West catching fire at the right time for Minnesota

Fifth-year senior Emily West has finally returned to full strength and has made key contributions down the stretch.

Minnesota forward Emily west plays against Bemidji State on Jan. 20 at Ridder Arena.  West suffered a severe knee injury last season that forced her from all but four games but has returned healthy and productive this year.

Erin Westover, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Emily west plays against Bemidji State on Jan. 20 at Ridder Arena. West suffered a severe knee injury last season that forced her from all but four games but has returned healthy and productive this year.

Samuel Gordon

 

Emily West found her mojo at the perfect time.

She has scored nine goals, including her first career hat trick, in her last nine games — critical tallies as the Gophers prepare for postseason play.

With the WCHA tournament beginning Friday and the NCAA tournament just a couple weeks away, she’ll get her chance to punctuate her final collegiate season with the ultimate prize.

But for the fifth-year senior, the winding journey to this point has had its fair share of obstacles.

West, who hails from Black Forest, Colo. — population 13,116 — said Colorado’s hockey culture is a lot tamer than Minnesota’s. She remembered commuting 70 miles each way just to practice.

“There aren’t a lot of girls hockey players just number-wise in Colorado, and so if we were going to start a high school team, it was four high schools kind of combined,” she said.

“Club level is where I played. I had to drive an hour and a half to practice each way up to Denver … [Hockey] is not quite as popular, even with boys.”

West excelled on various club teams throughout her adolescence, and her ability caught Minnesota head coach Brad Frost’s eye.

“We go to a lot of tournaments, and we ended up seeing Emily at a couple,” Frost said. “We liked her speed, her grittiness, her finishing ability and willingness to block shots and do those little things.”

He began recruiting her and called the decision to offer a scholarship “a no-brainer.”

West reciprocated that interest, and despite inquiries from Wisconsin and various East Coast schools, she elected to take her career to Minnesota.

“I just fell in love with the Midwest versus the East Coast,” she said. “Even though [Minneapolis] is a pretty big city, there’s also some escapes as far as country-wise and stuff like that, and that appealed to me.”

West said the transition to the big city triggered some culture shock, but she quickly adapted both on and off the ice.

“She played at a fairly high level out there, so the transition was a little bit easier for her than maybe for some of our other freshmen,” Frost said. “She got a little bit more time and became comfortable quicker.”

In 2007-08, her freshman year, West led all first-year Gophers with 24 points. Her 40 points during her sophomore season were fourth best on the team and she was voted a team captain prior to her junior campaign.

It was during that junior season that she made the leap to one of the conference’s elite. West led Frozen Four-bound Minnesota with 46 points (23 goals, 23 assists) and tied for the national lead in game-winning goals with 10. She was named to the All-WCHA

first team.

She was poised to have a big senior season, too, but West suffered a severe knee injury and was forced to miss all but four games of the 2010-11 season. She needed reparative MCL (knee) surgery and months of extensive rehab.

“It was hard coming into rehab not feeling like anything was getting better. That’s hard to deal with mentally thinking if it’s ever going to be the same,” West said.

“That one day you finally realize you’re getting good results, I think that’s when you realize ‘This is probably worth it.’”

She made a full recovery and has played in 31 games this season, often providing an emotional lift in tight situations.

“With the multitude of injuries she’s been though, she’s definitely a grinder and she just gives it her all every time she’s out on the ice,” senior defenseman Anne Schleper said. “We definitely missed that. When we need a boost, she’s there to give it.”

West is confident but has a quiet presence about her that almost seems shy at times. She described herself as a quiet leader and said she preferred to lead by example.

“Actions, I think, speak louder than words. Going up through college you just learn from the seniors before you.”

Freshman Rachael Bona called West “a great leader. She knows the right things to say. She works hard all the time.”

With the playoffs on the horizon, West said she thinks this year’s team has a strong chance to win a national title. For her, that would mean going out on top.

“Every year you think that you have a chance. Obviously we have talent … there’s no reason we shouldn’t contend for [the national championship],” she said.

I think this year has been different with how everything’s been going and how everyone acts. It’s a different feel, and it’s probably one of the best we’ve had.”