April 6, 2012

From NEHJ: All eyes on Vermont

By Mike Zhe

It’s not like there isn’t a precedent. There is. 

Gutterson Fieldhouse at the University of Vermont plays host to the Women’s World Championship, beginning this weekend, as Team USA seeks another world title. (Photo courtesy of University of Vermont)

In the weeks leading up to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, the first one that would award a gold medal in women’s ice hockey, the U.S. team hosted Canada for an exhibition at Gutterson Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Vermont, in what was the first nationally televised women’s hockey game in history.

The United States lost that game, 5-4, the eighth of 13 contests it would play against its northern rival during a pre-Olympic tour. But nobody who follows the sport will forget what happened a couple months later, when the Americans ran the table in Nagano and beat Canada, 3-1, for the inaugural gold medal.

It’s a medal that can be traced, in a way, back to Gutterson Fieldhouse.

“People don’t realize it’s such an important venue for women’s hockey,” said Team USA defenseman Caitlin Cahow (Branford, Conn.), a two-time Olympian and one of the veterans on this edition.

The best women’s players in the world return to Burlington, Vt., this month for the Women’s World Championship, which will be held at Gutterson and nearby Cairns Arena. The eight-nation competition will run April 7-14.

“This is one of those full-circle moments for Team USA,” Cahow said. “We’re so excited trying to defend our last three titles on home turf.”

The Americans defeated Canada to win the Worlds in 2008, ’09 and ’11. But it’s been the Canadians who have triumphed in the last three Olympics since Nagano, winning in 2002, ’06 and ’10.

This is the first time the Women’s World Championship will be held in New England, which is music to the ears of candidates such as Cahow and fellow defensemen Kacey Bellamy (Westfield, Mass./New Hampshire), Michelle Picard (Taunton, Mass./Harvard) and Josephine Pucci (Harvard); goalie Molly Schaus (Natick, Mass./Boston College); and forwards Julie Chu (Fairfield, Conn./Harvard), Kendall Coyne (Northeastern), Jillian Dempsey (Winthrop, Mass./Harvard), Meghan Duggan (Danvers, Mass), Hilary Knight (Hanover, N.H.), Erika Lawler (Fitchburg, Mass.), Kelli Stack (BC) and Karen Thatcher (Providence).

As New England Hockey Journal went to press, there were still four cuts left to be made before the competition began.

The sport’s governing international body, the IIHF, awarded Burlington the event in January 2011, selecting the city from a pool of finalists that also included Minneapolis; Rochester, N.Y.; and Hartford, Conn. This is the third time the United States has hosted the event and the first time since 2001, when it was staged in Minneapolis.

“There are certain things that are innate to Vermont,” said Chris McCabe, the assistant vice president of marketing and business development at UVM, who is serving as the liaison to USA Hockey. “Burlington, the UVM campus area, the way they fit together … the relationship between UVM and the state and the surrounding area, that’s one of the things the IIHF recognizes. 

Meghan Duggan (Danvers, Mass.) was picked eighth overall by the Boston Blades at the 2011 CWHL draft. (Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Athletics)

“This is showcasing the state of Vermont to the outside world,” he added.

Gutterson Fieldhouse, which opened in 1963 and now seats 4,007, is regarded as one of the loudest, most intimate settings in college hockey. Even this year, as Vermont’s men’s team (6-27-1) struggled through its worst season in recent memory, average attendance was nearly 3,600.

“If you’re from the East Coast,” Cahow said, “you understand that it’s a hockey town.”

With the arena, the campus, the Lake Champlain waterfront and the downtown all within walking distance, organizers hope to simulate the feel of a hockey block party. Proximity to Canada, particularly Montreal, doesn’t hurt either, especially when it comes to attendance.

“You saw that in Buffalo with the World Juniors (in 2011),” McCabe said. “On a smaller scale, I think you’ll see that here, too.”d

“It will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those in the New England region to see the best women’s players in the world up-close and in person,” said UVM associate vice president and athletic director Robert Corran.

Most would be surprised if the April 14 gold-medal game doesn’t come down to the United States and Canada, who since that historic game in Nagano in 1998 have jostled each other for position atop the world pecking order — to, some would argue, the detriment of the sport. International Olympic Committee head Jacques Rogge said after the 2010 Vancouver Games that he’d consider cutting the sport if the rest of the world couldn’t close the gap by 2018.

Many of the top American and Canadian players are coming into the event fresh off college seasons, or seasons in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which wrapped up with the Clarkson Cup at the end of March.

Cahow, a second-year law student at Boston College, is one of a number of players staying sharp playing for the Boston Blades, a group that also includes Bellamy, Duggan, Lawler, Stack, Thatcher, Schaus and Gigi Marvin.

Familiar faces on Canada’s preliminary roster include current and former Boston University players Catherine Ward, Tara Watchorn, Jenn Wakefield and Marie-Philip Poulin; Providence goalie Genevieve Lacasse; and former New Hampshire star defenseman Courtney Birchard, who last month was named Rookie of the Year in the CWHL.

It’s the first big competition in recent memory that won’t see former Harvard standout Angela Ruggiero anchoring the U.S. defense. The 32-year-old Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian, announced her retirement in December.

Harvard coach Katey Stone (Watertown, Conn.) has overseen the U.S. national team since the summer of 2010, and has the gold medal from the 2011 World Championship on her resume. She is assisted by Bobby Jay (Burlington, Mass.), Robb Stauber, and former Minnesota and Colby College coach Laura Halldorson, with Mike Boyle (Reading, Mass.) serving as strength and conditioning coach.

While organizers in Burlington and at UVM hope the stage is set just right for hockey fans, the Americans hope to take that stage over by the end.

Again.

“A couple years after Vancouver, it’s always a rebuilding time, with a lot of young players coming in,” Cahow said. “But the young players coming in here have such great hockey experience. It’s a different feeling on Team USA now. There are no rookies anymore.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com