With the Winter Olympics fast approaching, three Engineers got the opportunity of a lifetime as the ECAC All-Stars faced the U.S. Women’s Olympic team as part of the Qwest Tour at Quinnipiac University on January 3. Seniors Whitney Naslund and Laura Gersten, along with junior goaltender Sonja van der Bliek, made up the 21-man roster that took on the Olympic team as it prepares for its trip to Vancouver this upcoming February. In addition, Rensselaer Head Coach John Burke was named one of the assistant coaches for the event, managing the defensive side of the ECAC squad.
The Qwest tour is a pre-Olympic tour for the women’s hockey team to warm-up and prepare for international competition in the upcoming winter games. Matchups included both collegiate teams such as the Hockey East All-Stars, the WCHA All-Stars and the University of Minnesota, as well as international opponents such as Team Canada and Team Finland.
“I had never played a hockey game with so many talented players on the ice at one time,” said Gersten. “It was a great feeling to wear the RPI helmet with the ECAC All-Star jersey. Our program has come so far in such a short time, I think it is a real testament to the administration, coaches and players that have played for RPI to have three players selected to the ECAC All-Star team.”
It was an experience like no other for the RPI representatives, with all the skaters meeting up for the first time just the night before. “The first time we met as a team was the night before the game, where we were all formally introduced to each other at a dinner. We didn’t have a chance to practice, so to me it seemed just like a pickup game, only this time it was against the best of the best,” said Naslund.
With the TD Bank Sports Center filled to capacity and an electric vibe in the air, this was no mere pickup game. The Olympians brought their A-game and spared no expenses on the ECAC All-Stars, dominating the match by a score of 8-2. Friends and family of all the players, along with Olympic fans and a horde of youth girl hockey players from the Connecticut Polar Bears Tournament all were on hand to cheer on some of the best female hockey players in the world. Even media outlets such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and USA Hockey were on hand to cover the contest.
Van der Bliek opened the game as the starting goaltender, blocking nine shots in the first period of play. “I was very honored to be selected as an ECAC All-Star because the ECAC is an extremely competitive league with tons of talented players,” said van der Bliek of her starting role. A true testament to the difficulty of the conference could be seen with a quick glance at the Olympic roster: Julie Chu, Caitlin Cahow, and Angela Ruggierio, all Harvard graduates, were stand-out performers on the night. Van der Bliek noted that playing against Olympians “wasn’t drastically different but it was interesting to play against some full-grown women who play internationally and who have been preparing for the 2010 Olympics.”
One of the biggest differences Naslund observed between normal collegiate play was how coherently the Olympians worked together. “The Olympic team is not only full of highly talented players. They work as a unit and do not seem to make many mistakes. I think the biggest difference is that they consistently do the little things needed to be successful. They are noticeably stronger and are players who make the most of every opportunity to exploit an opposing team’s mistake.”
Even though the All-Star team was thrown together without a single practice beforehand, and with many rivals now as teammates for this single game, it was an unforgettable event. “It was a great experience to collaborate with some of the best players from all of our rival teams,” said van der Bliek. “After getting to know a few of the girls from different teams, I do hold a certain level of respect for them and am even more excited to play against them in upcoming games.”
Naslund agreed, noting that it was a great opportunity to meet some of the opponents she has faced over the years. “It was a lot of fun playing with members of rival teams because we all already have a mutual respect for each other. I was already friends with a few players and was able to make new friends with some of the others I didn’t know previously.”
“The two days there was an overall amazing experience,” said Gersten, elated despite the loss. “When we walked into the locker room they had name plates on our stalls. It was great to be able to share the experience with two of my teammates and also one of my best friends that I grew up playing hockey with at Troy/Albany Ice Cats. We never thought we would play another game together, and to be able to share it with her was unbelievable. Our whole team traveled to Quinnipiac to watch us play, even though the roads were terrible. I couldn’t thank them enough for being so supportive. I knew no matter if I made a good play or a bad play they were there to support us on the ice.”
Despite falling 8-2 in the game, it was a positive and fun experience for all those who earned the chance to participate, as well as the full house on hand to witness the event. Throughout the game and post-game ceremonies, players from both teams could be seen beaming with happiness and smiles all around. “Just being there itself is a great memory, and being on the ice with some of the top players in the world,” explained van der Bliek. “It was also great to know that the majority of my team was in the stands supporting Whit, Laura and me.”