Writer’s Block: U.S. hockey moves away from Blaine

Before the 2010 Winter Olympic games in Vancouver, Canada, USA Hockey called the National Sports Center in Blaine home for its women’s hockey program.

Jason Olson
Jason Olson

The move was heralded as an excellent opportunity to showcase what hockey means to Minnesotans and especially the women’s game as the best American women’s hockey players competed for a chance to represent the U.S. in the Olympics in the backyard of its biggest rival, Canada, which won the gold medal, shutting out the Americans 2-0 in the championship game. More recently, the U.S. went 1-2 at the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid in November to place third after losses to Canada (4-2) and Finland (3-1). But, the U.S. won the world championship in April scoring a 3-2 win over Canada in the gold medal game.

Before the 2010 Olympics, the Schwan Super Rink housed the national team with a newly-built locker room facility in addition to the Herb Brooks off-ice training area above the locker room. As a state-owned facility, the $950,000 price tag for the addition came from state taxpayers with the idea that USA Hockey would call Minnesota home for the national program beyond the Vancouver games.

Team members relocated to the area, some moved in with Blaine families. Throughout their stay, the players interacted with the community and were welcomed enthusiastically in local schools.  Then team captain Angela Ruggerio even found time to earn her master’s degree from the University of Minnesota.

USA Hockey hosted several opportunities for fans to interact with the team through autograph sessions and family skates, a send-off party, viewing parties and, of course, a welcome back celebration complete with the silver medal.

That American team had a decided Upper Midwest flavor with Minnesotans like Jenny Potter, Natalie Darwitz, Angie Keseley and Gigi Marvin; North Dakota natives Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux and Wisconsin natives Jessie Vetter and Molley Engstrom. Adding to the Midwest flavor of the team was head coach Mark Johnson, who was part of the Miracle on Ice team in 1980. Johnson, a Madison, Wis., native is second on the Badgers’ all-time scoring list and coached the women’s program to three national titles (2007, 2009 and 2011).

However, hopes of the team returning to Blaine ahead of the Sochi games were dashed in 2013 when a prominently eastern roster was released by USA Hockey under the direction of head coach Katey Stone, previously the head coach at Harvard University.

Instead of focusing the residency program on one site, Blaine, USA Hockey focused on three sites including Boston (The EDGE Sports Center in Bedford, Mass.), Lake Placid, N.Y., and Blaine.

Reagan Carey, director of women’s hockey for USA Hockey, said the move of the primary rink to Massachusetts was to create two hubs for the women’s program and, in turn, grow the game. “Having the team in different environments helps the younger girls as well,” Carey said during a May 2013 interview.

“Minnesota is a bit of a powerhouse and Massachusetts is really strong and from there we have the ability to reach the smaller markets in the northeast.

Minnesota has such a strong foundation and structure for the game. We made a lot of changes and mostly for the sake of keeping things fresh and recalibrating in their own way.”

Without the national team using the locker room to the same extent as 2010, the National Sports Center now uses it as a premium enticement for its tournament teams. “We own it and built it,” National Sports Center Chief Communications Officer Barclay Kruse said. “If there was no full-time residency program, we had to use it.”

Blaine’s place in the rotation came Dec. 13-17 when the team returned ahead of a Grand Forks, N.D., stop on The Bring on the World Tour. The U.S. handed Canada a 4-1 loss and the two teams continued the pre-Olympic tour at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Dec. 28.

During its time in Blaine, the squad hosted an autograph session Dec. 15 outside the Hat Trick Cafe at the Schwan Super Rink.

The U18 women’s national team held a training camp at Super Rink Dec. 27-31. The team is auditioning 28 players (including eight Minnesotans) for a spot on the roster for the team that will compete in the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s Under-18 World Championship in Budapest, Hungary, March 23-30.

Hosting the U18s is a move to show Minnesotans that USA Hockey is serious about its commitment to the state. Will that commitment result in a gold medal? Stay tuned.