This is the fifth in a series of articles honoring the 20 players who have been selected to the WCHA's 20th Anniversary Team. This week's honoree is Brianna Decker, who played at the University of Wisconsin from 2009-10 to 2012-13.
By Bill Brophy
Her résumé is already lengthy and includes some eye-popping achievements. She has won a gold and silver medal at the Winter Olympics. She was named the best player in college hockey while at Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) member University of Wisconsin in 2012 and was named the most valuable player in the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) in 2016 and 2017.
Earlier this month she was captain of the United States team that won the Four Nations Cup in Saskatoon, Sask. and, showing that she leads by example, Brianna Decker had three goals and three assists in four tournament games.
Decker is arguably one of the best women's hockey players in the world. And in honing her craft, at 27-years-old, she is now adding another line to her resume: assistant coach for Team USA at the World Under-18 tournament in Obihiro, Japan in January. Taking time off from the Calgary Inferno, where she is among the top goal-scorers in the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), Decker will assist Minnesota Duluth head coach Maura Crowell in leading the U.S. team in the international tournament. Her job is to mentor players and assist in their development.
"I have really enjoyed coaching and getting a chance to deal with the younger players," said Decker. "We have a great group of girls. I have been around them at (USA Hockey) camps over the years. And now I have been able to get the chance to help. I want them to grow into the game and get the opportunities that I have."
Decker has played for three of the four winningest college coaches in her career. She won a national championship with Mark Johnson as her coach at Wisconsin in 2011, she played for Harvard coach Katey Stone in the 2014 Winter Olympics and is currently playing for former UMD coach Shannon Miller in Calgary.
"I have played for a lot of different coaches and they all have their own coaching style," said Decker. "You try to add the things you enjoyed about some coaches and remember the things you didn't like. In Mark, I really enjoyed playing for him and how he deals with players."
Decker made her assistant coaching debut with the U-18 team in Calgary in a series against Canada, just six months after helping the U.S. win gold in Korea at the 2018 Winter Games. She had previously served as a coach at various USA Hockey Select camps.
"It has been a good experience," said Decker. "Hopefully I can help them with some things."
Decker has quite a few experiences to share. She grew up in Dousman, Wis. and attended Shattuck St. Mary's High School in Faribault, Minn. She had an injury-marred freshman year at Wisconsin, but still ranks as the second all-time scoring leader at UW (and eighth in WCHA history) with 244 points (115 goals, 129 assists) and is one of five Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winners to play for the Badgers.
In her sophomore year, UW won the national title with Olympic teammates Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan, a big thrill said Decker, but not the biggest that occurred in 2011. "Winning a national championship is always memorable, but on the road to the championship, I always remember winning the WCHA Final Faceoff. Kelly Nash scored the winning goal in overtime and we came back to beat Minnesota in Ridder (Arena)," said Decker, recalling a furious two-goal comeback in the final 6:38. "That was pretty special."
Decker won the Patty Kazmaier Award as a junior in 2012, scoring 37 goals, 45 assists and 82 points, and the Badgers advanced to the NCAA championship game before losing to Minnesota in Duluth.
In addition to her Olympic experience, Decker has been a star for USA Hockey in international play. She is a five-time International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women's World Championship gold medalist (2011 and 2013, 2015 and 2016-17) and twice won USA Hockey's Bob Allen Women's Player of the Year Award (2015 and 2017).
She said winning gold in Korea "was memorable. Since the U.S. hadn't won in 20 years, how could it not be?" she says. But Decker adds that her favorite Olympic snapshot as a fan was "watching the U.S. win the curling gold medal. I had never seen a curling match and to see the pride those athletes had winning was just great."
After touring with her gold-medal winning Olympic teammates, Decker surprised some observers by leaving the NWHL to sign a pro contract with Calgary in the CWHL. Along with fellow Olympian and ex-Badger, goalie Alex Rigsby, the Inferno is a contender in the six-team pro league.
She plans on playing professionally and for Team USA as preparation for another run at Olympic gold in 2022. She also is thinking about life beyond her playing days, perhaps as a full-time coach.
"I think so," said Decker. "I enjoy coaching and have a lot of respect for what coaches do. I think I would like to coach in college. I am not sure I have bought into the recruiting part of it, but I love to help coaching players and watching them develop."
About the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team
As it celebrates 20 Years of Excellence during the 2018-19 season, the Women's League of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) will honor the 20 alumnae named to the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team. The team will be revealed, one-by-one, in alphabetical order, one per week (except for the week of Dec. 24) through the week of March 4, prior to the 2019 WCHA Final Faceoff.
From an initial list of 120 nominations, representing each of the league's all-time eight schools, the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team Committee selected 41 finalists. To be nominated a player (forward, defenseman or goaltender) must have completed her collegiate eligibility at a WCHA institution (nominees did not have to play a full four seasons in the WCHA; however, current student-athletes were not eligible).
The WCHA 20th Anniversary team was determined by 1/3 fan vote, 1/3 WCHA alumnae vote and 1/3 Committee vote (consisting of two WCHA Office staff, one former and two current head coaches and three alumnae).