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A.J. Mleczko '97-'99

Hockey player leads team to national victory

A.J. Mleczko has been playing hockey since she was six years old, when she approached her hockey-coach father and asked to play. During her elementary school career, when "it wasn't normal for girls to play hockey," male teammates and opponents would give her a hard time for playing on boys' teams.

Since then, Mleckzo's career has taken off. She enrolled in a Connecticut boarding school, the Taft School, her sophomore year of high school and found an environment where women's hockey got some of the glory. As one of 11 women's hockey players in her class, she helped lead Taft to three consecutive New England titles.

In the fall of 1993, Mleczko started as a Harvard first-year and new member of the women's hockey team--a relatively new, struggling program. Her first few years on the team were a struggle for the program as a whole, she says.

"We lost a lot of games by one goal," says Mleczko. "We didn't have a lot of personnel...We didn't have stamina really."

Mleczko, who played on the women's national team for the first time during her junior year, left Harvard in September 1996, at the beginning of her senior year, to focus on hockey full time.

She rode the increasing prominence of women's hockey all the way to Nagano, Japan and the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. The national team had a newly established full-time training program and seven-month tour to prepare for the games.

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"So much of the thrill of our two weeks over in Nagano was because of the buildup" of the tour, Mleczko says. The Olympic experience--from marching in the opening ceremonies, to eating in the dining hall among famous Olympians, to winning the first-ever women's hockey gold medal--was amazing, according to Mleczko.

"[It's] the pinnacle of athletic achievement," she says.

Following her Olympian high, Mleczko (#11) returned last fall to Harvard to complete her final year of coursework, though she actually walked with her class at Commencement in 1997. In her two years away, Coach Katey Stone did "a great job recruiting," says Mleczko.

"The two years I took off were really definitely part of the success of this year's team," she says. Returning to her center position on the Crimson, co-captain Mleczko teamed with co-captain Claudia M. Asano '99 and players Jennifer L. Botterill '02 and Tammy L. Shewchuk '00 to lead the 33-1 team to its first-ever ECAC title, first Ivy League title since 1989, first Beanpot title since 1995, and, on March 27, the school's first-ever national championship.

In the title game against UNH in Minneapolis, Mleczko slammed into the boards at the end of the second period, partially separating her shoulder, as well as hurting ligaments, tendons and one rib in her back.

"It really wasn't that bad of a separation," shrugs Mleczko--but it was bad enough that she couldn't take slap shots or face-offs. Mleczko kept playing nevertheless. She was given a shot before overtime began, which she says gave her confidence.

"I knew it was the last game of the season...as long as I didn't hurt myself for the rest of my life, there was no reason to not go out there and continue playing," Mleckzo says.

At 8:01 of the sudden-death period, Mleczko assisted Botterill with the game-winner, and the team that had only 11 players in 1994-1995 was the national champion.

"It's got a reputation and a legacy now," Mleczko says of the Harvard program.

She retires with 128 goals and 129 assists, and with her total of 257 points holds the Harvard women's hockey career scoring record. Mleckzo's 114-point barrage this season places her second nationally all time.

Mleckzo, who will turn 24 next week, plans to train full-time for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. She says she has "no idea" what she will do after that.

But no matter what happens during the rest of her career, Mleckzo is grateful for the experiences she's had so far.

"I've had two special teams to be a part of," she says. "They're very special in their own ways."

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