By Bill Brophy for WCHA.com
Janine Alder remembers it well. It is that moment when you walk into the Olympic stadium with your countrymen and countrywomen. She got to experience it when she marched into the stadium, next to the flag-bearer for her native Switzerland, at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This month she will get to relive it in Pyeongchang, South Korea at the 2018 Games.
"It is every players' dream to go there and to walk into the opening ceremony and play in those games," said Alder a few days after learning she will help Switzerland defend its bronze medal in Korea. "I feel there are many more thrills to come."
Alder is a goalie from St. Cloud State, and one of 37 former and current players from the Women's League of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) who will compete in the Olympic ice hockey competition Feb. 10-22. She is one of four players who still have college eligibility remaining – Minnesota Duluth goalie Maddie Rooney and Minnesota forward Kelly Pannek of Team USA, and Wisconsin forward Emily Clark of Team Canada, are the others. In Alder's case, she was auditioning all season while in the Huskies' crease.
"The first time at the Olympics was a great experience and a dream come true," said Alder. It was an emotional experience. I am sure this time will be, too."
Alder is the first St. Cloud State women's hockey player to be chosen for the Winter Games. In fact, SCSU is the only NCAA school to have current men's and women's student-athletes in Korea, as the Huskies' Will Borgen will play defense for the U.S. men's hockey team.
St. Cloud State is one of seven WCHA institutions that will be represented in Pyeongchang. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth have nine players; Minnesota has eight; North Dakota six; Ohio State three and Minnesota State, one. (A complete list of WCHA Olympians is at the bottom of this story.)
The athletes all qualified for their team in different ways. The United States and Canadian teams chose to centralize their training camps, picking their prime prospects last summer and training together – the U.S. in suburban Tampa, Fla. and Team Canada in Calgary, Alberta.
Olympic hockey teams like Finland and Switzerland don't have those financial resources to centralize, so their players often play in European pro leagues or, in Alder's case, in the WCHA, to grow in their development. After competing in Sochi, Alder mulled her options and figured her best path to a return Olympic trip would be to face the best competition in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
"She took a chance to come over here and trust that we were her best opportunity to get back on the Olympic team," St. Cloud State Coach Eric Rud said. "She knew for her to come here and have a chance to make the Olympics she had to make a splash – and she has done that."
Alder knew she was trying out for an Olympic team berth while at St. Cloud. After gaining All-WCHA Rookie Team honors last season, Alder has a 2.42 goals-against average this season at SCSU, while her .935 save percentage in 14 games ranked third in the WCHA and sixth in the NCAA. She made 53 saves in her final Huskies' game against top-ranked Wisconsin Jan. 27 before leaving for Korea. It reminded her why her decision to play in the WCHA was a sound one.
"It was the best decision of my life so far," said Alder. "Playing against the Badgers especially is so competitive. They are so fast. It keeps me focused and helps me a lot. The whole NCAA and especially the WCHA is so competitive. Everyone can beat everyone else. So, for me, it was the best decision I could have made to prepare for what is ahead."
The U.S and Canadian teams train differently. The U.S. team, coached by Robb Stauber, who won a Hobey Baker Award as a goalie at Minnesota, features 14 former and current WCHA players and face Canada and international competition in the Four Nations tournament as part of its Olympic warmup. Team Canada, coached by former Minnesota Duluth assistant coach Laura Schuler, has eight WCHA alumnae and one current player (Clark). It played against all levels of competition in its pre-Olympic barnstorming tour, which saw games in NHL rinks as well as community rinks.
But both teams' rosters are heavily influenced by the WCHA and college hockey players.
"The WCHA is a breeding ground for so many players for growth,'' said Stauber, whose team won a gold medal at the 2017 IIHF Women's World Championship.
Natalie Darwitz played on 10 national teams and won two silver medals and one bronze for the U.S Olympic team. She was a three-time all-American at Minnesota and actually made the Olympic team before playing a game of college hockey, but she knows how important the WCHA is to the sport.
"My story is a little different because I came to college with the Olympics under my belt, but I learned how important college hockey is to developing players for USA Hockey," said Darwitz, now the head women's hockey coach at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. "When I went through college here, every WCHA game was important. When you aren't playing in blowout games, you are stretched so you can get better.
"The competitiveness of the league is a reason why you see so many WCHA players in the Olympics. As women's hockey has grown after past Olympics, more girls have aspirations about playing for their country. They want to go to a school where they can become a better hockey player and face good competition. This conference is tough and that is why you see so many players from the WCHA in the Olympics."
Former WCHA players figure to have a high profile during the two weeks of the tournament. Meghan Duggan, a former Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner at Wisconsin, is the captain of Team USA. She, Hillary Knight (Wisconsin), Gigi Marvin (Minnesota), Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and her twin sister, Monique Lamoureaux-Morando (North Dakota) are five of the six Olympians who are appearing in the Games for the third time. Brianna Decker (Wisconsin) and Amanda Kessel (Minnesota) each won Patty Kazmaier Awards while starring in the WCHA, and Hannah Brandt (Minnesota) is a former WCHA Player of the Year. Rooney and former Wisconsin player Alex Rigsby figure to split goaltending duties.
