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The road to Sochi came through Minnesota

Team USA is loaded with University of Minnesota connections on the ice.

February 6, 2014

It’s still a fresh memory—that late March Sunday afternoon when Amanda Kessel, Megan Bozek, and teammates threw their gloves in the air and mobbed goalie Noora Raty to celebrate an undefeated season and their second straight Frozen Four championship, all on their home ice at Ridder Arena in front of an adoring crowd.

The top of the athletics mountain, right? Well, unless you consider the center platform of the medal stand at the Olympics.

An impressive number of Gopher athletes—women and men, past and present—will have the chance to make that jump and attempt to add Olympic gold to their medal collections. Team USA is loaded with hockey players with U connections, a very fitting representation for the “State of Hockey.”

Sochi via Minnesota

On the women’s side, five Gopher stars from the last decade will be skating for Team USA.

There’s the relative veteran and household name, Gigi Marvin, who will be making her second Olympics appearance. She’ll be joined by Anne Schleper from St. Cloud and Roseville’s Lee Stecklein, at age 19 the youngest player on the roster.

The team also includes Kessel, last year’s Patty Kazmaier Award winner as the nation’s top collegiate player, and Bozek, a finalist for the same award.

All that’s missing from a great power play unit would be a goalie. Raty would serve nicely, but last year’s record-setting netminder will be playing again for her native Finland—the United States’ first opponent in Sochi.

Two other Team USA players—twins and Olympic veterans Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux—skated for Minnesota for one season before transferring to North Dakota, and the goalie coach is former Hobey Baker Award winner Robb Stauber. Raty will be joined by Gopher alum Mira Jalosuo in playing for Finland.

Team USA’s biggest hurdle will be its archrival, Team Canada. Combined, the two nations have won every gold medal since women’s hockey began in the Olympics in 1998. They played each other in a series of tune-ups earlier this winter, and before a game at Xcel Energy Center, Bozek took a few moments to reflect on her journey in the last year.

“The Frozen Four was great—to have Minnesota host that and for us to win and go undefeated last season—but I think it’s a step more than that when you’re representing your country,” she says. “Putting on that jersey and fighting for the whole country is just a different mentality.”

Marvin, the Warroad native and Old Dutch spokesperson, can’t wait for another take on the Olympic experience.

“Nothing is like the Olympics,” she says. “I mean, you’ve got 4.6 billion people paying attention, and everything that is put into it—the ceremonies, the games, the Olympic village, the other athletes, the years and years and years of dedication and hours you put into your sport—all of a sudden you’re walking around and it hits you in the heart. …  It’s three weeks of absolute wonder and awe, literally. And joy.”

In men’s hockey, Team USA will feature three names familiar to fans of the Gophers and the National Hockey League. Paul Martin, the 32-year-old Olympic veteran from Elk River, will be joined by Phil Kessel, Amanda’s brother, and Blake Wheeler, he of the incredible Youtube highlight goal against UND. And former standout defenseman Todd Richards will be an assistant coach for the team.

A fourth former Gopher, Thomas Vanek, will be playing for Austria, and another member of Team USA, Justin Faulk, played collegiately for the University of Minnesota Duluth.

UMD all over the world

Speaking of UMD, a host of former Bulldogs will also be on the ice in Sochi, representing a handful of countries in women’s hockey.

Haley Irwin, Jocelyn Laroque, and Caroline Ouellette will play for Team Canada; Tea Villila and Tuula Puputti (team manager) will join Raty for Finland; Jenny Harss will be playing for Germany; Lara Stalder for Switzerland; Jenni Asserholt, Kim Martin, and Pernilla Winberg for Sweden; and Iya Gavrilova and Alexandra Vafina for host Russia.

And a couple of former UMD students will also be on the sheet for the U.S. men’s curling team: John Shuster and John Landsteiner.

The grind … and a dream fulfilled

Bozek reflects on her Olympic training experience and jokes that “it’s nice not to have to go to class. It really is like a full-time job with hockey and a gold medal on our minds, so that’s what we’re training for every day.

“It’s tough. I didn’t expect it to be as much mental, physical, and emotional. You have to be invested in every aspect, because if you’re off on one you’re going to be off on the other. So you have to be all in, you have to get a little check-up from the neck up every day just to make sure you know what you’re fighting for, what you’re working for, and how many other girls would love to be in your position.”

Marvin’s eyes light up when she talks about the Olympic experience, even though she concedes that winning the Stanley Cup was the dream for the first 10 years of her life. Then the Olympics became a reality for female hockey players, and she gets to live the dream for a second time. And combine forces with her former collegiate rivals.

“I get to play and skate with the best players in the world, and that’s awesome,” she says. “After competing against them so much, it’s like, ‘Thank goodness you’re on my team!’”

Contact the writer at moore112@umn.edu.

Read more about Carlson School sophomore Stecklein here and about Amanda Kessel putting school on hold here.

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