|Senior Tribute, Part I|
Six Gophers put the finishing touches on their careers this March. In the space below, they'll share some thoughts with us during their last semester as college hockey players.
(Photos courtesy of the University of Minnesota)
Students enroll in a university, and in the course of their years there, undergo many transformations. Of course, they earn degrees and learn a multitude of facts in their chosen fields of study. They learn how to survive on their own, many living away from home for the first time.
And in the case of student athletes, sometimes the senior version bears little resemblance to the player that first competed in year one. A case in point is senior defenseman Alexandra Zebro.
“I’m really excited to see her develop into the player that we felt that she could be,” Coach Brad Frost said. “Had some tough stretches over the last three years, particularly last year when she wasn’t dressing a lot. [She is] logging some great minutes for us, both 5-on-5, 4-on-4, PK, and PP.”
“It’s been stepping stones,” Zebro said. “I’ve learned a lot, and I’m very happy about everything I’ve experienced. I feel like I’m a better person now than I was four years ago. I’m excited to see what is next; I’m excited for playoffs and everything.”
Sometimes the improvement is so gradual that an observer doesn’t notice until the finished product is compared to the original. On other occasions, the progress is so dramatic that one can almost witness the player’s game ascending to the next level. Zebro made such an advance in the recent exhibition versus Team USA. She had been on the ice for only seconds when the US scored their first goal, but she recovered to get her team on the scoreboard before the period ended.
“The confidence with the puck and just taking it to the net – it has definitely progressed since that game, because the U.S. Team is the best in this country,” Zebro said. “So when we do well there, we know we can dominate in other areas.”
The exhibition stands out for her for another reason.
“That was the most fun game I’ve ever played in,” Zebro said. “It’s something I won’t forget.”
Most importantly, Zebro was able to maintain a high level of play into the following series in Bemidji, where she took part in her first shootout, scoring a key goal to gain two points for the Gophers.
“When [Frost said], ‘are you ready to score?’ I’m like, ‘yeah, I can do it,’” Zebro explains, her expression indicating that she wasn’t entirely convinced herself.
She said a lot of people were surprised to see her take the ice before her first shootout attempt.
“My dad said he almost had a heartattack,” Zebro said. “It’s just skating down and shooting the puck. I’m actually pretty good when nobody is on me. When it’s just me, myself, and the puck, I can do pretty well.”
If others were surprised to see Zebro in that position and enjoying success, her coach was not.
“We always knew that she had it in her, and it was just a matter of finding a way to get that out of her,” Frost said. “Really happy with how she is playing for us.”
For Zebro, it represented a momentary return to skills she displayed often at the previous level.
“In high school, I’d skate the puck a lot, and I’d play a lot of open hockey where everybody takes the puck, they dangle, and everything like that,” she said. “Here, it’s a very different game, especially as a defenseman. You have to play your position very well in relation to everybody else on the ice. You can still rush the puck, but you really need to focus on defense as your number one. It was a lot of fun, and definitely felt like going back to those days.”
Similar to several members of last year’s senior class, Zebro missed several games of her final campaign, in her case due to a knee injury suffered the second weekend.
“Over the past four years, it has been ups and downs,” she said. “I was already kind of used to it, so I didn’t go inward and dwell on it. I just kind of thought, come back stronger, this is a minor setback, all in God’s plan. What can I do as a teammate to help the other teammates and the team as a whole progress? I’ve learned over the years that it really is not about me, it’s about the team, it’s about other people. You find a lot more satisfaction from that.”
Zebro believes that her teammates might describe her as “goofy”.
“I have a lot of energy, so I dance a lot, sing a lot. I love country music, I’m a jokester – got a few corny jokes up my sleeve.”
She also has a serious side, as evidenced by her pursuit of a degree in physiology and mathematics; she isn’t quite sure what she would like to do for a vocation.
“I would like to go to grad school,” Zebro said. “I have a job offer when school is done. It would kind of be in a hockey realm – work with a lot of athletes, be a strength coach, things like that. I really like learning; that’s kind of why I stayed in school. I know I would do it outside of school anyway. Whatever happens, I just want to help people reach their goals, whatever that might be.”
