knows
the fright of being strapped down in the back of a speeding
ambulance. "It doesn't hurt a bit," said Muzerall, with a
champion's swivel of the head for effect.
Miller, "you don't deserve to win."