Clarke making strides for women’s hockey

Brett Angel

Kelsey Bills made the decision shortly after her team’s pre-game meal Saturday afternoon to say something to teammate La Toya Clarke.

As an alternate captain on Minnesota’s women’s hockey team, Bills knew it was part of her duty to make sure Clarke knew just how important she was to the success of the No. 3 college hockey program in the country.

“I was very frustrated and was pretty upset about the loss (Friday to Wisconsin),” Clarke said. “I was struggling with my confidence and I needed something to get me going again.”

Clarke found that something in a shoe outside her hotel room in Middleton, Wis., before leaving for her team’s second game of the series and season finale against the Badgers. It was a note from Bills.

“It was just something to remind her of what an inspiration she is to me and rest of the team in her love of the game and how hard she works,” Bills said.

Whatever it was that Bills wrote filled its purpose in inspiring Clarke, who scored the Gophers’ only two goals of the night in Minnesota’s hard-fought 2-0 shutout.

“That just meant so much to me that someone would take the time and do something small to help pick up my confidence and get me going,” Clarke said. “I can’t say enough about my teammates for believing in me.”

The win marked the end of a successful 2002-03 regular season for the Gophers, but might have also been the high point of an up-and-down five months for Clarke.

To put it simply, the junior from Pickering, Ontario, has been in a slump – a big slump.

After racking up 42 points for Minnesota as a sophomore, Clarke has suffered through physical and emotional struggles this season and scored just nine goals and 11 assists in 28 games.

Clarke puts much of the blame for her lack of production on herself.

“She’ll tell it like it is,” Bills said. “If she thinks she’s not doing her job, she’s not going to make excuses.”

But even before the season started, Clarke was forced to deal with something much more serious than hockey.

She missed Minnesota’s exhibition game Oct. 4 after learning about the sudden death of her 5-year-old cousin.

“It was just a complete shock,” Clarke said of her younger cousin, whose initials she now wears on the back of her helmet.

“I know that was a difficult time for her and a hard thing for her family,” Minnesota head coach Laura Halldorson said. “She’s a strong person and she dealt with it very well, but at the same time it took its toll on her.”

Clarke rejoined the team in time for the season opener and went on to score 13 points in the Gophers’ first 10 games.

In that 10th game against Bemidji State, however, Clarke was dealt another setback when she suffered a high ankle sprain during overtime – just minutes after scoring the game-tying goal for the Gophers.

Clarke refused to miss any playing time with the injury, but scored just five points in the next 18 contests before last Saturday.

“Although she didn’t miss a game because of it, I think it really affected her play,” Halldorson said.

Clarke did miss three games in early February when she traveled to Germany to compete with Canada’s Under-22 Team – something that might have made it even more difficult to adjust once she got back.

But while her offensive output dropped significantly, Clarke made sure she wasn’t overlooked in the Gophers’ locker room.

She’s developed into one of the most vocal and most respected players on the team.

“When she speaks she has everyone’s attention,” Halldorson said. “She’s inspired me with her passion.”

Clarke is more modest when describing her role on the team.

“I just try to be myself and hope to lead by example,” she said.

Leading by example is exactly what Clarke did last Saturday, and both she and Halldorson hope it’s the start of better things to come.

“It’s been a battle,” Clarke said. “My season has been kind of a rollercoaster ride and I’m just trying to find my game.”

“I’m just hoping that now is the time that she’s peaking and it couldn’t come at a better time for us,” Halldorson said.

Horak honored

Minnesota sophomore goalie Jody Horak was named the WCHA’s defensive player of the week for her performance against Wisconsin last weekend.

Horak finished with a win and a loss, but stopped 47 of 49 shots on goal in the two-game series, including 28 saves in the Gophers’ 2-0 shutout victory Saturday.

Horak leads the nation with a .932 saves percentage and is tops in the conference with a 1.65 goals-against average.

It was the second time this season Horak has earned the award.

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