There is a family feel and then there is, well, family. The 2019-2020 Minnesota women's hockey team has both.
Sarah and Amy Potomak are sisters through and through. Number five and six in the family tree, the Potomak siblings remember seeking each other out at a young age, after all, with four older brothers in the house what choice did they have? Hockey also made sense. To this day, the duo reflects on their childhood using two words early and often; family and hockey. If there had been a seventh child in the Potomak family, he/she would have probably been named Bauer or Under Armour.
"We have four older brothers, and everyone is two years a part. I just wanted to be like my brothers and play hockey, so my dad coached a lot of us growing up and we have this special bond with hockey. No matter what, when we were at home when we were little, we were playing mini-sticks or playing street hockey outside. We played hockey all year around; we loved it," recalled Sarah, a senior forward for the Gophers and older sister to Amy. "We would do skating camps in the summer and that kind of thing to challenge each other; it was just a way of life for us. Hockey has been a family thing for us and it has brought us all closer together. Obviously for Amy and me, it created a special bond right from the beginning."
"Ever since we were little it's always been like that; whether we were playing with mini-sticks or ball hockey in the backyard, we were always competitive with one another. We still get like that in practice; we get a little heated but it's all in good fun and we definitely use that to motivate each other," chuckled Amy, now a redshirt sophomore for Brad Frost's team. "We always try to push each other. Sometimes I'll look at her in practice and be like, we should have a scoring competition or run through different drills and stuff like that; just to kind of egg each other on a little bit. It's super fun."
A competitive fun.
Gophers head coach Brad Frost laughs when asked about his role as the Potomak's "second father". Frost, who recalls the 2002-2003 season as being the only other time he can remember coaching a pair of sisters (Winny and Chelsey Brodt), admits that there is a unique dynamic that exists when two of his go-to players have 20-plus years of experience to bring into the mix when "discussing" the ins and out of hockey and how it should be played from time to time. It's also been good practice for him considering next season he will have another set of sisters on his roster in Madeline Wethington and sister Audrey.
"If one of them doesn't see what the other one saw sometimes they will have a conversation with one another, and that talk might be different than what they would say to a different line mate. That's just what sisters do just like that's what brother's do," chuckled Frost. "Certainly, there is a little different feeling. Those two are extremely close. We have had them on the same line in the past but regardless of where they are at, their relationship is one that is really special and they are always supportive of one another, always cheering for each other and definitely want what's best for each other. There is definitely a little different dynamic as a coach, just knowing they are sisters and they are extremely tight but at the same time we expect all of our players to be close and have that family relationship anyway."
"I can see it sometimes in her eyes; she'll say something on the ice and she will have that tone in her voice like I am her little sister," laughed Amy Potomak, referring to older sister Sarah. "We definitely have our moments on the bench where we bicker occasionally and Frosty is pretty good at breaking it up. We always laugh about it later, that's kind of just the way we are. We come from a big family so we are used to fighting and then moving on and it doesn't really faze us."
If you had to pick a word that has defined - and continues to define - the Potomak's as they have climbed the hockey ladder over the years; from Aldergrove B.C., through the Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy, Team Canada and Canada's National Women's Team and now the University of Minnesota and the WCHA; it's competitive. It's an internal drive they started to develop as kids on the rinks and driveways of British Columbia and one of the major personality traits that defines their sister-to-sister relationship even today. A healthy competition as they put it- one that pushes each other to the limit whenever it needs to happen; whether it be on the ice, in the locker room, the classroom or in everyday life. They make each other better, and they know it. Everyone does.
When Sarah Potomak first arrived in Minneapolis for the 2015-16 season she exploded out of the gates; winning nearly every award a rookie can win. The National Rookie of the Year, WCHA Rookie of the Year, USCHO Rookie of the Year and member of the All-WCHA Third Team; the oldest Potomak girl finished third on the team in scoring as a newcomer (54 points) and was tops on the roster with an eye-popping plus/minus of +54. The next season, it was more of the same as Sarah notched 53 points including 20 goals which was the most by a Gopher that year. For her efforts, Potomak was not only named to the All-WCHA Second Team but was also announced as top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award. Furthermore, that year Sarah Potomak helped Canada's National Women's Team win a silver medal at the 2017 IIHF Women's World Championship. And through it all, sitting back and watching it all happen was little sister Amy- who was also making her own hockey milestones for Team Canada and beyond. Already committed to the Gophers for the following season it was soon going to be her turn. But first, the Olympics were calling.
The following season (2017-18) both Sarah and Amy elected to take a redshirt season so they could spend that year training with Canada's National Women's Team in preparation for the 2018 Olympic Games. They trained together. They lived together. They did everything- together. Unfortunately, their goal of becoming the first sister duo to represent their country in the Olympics fell short when Amy was cut from the team in mid-November 2017 and Sarah received notice that she wasn't going to make it one month later. No doubt devastated, the Potomak sisters did what they always do and went back to work … together.
