BEDFORD — By seniority and stature she’s the grande dame of the US women’s ice hockey team. Julie Chu is 31, the oldest skater on the squad by four years.
“They give me a hard time about that sometimes,” Chu says. “Grandma or Mom comes out. But when you step on the ice, it gets wiped away.”
When she puts on the helmet, Chu gets no matriarchal deference from her star-spangled colleagues and expects none. She may have three Olympic and nine world medals on her resume, but that doesn’t mean she’ll get an automatic pass for the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, nor does she want one.
“I don’t believe in favoritism,” Chu says flatly. “You earn your spot. That’s one of the things about the Olympics that is special. It’s one of those things that has to be earned. It’s not given to anyone.”
There are 12 forwards on the training roster and the 11 or 12 who best fit the puzzle will be named to the five-ringed roster on New Year’s Day at the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“You’ve got to have a role and if you don’t have a role, you don’t have as much value,” says coach Katey Stone. “They’re all great kids and they’re all great hockey players, but we’re trying to create the best team, not an All-Star team. So we’ve got to make sure that in the end whoever is on this team can do multiple things for us.”
This will be the most difficult US team to make since the women’s sport was added to the Games in 1998. A dozen of the candidates earned silver medals in Vancouver in 2010 and 19 collected gold at this year’s world championships in Ottawa. When the final 21-player roster (18 skaters, three goalies) is announced, two exceptional players will be left home and Chu understands that she could be one of them.
“Every year there’s no guarantees,” she says. “It always makes me chuckle when somebody says, ‘Aw, you’ve already been there, you’re a shoo-in.’ I say, there’s plenty of stories where people get cut from one season to the next. Every year there’s been one.”
Chu saw that close up during the summer before the 2006 Games when Cammi Granato, a future International Hall of Famer who’d captained the previous two teams, and Shelley Looney, who’d scored the winning goal against Canada in the Nagano final, both were let go.
Only two players have made four US Olympic teams, so Chu, the first Asian-American to wear the jersey, would be making history again if she does.
“If Julie can make this team, I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment,” says Stone, who coached Chu for four years at Harvard.
When she made the decision to continue for a fourth quadrennium, Chu understood that she could be one of the odd-women out, but the allure of another Olympic journey was irresistible.
“My body was still feeling good,” said Chu, who posed fully out of uniform for ESPN’s Body Issue in 2011. “I was enjoying being part of the team. I can still contribute and play at this level. That was ultimately why I continued on this path. It’s been such a fun journey.”
Chu, who’s the only returning member from the 2006 squad, belongs to the first generation of American women who grew up knowing that they could compete at Olympus.
“When it was announced that women’s hockey would be in the Olympics, it was our eureka moment — there’s something really big that we can shoot for,” she says. “Before, my mentality was I’m going to play hockey because I want to play a sport and have fun and OK, maybe I can play in high school one day. Now, this is something I can put as a far distant dream.”
Chu was a freshman at Choate Rosemary Hall, the Connecticut private school, during the 1998 Games when schoolmate Angela Ruggiero was on the team. After the headmaster called for a school holiday so that the students could watch the tape-delayed telecast that morning, Chu and her teammates gathered at a coach’s home.
“I think he knew what the score was, but none of us did,” she recalls. “We watched it as a team and just went as giddy as all could be. I remember being in awe of those players.”
Chu still was in prep school when she found herself suiting up alongside the Granatos and Mleczkos and Kings.
“When I joined the team, I was this starry-eyed kid that had no clue what was going on,” she says. “And any time one of my teammates, who were all superstars in ’98, walked by me I went ‘Ooooohhhhh.’ ”
Chu made the 2002 team, deferring her admission to Harvard, played for the Crimson for three seasons before taking another sabbatical for Turin, then returned to captain the squad and collect the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation’s top collegiate player. By then the rink had her in thrall and Chu became an assistant coach, first at Minnesota Duluth, then at Union.
“There’s not many days when I said it was work,” she says. “I love coaching, I’m like the big kid who still gets to go to work in sweats. Who doesn’t want to do that?”
Coaching has given Chu a deeper appreciation of the complexities of assembling teams, particularly the imperative of present realities when deciding who makes a roster and who does not. While her Olympic medals and the experience that they represent carry undeniable value, they won’t get her to Sochi.
“Julie knows as well as anybody, because we’ve had some very direct conversations, that what was in the past is the past,” Stone says. “She’s going to have to make sure that the present is where she’s the most valuable.”
That means playing solid defense, killing penalties, and winning faceoffs.
“Those are things that we really value here,” says Stone. “Making simple plays that are going to give her team energy, that’s significant. We’re not looking for Julie to make the flashy, sexy plays. That’s not who she is. But she’s going to grind it out, chip pucks, block shots.”
The Americans may be reigning world champions, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll win the gold medal at the Games or even reach the final. This is a game played on a slippery surface with a skittering frozen object. What drew Chu to the ice and has kept her returning is the savor of the process.
“I love this team and I love the Olympic journey and the possibility of putting on that USA jersey,” she says. “That’s why I’m here and why I’m still at it, competing and battling. I like to think that if I empty the tank and it doesn’t end up well, then I’m leaving my team in a better spot and I’ve given them everything I can. Obviously I’m hoping for something different — and I’m working hard every day to make that happen.”