Showdown: U.S. v. Harvard
The women's hockey game at Bright Hockey Center tonight is not just any game. It's a showdown between one of the best teams in college hockey and one of the best teams in the world.
Harvard, which won last year's national championship and is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, will take on the U.S. Select Team, which won the gold medal at Nagano in the 1998 Olympics. Face-off is set for 7 p.m.
This marks the first time U.S.A. Hockey has had a full team train together in a non-Olympic year. In addition to the Three Nations Cup and the World Championships, the U.S. Select Team will play exhibition games against six ECAC teams. Team U.S.A. beat Princeton Wednesday, 6-1.
Tonight is an exhibition game, so it won't count in the standings. The Crimson (10-2-1, 8-2-1 ECAC) will go into winter break tied with No. 1 Northeastern (11-2-1, 8-1-1) for first place in the conference.
But the standings, the Beanpot and the postseason can all wait until the year 2000. For those of you looking for a little help making it through the last weekend before vacation, tonight's game should be a holiday treat, especially if fast-paced hockey is your thing.
"As a player, you always want a chance to go against a really good hockey team," said sophomore center Jen Botterill. "It just raises the caliber of the game and we're looking forward to it."
If anyone at Harvard knows how to play against Team U.S.A., it would be Botterill or her linemate, junior winger Tammy Shewchuk.
Both of them played for the Canadian National Team, which beat the Americans in the championship game of the Three Nations Cup in Montreal earlier this month. Team Canada was trailing 3-2 in the third period, but Shewchuk got the equalizer and sent the game to overtime. The Canadians eventually won in a shootout.
Shewchuk and Botterill, both among the top five in the conference in scoring, are not the only Canadians on the Crimson roster. Senior goaltender Crystal Springer is from Flin Flon, Manitoba, and Harvard Coach Katey Stone calls her second forward line--consisting of juniors Kiirsten Suurkask and Tara Dunn and freshman Kalen Ingram--the "Canuck line."
But this contest won't be a patriotic rivalry for everyone on the Harvard team. Instead, it will be a reunion for sophomore defenseman Angela Ruggiero, who has a gold medal as a member of the 1998 U.S. Olympic Team. That year, Ruggiero was wearing stars and stripes when the National Team went on an exhibition tour against college teams.
"It's going to be weird because I know everyone on the team," said Ruggiero, who leads ECAC defensemen in scoring. "I'm going to go 100 percent because I know they can take it, and because I know Coach is going to be there watching me."
In this case, "Coach" is Ben Smith '68, who backed out of the running for the coaching vacancy for the Harvard men's hockey team last summer to prepare for the 2002 Olympics. Ruggiero's other coach--Stone--joined Smith over the summer at the U.S.A. Women's Hockey Festival in Lake Placid, N.Y., where they instructed Ruggiero and junior winger Angie Francisco, currently the leading scorer in the ECAC.
Francisco has joined Shewchuk and Botterill on Harvard's top line, which continues to dominate opponents. Francisco replaced A.J. Mleczko '99, who will be one of the Crimson's opponents tonight as a forward for Team U.S.A.
"It'll be a little strange to be in the visitor's locker room and on the visitor's bench at Bright, but I'll be comfortable because I'll see so many old faces," said Mleczko, who will play at the blueline tonight due to injuries. "It should be a lot of fun."
Mleczko, who returned to Cambridge last year after spending two years training with Smith and the national team for the 1998 Olympics, will be making her first appearance at Bright since helping to unveil the 1998-99 AWCHA National Championship banner last month.
"This is just a chance for both sides to get good competition and to showcase women's hockey," Mleczko said. "Harvard built up a great fan base last season, but hopefully these games will help other teams get people to come out and see some good hockey."
Last season Mleczko broke every record imaginable, winding up with 114 points and the 1999 Patty Kazmaier Award as national player of the year.
As great as Mleczko is, however, she is not a star for Team U.S.A. Led by veterans such as forwards Cammi Granato and Karyn Bye and defenseman Chris Bailey, the national team has loads of international experience. And the Americans will be looking for a big victory after the heartbreaking shootout loss to Shewchuk, Botterill, and company in the Three Nations Cup.
Team U.S.A. is clearly the heavy favorite. But the Crimson--which tends to play to the level of its competition--has a chance to keep the game close.
All three members of Harvard's top line have international experience and plenty of offensive firepower. The Crimson's top blueline pairing of Ruggiero and freshman Jamie Hagerman, who leads all ECAC rookie defensemen with 10 points, will make Team U.S.A. work for its goals.
"This is going to be a great experience to see the elite players in the nation," Ruggiero said. "This will give us a chance to see how they use each other."
In some ways, this exhibition game, between a top college team and a top international team, will be a good benchmark of the potential of women's hockey as a sport. For the Harvard players, however, it is an opportunity to face tough competition and improve its game as it continues to strive for another national championship.
"Most teams we play are at our level or below us, but this gives us something to reach for" she added. "We're treating this as a real game, and we'll be gunning for them."