With added fire in their bellies and an added sense of purpose to their game, Sarah Potomak returned to Ridder Arena the following season for her junior season. This time, standing next to her on the ice was her sister, Amy. It's been an epic ride ever since. Last season - their first playing together as teammates in Maroon and Gold - the Potomak sisters combined for 22 goals and 35 assists. Arguably more impressive than that was a combined plus/minus of +41. All of that despite the fact that Sarah was slowed due to an injury at the start of the year and didn't see consistent game action until December; a full 19 games into the season. Sometimes paired on the same line and other times spilt apart, Sarah Potomak finished her junior campaign with 17 points over her last 12 games while Amy Potomak added 11 during that same stretch. As a matter of fact, last season when Amy scored at least one point in a game, the Gophers went 19-1-1. When Sarah scored they were 15-1.
"I have learned a lot from her honestly, she has really helped my game. Throughout the summer we go onto the ice a lot and each do drills and take what we are good at and what we are bad at and build off one another," remarked Sarah Potomak, when asked about her sister's play. "There are a lot of stick handling drills she does with me and edge work and it's the same on my end. Puck protection and shooting have definitely been a couple of things I have learned from her."
"We are different," added Amy. "She is a lot smaller than I am so she's really good in tight spaces, she's a lot quicker. She's really good at making plays, very heads up and has a really good hockey IQ. I'm definitely bigger, probably a little faster and like taking the puck to the net. My version of hockey is probably a little simpler than hers just because I can rely on my size more whereas she has to create a little more with the space she is given. She is very good at that. I think because we are so different we complement each other really well."
"Sarah is maybe a little quicker and shiftier; puts great energy on the puck, has a knack for making plays and scoring goals. Amy is a little bigger, more of a power forward type with great hands. She has really good top-end speed and her ability to finish is great as well," explained Frost. "As players they are a little different but both very, very effective. You can truly see that they bring out the best in one another."
If you need more proof, just look at the numbers both have continued to tack on this season. The WCHA Forward of the Month in November, Sarah Potomak has registered 45 points heading into this weekend's WCHA Final Faceoff; including 26 assists which is tops on the team. As always, the most telling statistic is her plus/minus rating which has consistently told a story throughout her career highlighting her dependably and consistency on both ends of the rink. To date, Sarah Potomak has a plus/minus rating of +40 which ranks first in the conference. As for Amy Potomak, the sophomore sensation has also impressed with her consistent attack. Since November 29, Amy Potomak has been held scoreless in a game just three times in 19 games, has scored at least one point in her last six and has notched 11 points over her last eight. This season, when Amy Potomak scores a point the Gophers are 23-1-1.
That's about as consistent as they come.
"We always try our best to be consistent; we always try hard not to be too high or too low and I think that natural consistency comes from us perfecting our natural routines and knowing what to do each weekend to get ready," commented Amy. "I find the longer you play hockey the more consistent you get because you find out what works for you and what doesn't. Even for me, from my freshman year to my sophomore year I have been a lot more consistent and it's been the same thing for her (Sarah) over the years; she's gotten more consistent. At big part of it is mental preparation and how you prepare for things."
"I think their consistency comes with their preparation and their work ethic. There are not a lot of players who outwork those guys and do more than they do before practice when it comes to trying to make themselves better," added Frost. "When you have that consistent work ethic it's going to show up on the ice. With their skill and their consistency night in and night out, both of them have developed into 200-foot hockey players. They both obviously have tremendous offensive skill but what has made them even more effective is that they are trusted in every situation offensively and defensively."
And in the end, that just may be the best compliment a coach can give.
With the postseason now upon them, and with that, the reality that things can come to an end at any moment if you're not at your best; that consistent streak is more important than ever. For Sarah and Amy Potomak it even goes beyond trophies and championships. From this point forward, a sudden loss might not just mark the end of the season but in their case, it will also close out another special chapter in their hockey journey that very few players have the opportunity to experience. As one of six seniors on the Gophers roster, that reality is not lost on Sarah or her sister.
Teammates today - sisters forever.
"It crosses my mind but I try not to think about it too much. You can look at it two ways I think; I can look at it and say man, this is the last chance for me to play with my sister in college but on the other hand it's like wow, it's been such an awesome ride and such an awesome experience and I want to finish things on a high note and give it everything I have," stated Amy. "That's how we are looking at things right now and not just for Sarah but our senior class as a whole; just making sure we are grateful every day we show up to the rink and even though it's a long season and we are at the end of it, we are still having a lot of fun, joking around and enjoying each other's time together. That's what I have been trying to do. I'm just trying to spend as much time as I can and enjoy every moment I have with her."
"This year I have taken the time to enjoy every moment; to just enjoy the special moments. Sometimes in life it's easy to rush through things but this year in particular and especially with this senior class, we have really focused on enjoying everything and taking it day by day. It can be sad to think about the year ending but it can also be an opportunity and that's what we see," concluded Sarah Potomak. "For me personally, I want to win the national championship so bad; more than I have ever wanted it and I think that comes naturally with being a senior. My belief in this team to be able to do that is the highest it's ever been. For me, you can get distracted when you think about how sad it is but I am just focusing on owning it every day, getting better every day and moving forward. We still have a long ways to go."
The Potomak sisters and their Gopher teammates faceoff with Ohio State in game one of the 2020 Final Faceoff tonight at Ridder Arena with the winner advancing to the championship tomorrow against either Wisconsin or Minnesota Duluth.