Talent Level Off the Charts

BOSTON – On a campus where the ‘Miracle on Ice’ is local legend, Mark Johnson spent his first night in Boston with old friend Mike Eruzione, ‘telling war stories’ and catching up on old times.

Tomorrow, the man who scored the famed first period goal, knocking Vladislav Tretiak out of the 1980 Olympic Medal Round game, will coach his alma mater, the top seeded Wisconsin Badgers at this weekend’s NCAA Women’s Frozen Four being held at BU’s Agganis Arena.

Johnson will also be behind the bench next February in Vancouver as the Head Coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team. He’ll get a pretty good look at some of the talent he’ll either have at his disposal, or will have to game plan for in 11 months time during his stay in ‘The Hub of Hockey’.

His goaltender, Jesse Vetter (already a U.S. National Team member) boasts an NCAA record 13 shutouts this season. She has an absolutely stellar 30-2-5 record with a G.A.A of 1.33 and a save percentage of .936 during the regular season.

That’s just part of the story.

The Badger coach may or may not see Kim Martin, the UMD goaltender, who against all odds, shocked the U.S. Team as a member of Team Sweden in Torino. Injured since January, she is one of three goaltenders who Bulldogs Head Coach Shannon Miller could use in Friday’s semifinal.

“There are so many great players where you can come to an event like this and see some of the best female hockey players in the World,” Miller said of the talent level at the Frozen Four. “I think its great because we’re all competing against each other, with the best players on each individual team.

“It’s a great product, Women’s hockey is a great product.”

Junior, Saara Tuominen, is one of five 2006 Olympians, all from Scandinavia, on the Bulldogs roster. She has 12 goals, 20 assists and a +12 on the season. More importantly, she’s well equipped to translate the word rivalry from her native Finnish tongue, as she knows what it’s like to play against Wisconsin.

“It’s always big in hockey when you play Wisconsin. It’s always great hockey when we play, I’m excited.”

The Badgers and the Bulldogs have met five times this season wish Wisconsin holding the 2-1-1 edge, but UMD beat Wisconsin 4-0 in last year’s National Championship and lost only one player. The Badgers beat the Bulldogs 4-1 in 2007.

“We only lost one player from last year,” Tuominen said. “We have some great kids and like coach said, its all about having fun. We had some struggles early in year, but now we’ve come together as a team.

Meghan Agosta of Mercyhurst by way of Ruthven Ontario, already has a gold medal to her resume and was nominated for the Patty Kazmaier Award, which goes to the top player in Women’s College Hockey. She leads the NCAA in points per game (2.59) and assists per game (1.28) and finished her junior year with 38 goals and 39 assists in 29 games. She’ll be one of several players who will head to the World Championship in Finland just days after the Frozen Four concludes.

“They’re two different hockey clubs, but I love them both,” Agosta said. “When I have to take off to play for Canada, I’m always excited to get back to Mercyhurst, but there’s no feeling quite like representing your country.”

There’s so much to love about this tournament, so many things we don’t see on the men’s side of things. Take Erika Lawler, who was one of three players from New England on Johnson’s Badger squad. She’s the second leading scorer on her team with 18 goals, but her 41 assists lead the nation.

The Cushing Academy graduate is happy to be home, but her teammates have found something awfully alluring about the big city nature of Downtown Boston.

“Everyone’s really excited to be here with all the shopping,” Lawler said.

Speaking of shopping, Haley Irwin, another UMD standout was on a shopping trip when she got the call to play for the Canadian National Team in a few weeks. The 20 year-old from Thunder Bay has never played for Team Maple Leaf in a World Championship, or a Four Nations Cup. She’s currently second on her club with 22 goals and 22 assists in 38 games.

And while BU Head Coach Jack Parker may see a vein or two burst with all of the shopping talk at his rink, I’m sure not to many of Jack’s players would say this.

“When you look at this tournament, it’s just hockey,” Agosta said. You’re here to go to school, get an education and I think that’s the big picture of playing College Hockey … the education.”

Johnson agrees, noting the balance between academics and athletics attracts his athletes to spend four years in Madison.

“I think in the recruiting process, you’re trying to find talent to win hockey games,” Johnson said. “Both on the athletic side and the academic side. It helps to find the right balance, and in a player like Erika Lawler’s case, I don’t think she was going to duplicate that at any other place.”

At Wisconsin, one of those things that won’t be duplicated will be when both Badger hockey clubs play outdoor games at Camp Randall Stadium next February.

“If you have 80,000 people at that game,” Johnson said. “What a great opportunity it will be for our kids. I don’t think people want to miss that.

Of course the irony is, Johnson will probably miss that game, to be with the U.S. National Team in Vancouver, helping to expose the sport on a grander scale.

“After winning a gold medal in Nagano, women’s hockey grew in the U.S.,” Johnson said. “The same thing happened in 2002 and it seems as if we can expose our sport, not only nationally, but to pockets of the country where people might see their first Women’s Hockey Game, as they did in Madison several years ago. A lot of people will be hooked.”

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