She was the two-time MVP of a boys club team in the Tulsa Hockey League, and won the league championship as a 14-year-old goalie in an 18-35 men’s league.
But for now, freshman Crystal Nicholas has to play the waiting game.
With sophomore Erica Killewald starting in goal for the Gophers women’s hockey team since day one of the program, Nicholas must take a back seat for now. But Nicholas knows there’s a good reason for it.
“(Erica) Killewald has had a great year,” Nicholas said. “I’ll just have to wait my time. I’ve got a lot to learn.”
Nicholas has learned fast since junior high.
“I went to a Central League hockey game with my dad back in 7th grade,” Nicholas said. “It really made an impression on me. I was playing basketball and softball at the time, but I wanted to try something new. Hockey looked more involved and intense, so I dropped basketball and softball.”
Jeff Nicholas is Crystal’s father and coached the Tulsa club team while she was in high school. Having his daughter on the team brought out the skeptical grunts from other people.
“People always said things about the two of us,” Mr. Nicholas said, referring to being her coach and father. “But there is nothing you can do about it. I tried to treat her just like the rest of the guys.”
Like father, like daughter.
“It was a lot of fun,” Crystal said. “He gave me a hard time and pushed me, but we left it on the ice. When we went home, we’d either just talk about what happened, or change subjects.”
As if being the goalie and coach’s daughter in high school wasn’t hard enough, Crystal was the lone female on an all-guys team.
“I always had some people talking about it,” Nicholas said. “I just had to earn their respect each time with my play, and I think I did.”
Nicholas earned respect even before she got to high school.
“I used to play in an 18-35 year-old league,” adds Mr. Nicholas. “Crystal was 13 and had just come from her practice and was sitting up in the stands, when we discovered we needed a goalie. They gave her extra pads and put her out there against 18- to 35-year-old men. I was freaking out, but she held her own.”
She not only became the team’s goalie the following year, she led the team to the championship at age 14.
Mr. Nicholas began coaching Crystal’s high school club team when she was a sophomore. Over the next three years, Crystal won team MVP honors twice, was the league MVP once and shut out Dallas in the Midget A championships of the Texas Amateur Hockey Association, another club team she played for occasionally.
Minnesota took notice, and she took notice of Minnesota. Nicholas and her parents were as impressed with the academics at Minnesota as they were with the first-year success of the hockey team.
The Gophers will try to continue their success this weekend, when 1-1-1 Minnesota travels to Bemidji State on Saturday and Minnesota-Duluth on Sunday. Women’s hockey coach Laura Halldorson said she hoped to give Nicholas some playing time this weekend.
“If all goes according to plan,” Halldorson said, “she will probably start Saturday’s game. We have two goalies with great potential, and with Killewald playing well, we don’t need to throw her (Nicholas) into the fire. We can bring her along slowly.”
Backup or starter, Nicholas hasn’t backed down from a challenge before, and she’s not about to back down now.
“Coming from her situation and experiences from youth hockey,” goalies coach Libby Witchger said. “Everyone is looking for you to fail and make excuses for it, but she’s not going to do that.”