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women's college hockey notebook

Winter Olympics will lead to a temporary talent drain in women’s college hockey

The Wukesong Centre in Beijing will be used as a venue for Olympic hockey.WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

Jim Plumer kept a close eye on the recent International Ice Hockey Federation final Olympic qualification tournament. It presented a pickle for the Vermont women’s hockey coach.

Several of his players were trying to earn spots in February’s Beijing Games. If they were successful, then the Catamounts would be without them for the final weeks of the regular season. On the other hand, it would mean they were going to the Olympics, a lifelong dream for several.

It was a true college hockey first-world problem.

“It is truly an honor to have current players play in the Olympics, and this is a good problem to have,” said Plumer.

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Hockey East is uniquely impacted by this year’s Olympic schedule, more so than other conferences. Plumer’s squad along with Maine, Merrimack, Providence, and Northeastern all have players who are either already named to their countries’ Olympic teams or are excellent candidates. Many European squads do not centralize their teams, meaning they do not bring their players together until closer to the Games.

The US and Canada work differently, pulling their teams together months in advance to train, removing players from their usual team situation. Their college or professional teams plan for their Olympic-bound players to be away for the entire season.

Qualification takes place via the Women’s World Championships and several tournaments. For the 2018 Games, the last tournaments occurred a year earlier, in February 2017. This go-round, pandemic woes pushed that final qualification opportunity to Nov. 11-14, creating just about a two-month turnaround for any players who made it. Vermont, Maine, Providence, Merrimack, and Boston University all had players who left.

“The unique challenge about this season was the uncertainty of having the Olympic qualifiers in the same season as the Olympics, and having players from two different countries that were vying for those spots and us not knowing if they would qualify or not,” said Plumer.

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“But in the same sense, we did know they would be gone in November and we had a chance to plan and prepare for their absence and have other players have the opportunity to step up.”

The Czech Republic, Denmark, and Sweden snagged the last three Olympic spots, meaning Plumer has to prepare to be without Natálie Mlýnková and Tynka Pátková from mid January until late February, and Merrimack will lose Dominika Laskova. Denmark will call upon two players from Maine, Michelle Weis and Amalie Andersen, and Sweden will pull Providence’s Sara Hjalmarsson. Vermont may also have Sini Karjalainen on the Finnish team, though its roster has not been finalized.

Previous qualifier Switzerland will call upon Northeastern standout Alina Mueller for her third Olympic opportunity. In 2014, Mueller became the youngest women’s hockey player to win an Olympic medal at age 15.

Mueller was injured for approximately a month earlier this fall, giving Huskies coach Dave Flint a chance to figure out what a February lineup would look like without her.

“We’re just going to do what we did then, and try to make do without her,” said Flint.

This Olympic season has Hockey East coaches on their toes, but for their programs’ long-term success, it’s worth it.

“We will really have a rooting interest in the Olympics this year, and that is really exciting,” said Plumer.

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Cancel those plans

Northeastern’s trip to the World University Games in Lucerne, Switzerland, scheduled for Dec. 11-21, is off after the event was canceled by organizers. In an announcement Monday morning, event organizers said that the “highly dynamic developments in the pandemic and related incoming travel restrictions” would prevent the games from going on.

The Huskies’ men’s team was also slated to attend.

The cancellation takes an international opportunity away from the Huskies, especially those like goaltender Aerin Frankel and defender Skylar Fontaine, both of whom many felt should have been centralized for the US Olympic team.

Despite the disappointment, the Huskies will use the cancellation wisely.

“We are going to use it as time off, a little reset button,” said Flint. “We are a little banged up, a little sick. It’s been a long first half of the season.”