As Jaimie Horton winds down her playing career, she also closes in on her degree in pre physical therapy and kinesiology, a major heard so often around the Gopher team that one can almost get it right without spellchecker. This begs the question – do all these players with like interests sit around talking shop?
“We don’t really talk about it in the locker room, I guess, but it always helps having so many girls [majoring in kinesiology], because they say, ‘Oh, I have had that class, so I can help you with this or help you with that,’” Horton said. “It’s nice to have other people in the same major as you and talk about it, but it’s not like an everyday occurrence.”
“I’m on the older end now, so I guess I don’t have as many people to turn to and ask, ‘What did you take?’ I’m running down here to the end, so I can help the younger girls at this point.”
Where she lacks an answer is to exactly what she will do with her degree.
Horton said, “I still have this semester and next to figure it out. We’ll go from there. Grad school obviously is on the horizon. I haven’t quite decided what direction to go to.”
Horton’s major injury came earlier in her time at Minnesota, as she suffered a broken leg in a summer league before her sophomore year. That would be cause for discouragement to anyone already dealing with the adjustment of playing infrequently as a rookie.
“There was a little bit of it, but it’s a broken leg – can’t really do much about it,” she said. “So I just used that negativity that I had and propelled myself to work at getting back to full strength. I thought I did that and got back to playing, and all was well, all was forgotten.”
That hard work paid off, and Horton went from scoring a single point over her first two seasons to reaching double digits in points as a junior, demonstrating that she could play at the D-I level.
“I’ve never really questioned my choice to come here,” Horton said. “If other people felt it was the wrong choice, then that is their prerogative. I guess double-figure points was a big step, and this year obviously contributing as a regular shifter, not necessarily offensively, but just in the flow of the games.”
She has often been placed in a very difficult role at Minnesota, sitting on the bench for long stretches in games, but needing to be ready when her number is called.
Her coach compares her to former Gopher Jenelle Philipczyk in terms of her speed, understanding of the game, and consistency.
“The thing I like about Jaimie, among many other things, is you know exactly what you’re going to get from her, day in and day out, both in practice and in games,” Frost said. “I think that speaks to her as a person and a hockey player, just that she’s very reliable and trustworthy in all three zones.”
Being regarded as someone who is solid in all three-zones required an adjustment for a player who was the five-time Offensive MVP for her Maple Grove High School team.
“It was definitely a role change, but that’s what you have to expect coming out of high school and coming to this level,” Horton said. “I wasn’t expecting to be a goal scorer, so I worked at what I was needed to be. I guess I just went from there, and [being] defensive was more important than goal scoring, because we have that up front. So I just try to stay away from the negatives and just keep going.”
At present, she doesn’t plan to keep going as a hockey player after this season.
“I’m going to take a break from at least a playing aspect,” she said. “Coaching will always be there if I decide to pursue that.”
She describes herself as someone who is pretty quiet, and doesn’t speak much unless spoke to. So what is Horton like once a person gets the opportunity to know her better?
“I guess I’m kind of a goofball at times – say random things,” she said.
When she gets away from the ice, Horton likes to listen to popular music and the “not so twangy” country, or watch a good chick-flick like “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days”, “The Proposal”, or “The Ugly Truth”. She’s also been known to binge on a bag of chips.
“Me and Melanie Gagnon used to eat a bag together in one sitting,” she said.
When asked for what she’ll take away from her Gopher experience, Horton said, “All the memories: making it to the Frozen Four, beating Wisconsin for the first time in our career was huge.”
And maybe there is room for one final snapshot to capture on the Ridder ice?
“That would be nice, saving all of the glory for the end here at home,” she said. “Hopefully, that’s the best memory that we take away from here.”
While Michelle Maunu’s career at Minnesota has largely been a healthy one and she’s always taken a regular turn on the blue line, it doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some low points. The team slumped badly coming out of the holiday break in her freshman season, culminating in a trainwreck of a series in Duluth in her first opportunity to play in front of fans from her hometown of nearby Esko.
“That definitely wasn’t a very fun series, but I think we learned a lot from it, and obviously we ended up beating them a couple of weeks later,” Maunu said. “I was so excited to go and play in front of all of my family and friends, and then to have, what was it – 5-1 and 7-1. It’s never fun to lose to Duluth in that way.”
