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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Olympic Feature

Thatcher has been stimulated by surroundings

Karen Thatcher is anything but a cheat, as is indicated by the three Hockey East sportsmanship awards she reeled in from 2004 to 2006.

So maybe not so unexpectedly, when asked about the irony of starting her post-collegiate endeavors so soon after the 2006 Olympics, right on the outskirts of the Games’ next host city of Vancouver, and ultimately landing a passport to that tournament with Team USA, the PC women’s hockey alumna refrained from forging any stretched anecdotes.

Yes, she was right there playing with the British Columbia Breakers. She even went so far as to transplant her possessions from her lifelong New England home to nearby Blaine, Wash., which she continues to cite as her hometown.

And yes, after a few more developmental journeys to southern Ontario and the Twin Cities, she happens to be competing in her adopted home region again this weekend in the ultimate international event.

But Thatcher insists that, at first anyway, she was fixated on the present after she snagged her degree at The Dunk and transitioned from college hockey to the Western Women’s League.

“To tell you the truth, when I made the decision to go play for the Breakers, I wasn’t thinking about the Olympics at all,” she said recently. “I was just looking for a nice place to play, a nice place to train, and just trying to find the best situation for me.”

Thatcher admitted that her gig with the Breakers was designed to be brief (she says she had an eye on medical school). And it was, lasting all of 26 games wherein she charged up 19 goals and 17 assists. But once she was summoned to don the Star-Spangled Sweater for the 2006 Four Nations Cup, “all plans” for an early life after hockey “were negated.”

Whilst joining the Americans in most every event possible since then, Thatcher briefly sought thicker ice in suburban Toronto with the Vaughn Flames of the National Women’s League for the 2007-08 season. She then devoted a portion of last year to the Minnesota Whitecaps before plowing through every phase of the Team USA Qwest Tour en route to the Olympics, which will commence today with a 3:00 EST face-off versus China.

Regardless, it all traces to and from the Lower Mainland, which is one simple customs commute away from Thatcher’s Washington town.

“I love the Vancouver area,” Thatcher said. “It presented me with a really great opportunity in a really great area.

“It’s just very fortunate for me that the Olympics are being played there because, over the last few years, to see the buildup and to the see the new construction and to see the excitement in that area with the Olympics right around the corner has really helped my work ethic, my passion, and my drive to make the final cut, and now try to bring home a gold medal.”

Star-struck as a senior
When she was still at PC, where she aggregated 132 points in 100 games over three years after transferring from Brown in the summer of 2003, Thatcher was one of those who swung and missed a little less noticeably at a passport to Torino.

Friartownies will remember 2006 more vividly as the year they were left to accept the fact that, for the first time in its three Olympic dances, the paramount stage of women’s hockey would not include any PC products. Six veterans had already hung up their blades, 2004 graduate and international newbie Kelli Halcisak came only within tasting distance of a roster spot, and the revered Cammi Granato was controversially cut.

But two months before the Torino tourney, those who would constitute Team USA had a friendly with a conglomeration of Hockey East All-Stars at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center. Thatcher, who accompanied college teammates Jana Bugden and Sonny Watrous and head coach Bob Deraney to that game, was awarded the WHEA captaincy and took three of her team’s 12 registered shots in a not-too-shabby 5-2 loss.

For her, it was a turning point that renewed her appetite for international glamour. As such, it would also mark a hidden U-turn towards ultimately replenishing PC’s presence in the Olympics.

“That was a unique experience for me that definitely bolstered my dreams of becoming an Olympian,” Thatcher recalls. “I had missed the Olympic tryouts that previous summer due to elbow surgery and had almost abandoned my childhood dream.

“Playing in that game, seeing the jerseys emblazoned with “USA,” and the thrill of competing at that caliber rekindled the dream and pushed me to continue to pursue my hockey career.”

But if directly confronting the Olympians and subsequently living in the shade of the Games’ next host city were two blows of reinforcement, then Thatcher’s ignition was sparked even earlier by the “Carpe Diem” atmosphere she felt when walking in the depths of Schneider Arena.

Thatcher, who will vie to become the eighth former Friar to drape a medal over her USA jersey and the first such player to have been recruited in the Deraney Era, was quick to cite the program’s “Tradition of Excellence” slogan.

That, and her ex-teammate Sarah Youlen’s proclamation, which is now immortalized on the dressing room walls: “Those who came before us have done excellently. Our goal is to surpass them all.”

“This is a quote that I have taken with me in everything I’ve done,” Thatcher said. “I feel it articulates the notion of tradition and respect that I value very highly.”

Of the seven gold medalists from the icebreaking Nagano tournament in 1998, she remarked, “I would not have had the opportunities in my sport without these remarkable women and their road-paving attitudes.

“Every time I pulled on a jersey with the Friars’ logo on the front, I did my best to make them proud. It is because of their work that I was able to wear that jersey.

“As Sarah's quote implies, they paved the way for us. It is our job to continue their legacy by further developing the women's game at Providence and beyond. And it’s for that reason that I am proud to represent Providence at the 2010 Olympics.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com