|Meet The Freshmen|
In 2009-2010, six players debut on the Gopher roster. Three of them – defensemen Megan Bozek and Mira Jalosuo, and goaltender Noora Räty – are new to the state of Minnesota as well.
“As far as I can tell, they’re really enjoying it here at the University,” Coach Brad Frost said.
In the previous dozen years of Gopher women’s hockey, 94 players have lettered, with 62 being from Minnesota, another 19 hailing from the rest of the United States, and 13 coming from Canada. Jalosuo and Räty are the first to come to the team from outside North America.
“I always kind of wondered, how would they mesh with the team, but that’s been seamless,” Frost said. “They’re great people, and they fit in really well.”
Bozek comes to the “U” from Buffalo Grove, IL, where she played for the Chicago Mission club team. Bozek and the Mission won the USA Hockey U-19 championship in 2008, so one might think that would be her biggest thrill so far in hockey. Or perhaps the gold medal earned with Team USA at the U-18 World Championships in January. No, she looks back a little farther.
“When I was in fifth grade, I was actually playing boys hockey, and we went up to a tournament in Canada,” Bozek said. “We won the championship, and I got the MVP, and I was the first girl in like the 72-year history of the tournament to get the MVP. That’s one of the things that always makes me smile.”
It requires more than just natural talent to be able to record landmark achievements by age ten. She credits her brothers who are five and two years older with getting her exposed to hockey early, plus teaching her a lot about it along the way. Now, Frost and the Gopher staff are responsible for her continued development.
“Over the summer, he told me things that I needed to work on,” Bozek said. “Obviously that would help the team, and that would help me transition into college. He’s kind of letting me play my game right now, which is being an offensive defenseman.”
Early observations would confirm that Bozek is more likely to initiate the offense than the typical young defenseman.
“We don’t generally put reigns on [our defensemen],” Frost said. “It’s just a confidence level for her. She believes she is good at rushing the puck, which she is. She picks her spots pretty well. Just a strong, powerful skater, so anytime she has that ability and that look to get up ice, we certainly let her do that.”
When searching for where to continue her education and hockey career, Bozek was drawn to Minnesota.
“I really liked the coaching staff,” she said. “I think the selling point was the girls on the team. When I came here, everyone was so open, so welcoming. It was just a really good feeling going to a team knowing that you’re welcomed, that you’re going to help them.”
Thus far it has been a symbiotic relationship – she’s helped the team, and their strong start has eased her transition to college life.
“I absolutely love everything,” Bozek said. “Classes are going really well, hockey couldn’t be better, and everyone’s just having fun.
“It helps a lot just knowing at the end of the day that you have a ‘W’ under your belt and everyone is happy. Even if you had a few bad shifts, you still got the two points.”
Though it is still a ways down the road, the kinesiology major has plans for her days after college.
“I want to be a physical therapist,” Bozek said. “I’ve been to physical therapy for the past three years for different things, and I just love going there – even though I have injuries. I love just the concept of helping people, and hopefully being a physical therapist for a sports team.”
For the second straight year, Samantha Downey is adapting to a new school and hockey team. After living in Silver Bay and playing for the Mariners through her junior year, Downey’s family moved to Hermantown and she spent her senior year at the much larger Proctor-Hermantown-Marshall High School.
“Coming from Silver Bay to Duluth it was a big difference; everything was a lot bigger,” she said. “It made it easier meeting new people, and I guess I learned to socialize a little bit more, so coming here was a lot easier.”
Downey narrowed her college choices down to three schools.
“I was looking at North Dakota and Bemidji. I guess the University is known for having a great hockey team and great academics, and I’ve wanted to play here since I was in fifth grade. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
For much of the first semester, Downey skated on the Gopher’s third line.
“It was really nice playing with the third line,” she said. “You got those pretty regular shifts, and I got to see how fast the game was and understand just the way our team plays. Just getting that experience, now I know what it is like. I’ll be ready, hopefully, the next time.”
According to her coach, some acclimation period is typical for players with her background.
“It generally takes our Minnesota high school forwards at least a semester, sometimes longer,” Brad Frost said. “I think Sam and Becky have both fit in very well, however, it’s definitely an adjustment. The pace is different, everybody is bigger, stronger, and faster, and all of a sudden they’re learning new systems and how we expect them to play.”
As Downey attempts to digest the college game, she can observe seniors like Brittany Francis, Kelli Blankenship, and Jaimie Horton, all of whom are in their fourth season as forwards in the Gopher program.