That team did rebound, playing its best hockey in the postseason before falling in the WCHA championship to eventual national champion Wisconsin.
“I think you learn a little bit from each year and just how things go,” Maunu said. “I think the biggest aspect is just making sure that we’re prepared for the postseason, and the mindset of making sure that we know that no matter who we are playing, it’s going to be a good game.”
“In playoffs, if you lose, you’re done. That’s a huge thing, that no matter whom we are playing, we need to play our game, and making sure that we’re ready to battle and outwork our opponent.”
This season, Maunu has served as one of the team’s four captains.
“We all take our responsibility very seriously, but we all are willing to step up when needed,” she said.
Maunu, who has Finnish ancestors, has welcomed the opportunity to compete with Finnish teammates this year.
“It’s been awesome,” she said. “When I was in high school, I ended up going to Finland for a hockey camp – there was five people from the U.S. that went. I got to meet a ton of people from different countries, and spend nine or ten days in Finland.”
“To have people from a completely different background than ourselves has been really fun, interesting. You learn a lot. If we ever go to Finland, we have people to see and a place to stay. It’s been awesome getting to know them, and we love having them on the team.”
She has already earned her degree in kinesiology and is pursuing a postgraduate degree in applied kinesiology.
“My plan is to finish my masters program which will probably be next fall,” Maunu said. “You can kind of go into a lot of different things within the sport field, but possibly athletic administration or coaching are my two big things right now. I’m kind of undecided as to which direction I want to take within the sport management field, because there’s a ton of different options. We’re kind of looking into internships, and once I try stuff out a little bit, maybe I’ll find a direction.”
Other parts of her future are undecided as well.
“I want to obviously keep hockey a part of my life,” she said. “I haven’t really thought too much about playing after, besides maybe in leagues and just like that, but I think my competitive career is probably going to come to an end. I’ll miss it, obviously, I love the sport, but there’s a time when everybody has to move on. Who knows – if an opportunity presents itself, I would love to keep playing at some time.”
But for the present, more games remain to be played in Maroon & Gold.
“Michelle came in as a very highly recruited student athlete – great student, played a lot of sports in high school, very good athlete,” Frost said. “I think this year is her best year as well. I think she’s been incredibly consistent for us. She’s played with intensity, played with that fire that we’ve wanted her to play with for a while. It’s real good to see her lead, both on and off the ice, and to see her game really emerge over the last four or five months.”
Maunu says her favorite movie is “Love and Basketball”, Keith Urban is her favorite recording artist, and her favorite junk food is cookie dough.
“I’m usually a pretty happy person, and I try to keep a smile on my face,” she said.
Being a Gopher has made that easier to do over the last four years.
“I don’t think I’d change much about my experience here,” Maunu said. “I’ve had a great experience, and I’ve loved every second that I’ve been here.”
Now those seconds are becoming precious and few.
“The biggest thing that I’m going to miss about this entire experience is the team, and just the friends that I’ve made,” Maunu said. “Just really cherish the moments that you’re here, because it flies by. I’ll hang out with these people and be really good friends with them forever.”
Chelsey Jones’ days as a Gopher are coming to an end, but her studies will continue.
“I’m looking to go into law somewhere in Minnesota or out in New England, Massachusetts maybe,” Jones said. “I really like both of those areas, and I definitely want to stay in a big city. I will start applying in the end of May.”
If she does head to New England, it won’t be the first time; Jones attended Northeastern University for her first two years of college.
“That was my main point when I was going to school – I wanted to be in a big city,” she said. “I happened to go out to Boston first.”
“It was really nice. But you learn a lot along the way. It’s more important to perceive things and understand things than to necessarily be the best at hockey. You learn a lot more from playing, because you learn the teamwork aspect. And you learn a lot of great relationships along the way.”
After two years in Massachusetts, Jones decided to return to her home state, and she regrets neither her decision to go to Boston nor returning home.
“I don’t think a lot of things would have changed (at Northeastern) if I hadn’t have left,” she said. “I really enjoyed the time there, and I still have a lot of really good contact with the girls.”
