Pieces in place for women’s hockey

Jeff Sherry

One day in mid-October, after learning she’d soon be named Minnesota’s first women’s hockey coach, Laura Halldorson faced an undesirable task — she had to tell her players at Maine’s Colby College that she was leaving.
“It was sad to say goodbye to them,” said Halldorson, a native of Plymouth, Minn. “I told them that if it was any other school I wouldn’t be leaving, but this has the opportunity to be something very big.”
Now, after more than a month on the job, Halldorson, 33, has a slightly different outlook.
“I’ve come to realize it’s going to be even bigger than I thought it would be,” she said. “I’m just trying to stay focused and not get overwhelmed.”
So far that hasn’t been easy, and neither has the job. Since becoming head coach of the women’s athletics department’s 11th varsity program on Oct. 23, Halldorson’s life has consisted of scheduling, planning, prioritizing, recruiting and research. In fact, she can’t even find time to get an apartment; she’s still living with her mother in Plymouth.
But that’s not to say the past month hasn’t been rewarding. The hard work has been accompanied by a realization that her payoff is not too far away. Minnesota will play its first varsity women’s hockey game next fall, and judging by what Halldorson has seen so far, she expects the team to be competitive right away.
“I think with the resources we have here — with the academic support, the strength and conditioning coaches, the training room staff, the sports information and marketing people — they do things for teams at this school that no other school with women’s ice hockey does,” Halldorson said.
“So I really think the potential to be one of the best teams of the country is going to be there. Maybe not in the first year, but I really don’t think it’s going to take that long. I expect a lot from myself and from the program. We’re going to be shooting pretty high pretty quickly.”
Julie Andeberhan, head coach at Cornell University and president of the American Women’s Hockey Coaches Association, said Minnesota’s commitment to the program should give the Gophers a competitive advantage over the nation’s other teams.
The best teams in the country currently play in the ECAC, a 12-team league that includes six Ivy League schools and two teams from Division III universities. None of those eight teams is allowed to give scholarships. The annual cost of attending those schools averages between $25,000-30,000.
Minnesota, which will have 18 scholarships at its disposal, will have advantages other than cost. By 1999, The Gophers will have a new rink dedicated to women’s hockey next to Mariucci Arena. They’ll also have unequaled administrative and financial support.
“They’ve really made a statement by doing things in a first-class way,” Andeberhan said. “I’ve already been talking to Laura about when we could arrange a trip and how we might be able to play some games with them, because I think they’re going to be a formidable team in a very short period of time.
“I think Minnesota will have a lot of people interested in scheduling them; it will just be a matter of logistics and how to go about travel arrangements and so on.”
Therein lies one of Halldorson’s biggest challenges, and one of her top priorities: putting together a competitive schedule. Halldorson said she’s hoping to fill a schedule of 20-25 games with as many Eastern teams as possible. But the ECAC recently expanded to a double round-robin format that leaves its teams with fewer open dates for nonconference games.
With the other teams’ smaller travel budgets and the shortage of quality local opponents, Halldorson has to be creative in her scheduling. Princeton has asked if the Gophers have interest in its Thanksgiving tournament, and Cornell, Harvard and Brown have also called. But Minnesota may need to play some local clubs and Canadian teams early on.
The schedule is also important because of its impact on recruiting — Halldorson’s other top priority. Many of her recruits are asking who the team will be playing. Halldorson said she’d be happy with a 25-player roster next year, although the department eventually wants 30 to help with gender equity numbers.
The trick for Halldorson will be getting quantity without sacrificing quality. She plans to only use about four scholarships next year, yet she also insists on fielding a talent-laden team. She’ll increase the scholarship money and availability each year until all 18 are filled.
However, in order to reach a high level as quickly as possible, Halldorson will recruit outside the state. She hopes to increase the team’s percentage of in-state players as the local high school talent-level continues to grow.
“I’m going to do all I can to reach our goals while also maintaining a certain standard of play, and hopefully people will understand that,” Halldorson said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the Minnesota community reacts because they’re used to the high school level of play, and what I hope to put on the ice will be a few levels above that. Hopefully we can set a standard next year that will impress people and keep them coming back to games.”