College and international play conflicts on rise

Brett Angel

Before the season started, this weekend’s matchup with Bemidji State looked like it might be the only breather for Minnesota’s women’s hockey team in an otherwise brutal stretch of November games.

The Gophers took four points in their series against sixth-ranked Wisconsin last week and after this weekend will play six consecutive games against teams ranked in the nation’s top 10.

To make matters worse, the series against the Beavers (3-4-2, 3-2-1 WCHA) got a whole lot tougher on Sept. 15. Four players on the Gophers roster were invited to compete in the 2002 Four Nations Cup, an annual tournament between the United States, Canada, Finland and Sweden.

Winny Brodt, Krissy Wendell, Natalie Darwitz and Kelly Stephens will represent Minnesota (8-0-0, 6-0-0 WCHA) on the U.S. team this week in Kitchener, Ontario, and will miss the Gophers’ series against Bemidji State.

“Those are big spots to fill,” sophomore forward Kristy Oonincx said. “But we have the players and most of all the character to pick it up.”

The conflict between college schedules and international tournaments is a problem that has plagued women’s hockey in its early years and might only get worse in the future.

“The reality is it seems like more and more players on national teams play college women’s hockey,” Minnesota head coach Laura Halldorson said. “So the problem is getting bigger, not smaller.”

College players are faced with difficult decisions when asked to represent their nations in tournaments during the collegiate season.

Student-athletes must weigh the loyalty they have to their college teams against childhood aspirations of representing their country on a national stage. They also face the added pressure of academic challenges caused by missing classes.

All four Minnesota players accepted their invitations to play in the Four Nations Cup (which started Wednesday and will continue through this weekend), but others declined.

Minnesota-Duluth star Jenny Potter turned down an invitation in order to play in the Bulldogs series this weekend against Ohio State. Teammates Maria Rooth and Erika Holst agreed to play in the tournament’s first two games but will rejoin UMD on Friday in Ohio.

In total, seven Minnesota-Duluth players representing each of the four nations were asked to participate in the tournament.

“It puts us in a tough position as coaches,” Halldorson said. “We want them to represent their countries. We want them to reach their personal goals beyond college. But we also need to protect our own programs and make sure that we’re as successful as we can be. That’s what I get paid to do.”

A similar conflict regarding the 2004 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four might present athletes with an even tougher choice.

Originally, next season’s collegiate national championship was scheduled for the same weekend as the 2004 World Championships. A problem with the venue has forced the NCAA and tournament host Yale to relocate and possibly reschedule the event.

Coaches and players from collegiate and national programs alike are concerned that if both events take place simultaneously, the world’s best women’s hockey players will be divided among the two, and neither will be at their best.

“We need to work together and have good communication in terms of sharing these players,” Halldorson said. “The bottom line is we need to be doing what’s right for the student-athletes.”

As for this weekend, the Gophers will miss four of their top performers, but they remain optimistic about their chances.

“The biggest thing for us is to be confident in our ability without them and to maintain our focus and maintain the streak that we’re on right now,” Oonincx said.

Brett Angel covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]