One thing that has definitely changed has been Jones’ role and production with the Gophers. After a junior season in which she finished with 10 points and only 2 goals, she has doubled her point total this season.
“I think last year was kind of a learning experience for her coming from a team from out east and coming back home,” Brad Frost said. “We actually had very high hopes for her last year, but she got off to such a slow start that she eventually just kind of got buried because other players were playing a little better at the time.”
This season, with the team losing four high-scoring forwards from its roster, there have been expanded roles and expectations for players like Jones.
“I think that there are a lot of people on our team that have taken the opportunity to step up and grasp it,” Jones said. “It’s really nice to see that there is a divided effort where it is dispersed throughout the whole team.”
Though the responsibility may be shared, Jones has contributed more than her share, scoring late third-period gamewinners in key games such as the opener against Syracuse and the regular season finale versus Wisconsin to clinch the WCHA title.
“We have great scorers on our team, but we don’t have just one scorer that you know is going to score in that overtime,” she said. “So when you look in the mirror, we all just look at ourselves and we hold ourselves accountable.”
“We knew she had it in her, and it’s exciting now to see that come out, and see her leadership come out, her goal scoring, and all those things,” Frost said. “She’s been tremendous for us – one of our top penalty killers, on the power play, and logging a lot of minutes.”
Thos contributions have enabled the team to make another run to the NCAA tournament.
“Last year’s team was a great team, but this year’s team has a team cohesiveness,” Jones. “We get along very well, and everyone is on a similar playing ability. We really enjoy being in the same locker room and spending a lot of time together.”
The team shares a lot of things, including selection of the music one hears pulsing in the corridor outside that locker room.
“I do feel like I put my iPod in a lot,” Jones said. We like to hear country and do sing-a-longs before the game to get pumped up.”
Jones doesn’t have to think long before proclaiming a “McDouble, no onions” to be her favorite junk food. Perhaps that is an example of why she claims her teammates would describe her as “aggressive”.
She plans to be spending time in locker rooms even after her playing days are over.
“I feel like I’ll always be involved in the game,” Jones said. “I currently coach now, a couple of different programs throughout the metro area, along with some other good coaches. I’d like to see myself still be doing that in a few years down the road.”
As one of only two Canadians on the current Gopher roster, Brittany Francis had a prime opportunity to talk some smack when the Canada earned two hockey gold medals at the Vancouver Olympics in February.
“I don’t usually talk too much about that, unless somebody is making fun of me for Canada or something,” Francis said. “I just think I’m pretty outnumbered around here. But I’m proud of it, I’m very proud of it. I was very excited, but it’s hard to be excited when everybody else is pissed off.”
Francis knows that a player doesn’t want to alienate her teammates, because she’ll need them to have her back. Coach Frost introduced some humor into a January Chalk Talk when he showed a clip of Francis provoking a pair of MSU players before retreating to safety behind her teammates, notably Emily West.
“Westy is kind of like my little protector,” Francis said. “Even though she’s a very little girl, she’s tough. I’m not very much of an enforcer. We joke about it all the time.”
If Francis isn’t much of a pugilist, she has more than enough strengths in her game to compensate.
“She’s somebody that does the little things as good as anybody,” Frost said. “If you were to watch a game, she wouldn’t stand out to you necessarily, as a general fan. But if you’re a hockey fan, you notice just how she puts the puck into open space, and she’s got good vision and capitalizes a lot on her opportunities.”
A fan wouldn’t have to look beyond the biggest win of Minnesota’s season to see an example of one those “little things” producing a big result. With the Gophers and Clarkson tied 2-2 in overtime, Francis’ relentless fore-checking pressure caused a turnover that West turned into the gamewinner that advanced their team to the Frozen Four.
“She’s just a positive girl with a very good attitude, who has done just great things for us very consistently throughout her four years,” Frost said.
Well-rounded players with a good overall knowledge of the game seem to be common products of the Canadian youth system.
“I’ve had amazing coaches growing up in Canada, especially the one in Toronto was just really smart,” Francis said. “He just really drove that into us, not to throw away the puck. But we just try to work hard; we try to battle. We play so much, all the time, in Canada everyone is always playing hockey, and that’s kind of all we talk about.”