"We have a good mix of veterans and young players," said Stauber. "Before Christmas we let some veterans go from the roster in favor of some young players who bring energy and optimism. I think we have a good mix, but every coach feels that way before they start up."
Team USA has representatives from four different schools – Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth – on its 23-person roster. There has been some good-natured kidding about rivalries from the collegiate days, Stauber says, but they "put aside past rivalries. These women's aspirations are to play in the Olympics and win a gold medal."
Stauber knows the tendency for fans is to look forward to the USA vs. Canada matchup on Feb. 14 and a possible rematch in the gold medal game Feb. 22, but he trots out the old cliché about playing one game at a time. The Americans open play Feb. 11 against Finland.
"We have won a lot of world championships, but the Olympic gold medal has eluded us lately," said Stauber. "If we do our part, I suspect will have a good run. We can't just be worried about Canada. Sweden and Finland aren't going there to lay down. We need to use our speed, skill, creativity and make it miserable for them."
Team Canada will be aiming for its fifth-straight gold medal in Korea, while the U.S. hasn't won an Olympic gold medal since 1998 – but has won the past four world championships.
"I think Canada knows how to navigate the Olympic culture better," said Darwitz. "At the worlds, teams come together for a few days and practice and then go play games for six or seven days. The Olympics are different. You are centralized for a long time and asked to come together. It is a team with superstars from their own college teams. Players are used to playing power play or playing on the top line. Now they are asked to play on the third line. It is a team dynamic change and Canada has been better at handling that team culture better in the Olympics. How it turns out this year? We will see."
Team Canada opens Olympic play Feb. 11 against Russia. It has some former WCHA players in key roles in Pyeongchang as well. Natalie Spooner, an Ohio State alumna, and Haley Irwin (Minnesota Duluth) are both forwards in their second Olympics and won gold medals in Sochi in 2014. Meaghan Mikkelson (Wisconsin) is in her third Olympics and, as the team's oldest player (33), will be a key blueliner along with Minnesota Duluth alumnae Jocelyne Larocque and Brigette Lacquette. Ann-Renée Desbiens, last year's Patty Kazmaier Award winner at Wisconsin, is one of Team Canada's goalies. Clark, the youngest player on the team at 22, along with Sarah Nurse and Blayre Turnbull (all Wisconsin alumnae) will get a lot of ice time up front.
For Clark, like all the 37 players with WCHA bonds in Pyeongchang, participating in the Olympic ceremonies and playing in an Olympic game was something she dreamed about late at night as a teenager. She has a sign to prove it.
When Clark was 13, she made herself a pledge and posted it in her bedroom. It read: "I am going to play for Team Canada."
Soon a dream will come true.
WCHA Alumnae and Current Players at the 2018 Winter Olympics
Thirty-seven (37) players with ties to the Women's League of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), including four current student-athletes, will compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Goaltenders (2): Alex Rigsby, Wisconsin; *Maddie Rooney, Minnesota Duluth
Defense (4): Monique Lamoureux-Morando, North Dakota; Gigi Marvin, Minnesota; Lee Stecklein, Minnesota; Sidney Morin, Minnesota Duluth
Forwards (8): Hannah Brandt, Minnesota; Dani Cameranesi, Minnesota; Brianna Decker, Wisconsin; Meghan Duggan, Wisconsin; Amanda Kessel, Minnesota Hilary Knight, Wisconsin; Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, North Dakota; *Kelly Pannek, Minnesota
Goaltender (1): Ann-Renée Desbiens, Wisconsin
Defense (3): Brigette Lacquette, Minnesota Duluth; Jocelyne Larocque, Minnesota Duluth; Meaghan Mikkelson, Wisconsin
Forwards (5): *Emily Clark, Wisconsin; Haley Irwin, Minnesota Duluth; Sarah Nurse, Wisconsin; Natalie Spooner, Ohio State; Blayre Turnbull, Wisconsin
Goalie (2): Noora Räty, Minnesota; Eveliina Suonpää, Minnesota Duluth
Defense (1): Mira Jalosuo, Minnesota
Forwards (4): Michelle Karvinen, North Dakota; Susanna Tapani, North Dakota; Emma Nuutinen, North Dakota; Minnamari Tuominen, Ohio State
Defense (3): Johanna Fallman, North Dakota; Emilia Andersson Ramboldt, Minnesota State; Annie Svedin, Ohio State
Forwards (2): Maria Lindh, Minnesota Duluth; Pernilla Winberg, Minnesota Duluth
Goalie (1): *Janine Alder, St. Cloud State
Forwards (1): Lara Stalder, Minnesota Duluth
* -- denotes that player has eligibility remaining