This is the third 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 Dani Cameranesi, who played at Minnesota from 2013-14 to 2016-17.
By Bill Brophy
At the age of 23 years old, Dani Cameranesi hardly qualifies as an historian, but during all of her hockey-playing days, she has been a follower and a participant in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
When notified this week that she had been named one of the top 20 players in the first 20 years of the women's WCHA, she was surprised.
"I never expected that," said Cameranesi from Chicago this week, while training with Team USA for next week's Four Nations Cup in Saskatoon, Sask. "There have been some phenomenal players to come through the league in that time and to be named among the best is kind of unreal."
Those that have watched Cameranesi from her days growing up in Plymouth, Minn. to her current role as a smooth-skating winger for the Buffalo Beauts in the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) may not be as surprised at Dani's selection.
Her resume is eye-popping: A former Minnesota Ms. Hockey at Blake School, she was the WCHA Rookie of the Year in 2014 following her freshman year at the University of Minnesota. She was an all-WCHA player and a second team all-American the next two seasons when the Gophers won back-to-back National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles. Cameranesi, the 2016 WCHA scoring champion, had three-consecutive NCAA championship appearances with two titles, two Top-10 finishes for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, a gold medal at the IIHF world championships in 2015 and, most recently, an Olympic gold medal at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang in 2018.
She showed great speed and good hands in college and finished as the Gophers' seventh all-time leading scorer (with 93 goals, 108 assists and 201 points in four years), but it was her final season at Minnesota that taught her to appreciate the journey. Cameranesi suffered an ankle injury while playing in one of her favorite rivalry games --against Wisconsin her senior year. She missed six weeks and was left off the 2017 USA IIHF World Championship roster for health reasons.
Those were tough times for Dani, but thinks she is a better hockey player and tougher, both mentally and physically, for having experienced the adversity.
"I remember when I was making a decision on where to go to school, my parents said, 'Go to a place where you get a degree and be happy even if hockey doesn't work out'," Cameranesi said. "When I got hurt and went through my rehab, I had my coaches and friends around to keep me going. I realized I was at a place where they provided the best resources to get healthy.
"I was very lucky to have teammates to rely on, along with my family and my coaches. They gave me the fight to get back. I think that experience made me a better person."
Cameranesi also seemed to grow as a player at the 2018 Olympics. She finished with three goals and two assists in five games, including a three-point outburst in the semifinal game against Finland. She was one of four Gopher players on the Olympic team who won NCAA titles in 2015 and 2016 (Hannah Brandt, Lee Stecklein and Kelly Pannek were the others).
"Going to the Olympics and to win a gold medal is something you dreamed about," said Cameranesi. "I didn't know if I was going to get the opportunity because of injuries. So going to Korea and playing for your country. . .It was unreal."
Her favorite snapshot of the gold medal experience? It wasn't the shootout win over Canada or getting the gold medal, although they were unforgettable.
"My favorite moment probably was walking out in the opening ceremony behind our flag with the other athletes," said Cameranesi. "I looked around and realized I had made it with all the other great athletes in the world."
Cameranesi, whose brother Tony played hockey at Minnesota Duluth, is currently one of the NWHL's top-five scorers in her rookie season for the Beauts, who have made it to the NWHL playoff finals the last three years. She says playing pro hockey is intense and, coupled with international tournaments like Four Nations and the IIHF World Championships, it is the way she will prepare for what Dani hopes is a return trip to the Olympics in 2022.
But when asked to reminisce on her college days, it doesn't take long to get her going.
"When I look back on it, I miss it," said Cameranesi. "When you play in the WCHA, you play such competitive games in what I believe is the best league. You are playing against the best players and teams and playing alongside pretty amazing girls.
"I was so fortunate. I played with great leaders as a freshman. Then I got to play with players like Hannah Brandt. When you come out of the WCHA, you are used to playing tough games and rivalry games, particularly Wisconsin. You get to play against players from Canada and Sweden. There is a lot of talent in the league."
She repeated how flattered she was to be on the WCHA's 20th Anniversary Team and only sees the league's players improving over time.
"I think," Cameranesi said, "it will be tougher 20 years from now to pick another all-time team."
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).