When it came time to talk about where she would play her college hockey, Francis looked across the border to Minnesota.
“I remember watching the U of M play Duluth when I was like 16 in Duluth,” she said. “I remember I really liked Duluth at that point. I thought both teams played really well, and I think Duluth won that game, so I was more going toward their side. I came on a visit here, and I fell in love with the place. The team was so much fun. I was rooming with Bobbi Ross and Whit Graft on my visit, and I had a blast with them.”
“I’m so thankful I came here. I made a pretty rash decision; I came, and I committed the next day. I’m so glad that I did, because I don’t think I could have had the experience I’ve had going anywhere else.”
Francis claims a sweet tooth for candy as long as it’s not chocolate, and says she enjoys listening to music with a beat.
“I listen to a lot of country, lots of pop, hip-hop, whatever.”
She hopes to attend graduate school for nutrition.
“I’ve started looking into it. I think I’ll apply to a bunch of Canadian universities, because it would just be a lot more expensive for me to come here. University of B.C., University of Toronto, University of Guelph, University of Winnipeg – there are only five or six that actually have the program. So I’ll be applying to all those, and whoever accepts me …”
“I’d like to be a sports nutritionist,” Francis said. “I’d like to work with maybe a pro team or a college like this. I think it would be a lot of fun.”
Perhaps no player in Gopher history has made accelerating by an opponent look more effortless than Kelli Blankenship.
“Blanks is one of those players that as a fan when you watch, you’re going to notice her because of her speed,” Coach Frost said. “She’s one of the fastest players in the league. When she uses her feet, and uses her speed and gets out wide, you see great things happen like against Team USA with those goals.”
Blankenship made the most of her skating ability and racked up a hat trick in an exhibition against the United States team as they prepared for the Olympics, when most college teams were struggling to produce multi-goal efforts.
“I definitely showed some of that against Team USA,” Blankenship said. “I know I have the potential, and I know it is inside of me. That goes back to a lot of the mental preparation that I need to do, because with me, it is all mental.”
Of course for any student athlete, the mental piece is a huge element of success in college. In Blankenship’s case, she faced the added challenge of coping with dyslexia, and that figured in her selection of Minnesota.
“Before I came, I was looking at some schools on the East Coast, because my parents would like to come to some games and stuff, and it would have been a lot easier for them,” she said.
“When I came to Minnesota, I loved all the people, I loved the campus, and the school had a lot of support. I knew right away that this was the place I wanted to be. It met every expectation I had, especially as a student athlete here at the ‘U’. I have no regrets.”
The downside to attending a mid-western school for a student from the East is that Blankenship was a long way from family during emotional times such as former equipment manager Bonnie Olein’s death during Kelli’s sophomore year or her brother’s illness while she was a senior. Being part of a close-knit team was invaluable.
“It means a lot,” Blankenship said. “Bonnie – we were all there for her no matter what. When you’re a teammate here at the ‘U’, especially for the women’s team here, when it comes to those kinds of things, it’s more than just being a teammate. You’re family, you’re a sister. That’s huge too, because I know I have 22 teammates and sisters who are going to have my back.”
Several times as the season wound down, the Gophers got to give those bonds a little extra test on the ice, playing overtime on five straight weekends, including three times in tournament play. Included was the longest game in Gopher history, a triple OT triumph in the WCHA tournament over Minnesota State.
“It was a lot of fun,” Blankenship said. “When we’re in the locker room, there’s just this feeling that we’re going to win. I feel that every single person in that locker room knew that we were going to come out on top.”
Her tastes in music are definitely diverse.
“I like listening to anything that sounds good,” Blankenship said. “I like listening to classical music when I’m studying. I like to listen to punk rock every now and then. I like to listen to a little bit of rap. It just depends what kind of mood I’m in.”
Her favorite snack is cake or cupcakes with milk. Milk, rich in calcium for strengthening teeth and bones, makes sense given what she has chosen for a vocation.
“I do want to go into dentistry, dental hygiene,” she said. “Getting my braces was very important to me, and it was very special to me because I had a big gap in my teeth. I didn’t like it; I didn’t like people looking at it. I just want to give back. I want to help out people and meet a lot of new people on my way.”