March 9, 2011
MADISON, Wis. – Brianna Decker knew that the UW women’s hockey team was going to be bolstered this season by the return of its Olympians: Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan. What she didn’t know was how she was going to react to being tossed on the same line with Duggan, the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Was there any chance that Decker would be in awe of Duggan?
“Yeah, definitely,” Decker said.
The irony is that Duggan felt the same way.
“I was in awe of her at the beginning of the year,” Duggan said. “I saw her at the captain’s practice and I thought to myself a couple of times, ‘I hope coach (Mark Johnson) puts her on my line because it would be great to play with someone as talented as she is.’”
Decker is a sophomore from Dousman, a product of Shattuck-St. Mary’s (Faribault, Minn.).
Duggan is a senior from Danvers, Mass., a product of Cushing Academy (Ashburnham, Mass.).
They are worlds apart in hockey – Decker has yet to tap fully into her vast potential, while Duggan continues to be among the most accomplished players in the sport.
Who knew that they would mesh so well together?
Besides Mark Johnson, that is.
“Their chemistry has just grown,” he said.
And it all started to come together in training camp. “Coach put us a on line right away,” Decker said, “and that kind of made me feel like, ‘I’ve got to show her what I’ve got.’”
She got game. “She’s been able to score at all her levels and that’s very intriguing about her,” Johnson said. “She’s been able to get the puck in the net. In our business, that’s a good thing.”
Decker is tied for second in team scoring with Knight. Both have 76 points. Decker leads the Badgers in game-winning goals with 11. Knight has eight. Duggan, the overall points leader, has five.
“She’s one of the best things that have happened to our team this year,” Duggan said of Decker’s emergence as a scoring threat. But did she have the feeling they would click as linemates?
“I honestly didn’t know,” Duggan admitted. “It’s one of those things where sometimes the chemistry works with players and sometimes it doesn’t. I think we have a great respect for each other.
“We’ve gone through a couple of different wingers but we’ve stuck together since the first game, which is awesome. We walk into the locker room every day and we’re excited to step on to the ice with each other and work on new things and challenge each other to be better.”
What does Duggan admire most about Decker? “She’s an incredible workhorse,” she said. “She’s super competitive and really feisty. I think that’s what makes her such a great player. I’m excited to see what she’s going to do in the next couple of years. She’s already a dynamic force in the league.”
At a recent press conference, Johnson outlined some of Decker’s strengths, citing a goal that she scored against St. Cloud which – he says – set her apart from other players in college hockey today.
“There’s a scrum going on just to the right of our bench,” Johnson said, picking up the play-by-play, “and there’s three or four players in there trying to compete for the puck. All of a sudden, she comes away with it after a 15-second battle, takes it hard to the net, and puts it top shelf.”
Johnson has been impressed by Decker’s “sheer strength, competitiveness and ability to want the puck.” Translated, he said, “If you’re going to take it from me, well, I’m going to get it right back.”
Decker doesn’t know any other way to play. “My mom has told me the same thing, ‘You don’t let people take the puck away from you,’” Decker said. “Growing up with three brothers (two older), I never wanted to get beat, so I’ve been competitive my whole life.”
That helps explain her feistiness on the ice. “He (Johnson) doesn’t like the scraps in front of the net after the whistle blows,” conceded Decker. “I’ve learned to stay out of that.”
Johnson doesn’t want his players wasting motion or burning energy without results. “We all want our athletes to work hard,” he said. “But there’s also a point where you have to work smart.”
Message received. “I keep that in the back of my head when I’m playing,” Decker said. “I just can’t be running around the ice. I have to think about the situation.”
Confidence plays a role in Decker’s game. “It’s a huge deal,” she said. “If you have confidence going into a faceoff – if you have that feeling, ‘I’m going to win’ – there’s a better chance you will.”
Of course, it always helps to have Duggan on your side if that confidence wanes at all. “Megan will say, ‘Hey, good play out there,’” Decker related. “And that lifts you up a little bit.”
Johnson was hoping the return of Duggan and Knight would impact the younger players in a positive fashion, and it has. “If you want to get better,” he said, “you just have to watch those two.”
That has been the case for Decker, whose daily growth has been influenced and maybe even accelerated, Johnson said, by the way Duggan and Knight conduct their business, on and off the ice.
“Our whole team looks up to them,” Decker said. “They’ve gone as far as any person can go – they’ve played in the gold medal game of the Olympics. And they show their competitiveness and the commitment that you need to have on the ice during practice.”
Decker is confident that the younger players can learn even more from the Olympians during the postseason by just following their lead. After all, they’ve been there, done that.
But nothing could have prepared the Badgers for their first round draw. What was Duggan’s reaction to being matched against Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA tournament? “I was a little shocked at first because I don’t see them as an eighth seed,” she said. “It took me off guard.”
That aside, what value does Duggan place on experience in March?
“It’s very important,” she said. “I’ve been lucky enough to play in national championship games the last three years of my career here. It’s definitely a new level. There are a lot of things going on, and there are distractions. It’s one-and-done. You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game.”
That’s why Duggan is hoping the Badgers can draw a big crowd Saturday at the Kohl Center. Playing in front of 10,000-plus against Minnesota, she said, “Really fueled the fire for us.”
That flame is burning strong in Duggan and Knight – much to the benefit of their teammates.
By Mike Lucas