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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Hockey: Thatcher well-tuned for a Qwest

In hindsight, seeing where she currently sits in the aftermath of coach Mark Johnson and Co.'s painstaking selection all-nighter over Sunday/Monday, Karen Thatcher has been granted a considerable cushion via fate and fortune.

With a once 41-member roll call of U.S. Women's Olympic prospects now slimmed to 23 -and with two lockers still needing to be vacated by December- the 2006 PC graduate is essentially both the eldest of the newbies and the youngest of the elders. At age 25, she is the eldest among a rash of forwards who shall pursue their first taste of Olympic ice in the forthcoming Qwest Tour.

And with a cumulative 35 games wearing the Star-Spangled Sweater at other levels and tournaments, she is easily one of the more internationally seasoned players in that same department of neophytes.

Thatcher could not be reached for comment in time for this report, but while addressing the general public yesterday, veteran teammate Julie Chu offered an indirect, though dead-on assessment of her impact.

"I think that 2006 was a bit of a turnover with younger players coming into a situation where, in the past, as a younger player you were on the third or fourth line to kind of get your feet wet," remarked Chu -who saw action in Salt Lake in 2002 and Turin in 2006- during yesterday's assembly in Blaine, Minn. after the Qwest Tour roster was disclosed.

"But (instead) we had players that would come in and become impact players, play on the first or second line, and play critical roles. And it was incredible to see these younger players really take a hold of it and make (themselves) part of the team. So they're the veteran players now."

No question, Thatcher falls under that roomy roof of fast-produced vets. During the Turin Games, one will recall, she was wrapped up in the climax of her final campaign in the Divine City. Upon grabbing her degree at The Dunk, though, she proceeded to fill one of the many new openings in the USA program. That subsequent autumn, she would be one of nine relatively new players to take part in the Four Nations Cup as their first non-U22 competition.

And now, all nine of those players -plus six others who arrived even later, including freshly graduated New Hampshire Wildcat Kacey Bellamy and contemporary Boston College Eagles Molly Schaus and Kelli Stack- were all still standing when the cuts were made yesterday. Conversely, a mere six skaters come in with prior Olympic experience.

Of course, like everybody else, Thatcher still has to ensure she is not one of those last two prospects filtered out between now and the conclusion of the tune-up tour, an unlikely but unpleasant fate that infamously befell fellow Friar alumna and established folk hero Cammi Granato prior to the last Olympic tourney in 2006. That still-debated moved effectively equaled a hiatus in PC influence on the American squad.

But conventional wisdom assumes that between seven defenders and 13 strikers, only one personality from each of those positions will be rooted out. And Thatcher does boast the aforementioned advantage of experience dating back to the start of the program's 2006 overhaul as well as a gold-fingered semipro resume.

Beyond her time with USA Hockey, Thatcher's profile tells of a sparkling rookie year with the British Columbia Breakers in 2006-07 (42 points in 26 games), followed by a Canadian Women's League championship with the Vaughn (Ont.) Flames in 2008, followed by a Women's Western League banner with the Minnesota Whitecaps this past spring.

That is to say nothing of the back-to-back gold medals she has soaked in at the latest two World Championships.

Again, there are no guarantees concerning the events of the next calendar year. But Thatcher's enticing resume and crisp performance at the National Festival does assure her a chance to switch roles for the next USA-Hockey East All-Star contest.

Recall that in the first of those games back in December of 2005, a fall-from-ahead 5-2 falter for the Hockey Easterners, Thatcher consituted part of the starting line and led her one-day squad with three of their 12 shots on net.

She was just short of the international border at the time, though not far off. She has stridden smoothly beyond that line in the three-plus years since then and can now vie to help the Americans' regain their regal posture.

Not to mention, help replenish the customary presence of Providence on the world's topmost stage.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Go ahead, continue to dream
Hockey East at Fenway hardly a be-all-end-all for non-goers

Whether any individual members concerned will divulge it or not, it is safe to assume that both sects of the Friar Puck program, along with twelve other men's and women's Hockey East teams, felt at least a momentary knee-jerk sting -one worse than taking a shot to the unpadded back of one's leg- upon realizing they were not among the selections to partake in next year's Fenway Ice Fest.

On the men's end, so much for that initial suggestion that they were going to link up with Boston College, Boston University, and Vermont for a two-day mini-tournament.

As for the Skating Sorority, they know they were the odd women out when it came down to three logical finalists for the women's matchup. Just look at the historical facts: PC spawned it's women's program in 1974, New Hampshire in 1977, and Northeastern in 1980. The other five conference members didn't come about until the mid-90s or later.

Furthermore, tough as it may be for any non-Hubbers to concede, the league was implicitly compelled to include at least one Boston school in both games here. And if this had been arranged, say, four years ago, at the height of PC's postseason dominance, the Friars surely would have tipped the scale their way. Instead, in the years since, Wildcat Blue has come to be the new Friar Black, hence New Hampshire's wild card entry to Fenway.

It's indubitably hard to understand for those who know that the PC-UNH rivalry has always offered the NCAA women's answer to Canadiens-Maple Leafs of the NHL's Golden Era. But again, Northeastern is in the heart of Boston, current parts of its campus formerly housed the Red Sox in baseball's Mesozoic pre-Fenway era, so it's just the way the puck bounced.

Luckily, Hockey East is commissioned by Joe Bertagna, who admitted during last week's formal event declaration that he had been pitching for this for at least five years and, furthermore, envisions many more of its kind down the road.

"There is potential to make this an annual event," Bertagna said Thursday in a league-issued video feature. "And in doing so, other members of the Hockey East family can take part in the future."

If that is to be done, it is plain to see that all collegiate parties interested would have to strike out on their own, for an NHL Winter Classic can only come around about as often as an All-Star Game. Conversely, as the University of Wisconsin makes equally clear with its Camp Randall Classic doubleheader slated for February, it can be done without borrowing a professional pond.

As a matter of fact, it is even better that way when you consider the added flexibility. NHL chieftain Gary Bettmann is adamant about holding every Winter Classic on New Year's Day, meaning you most likely will never see the Bruins borrowing the Foxboro Snowglobe -aka Gillette Stadium.

But if a handful of teams from any other level ever wanted to reserve a couple of dates in February -well into the Patriots' offseason- they would have nothing to lose. And as all geographically technical Ocean Staters can never point out too much, Providence is a slightly quicker trek to Foxboro than Boston itself.

Grin, grin. Wink, wink. Say no more?

Actually, there is more to be said. Two other WHEA tenants who fell short of a Fenway passport -namely Boston College and Connecticut- also happen to boast New England's two most recognizable college football venues. Both BC's Alumni Stadium and UConn's Rentschler Field pack a 40,000-plus seating capacity and would make naturally fertile grounds to draw a little more attention to the budding women's editon of the BC-BU rivalry, or the Battle of Southern New England, or even the PC-BC Catholic Clash.

For the Friars specifically, there aren't as many qualitative options for the own outdoor site. All of the locally renowned gridirons are home to a nonconference rival from other sports, and the 10,000-plus seat McCoy Stadium might as well make for a "Pack the House Night at the Dunk" with no roof.

But never say never. And to take a hack at a journey to the Dunk -the piteously former site of the defunct Coffee Pot Tournament- wouldn't necessarily be such a spendthrift place to start.

Nudge, nudge. Dream, dream.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com