“I look up to them very much,” Downey said. “During practice and games, usually I sit and watch what they do first, and not necessarily imitate it exactly, but I learn from them.”
For the last month of 2009, she had the difficult task of staying ready to hit the ice with her power play unit while not always getting regular shifts when the team was skating 5-on-5.
“My legs tighten up a little, but I guess it is mental,” Downey said. “If you stay focused, you should be able to do it.”
“With Sam, she played center in high school, and we for most of the year have had her at wing, and now we have her back at center, her natural position,” Frost said. “Again, it’s just a big jump with the speed of the game.”
At the same time, Downey has made a smooth transition to other parts of being a college student.
“I absolutely love it. Campus life – it seemed huge when I first came here, but now, you just have your certain classes you go to and it seems smaller. Gopher life, I enjoy it. It’s really nice and I love being around the team and meeting new people.”
After being undecided when she chose Minnesota, Downey has selected a common course of study for Gopher players.
“I decided I’m going to major in kinesiology and become a P.E. teacher,” she said.
When it came time to select a college to continue her studies, Katie Frischmann had varied locations from which to pick.
“The schools I was choosing between were here, Ohio State, and the University of Connecticut,” she said. “I chose to come here because it’s pretty close to home; I live in Rochester, so it’s only an hour and a half. I can see my family and they can come to a lot of the games; my brother plays at Augsburg, so I’m only five minutes away from him.”
“The campus here, and the hockey program, the support staff, everything just felt right. There’s so much opportunity here. It just felt like the right place for me.”
Frischmann played with her high school Rochester Century team as a ninth grader, then competed with the Minnesota Thoroughbreds for the next three years.
“Coming from playing with the Thoroughbreds where the pace is a little faster and there’s a little more intensity in the games, I think she’s made the transition maybe a little smoother than the others,” Coach Frost said.
The move to the Thoroughbreds came at a personal cost.
“The drive was at least an hour and twenty minutes to practice, three or four or five times a week,” Frischmann said. “So if we had an hour practice, I was gone for a good five hours of the night. So coming here, it is kind of nice having my dorm and walking the five minutes to the rink instead of driving the hour and twenty. It was a huge time commitment, but it was the right choice.”
The Gophers usually have at least one player asked to spend part of her season at forward and another portion on defense; this year, Frischmann has inherited that role.
“Sometimes it’s kind of hard; I walk in the locker room and I have a forward jersey hanging [in my locker], the next day it’s D,” she said. “It’s nice to know how to play both. Sometimes it’s hard the first couple of days being back at one or the other, getting back in the swing of that position. It’s not too bad; it is kind of fun to change things up every once in a while.”
Because the team has a full contingent of six full-time defensemen, Frischmann’s place on the line chart has usually been at forward when everyone is healthy. However, she saw her most extensive action of the season on the blue line when Alexandra Zebro was out with an injury.
“It was nice to get some consistent playing time and get a feel for it, and get more comfortable out there. It was nice that when I’m back consistently at D that I’ll know what to expect.”
That would seem to be her position of the future on a team that graduates two defensemen but has signed only one in the next recruiting class.
“That’s what the coaches have told me – the plan right now is that I’ll be back at D next year,” Frischmann said. “As far as a preference, I don’t really care; I think both are fun. I feel more comfortable at D. That is what he originally recruited me as, defense. That’s what I’ve been playing since like seventh grade.”
“She’s handled the role or the roles very well – kind of a difficult position, I would imagine, to be in, in particular as a freshman,” Frost said. “Her natural position I would say is playing defense. We’ll probably need her at D second semester at times.
“She’s accepted her role; she just wants to play, she just wants to contribute, and anywhere that we put her that she can do those things she’s happy with. It’s probably been one of the biggest transitions for her, simply because she’s had to learn a couple of positions.”
Like any student, Frischmann has to settle in to a course of study as well as a position on the ice.
“I don’t really know what I’d like to do – sports psychology or something,” she said. “I’ve kind of always wanted to go to med school. But whatever I end up doing, I’d like to keep coaching, either youth, or something involved with hockey.”
The likelihood that a hockey player from Lieksa, Finland would wind up on a Minnesota team that had never had anyone from Europe was not great. However, the first link in the chain of events that ultimately brought Mira Jalosuo to the Minneapolis campus may have been the signing of Bobbi Ross five years earlier. Before Ross started her Gopher career, she made the acquaintance of the six-foot defenseman.
“We were roommates in 2004 in summer camp,” Jalosuo said. “The camp was in [Vierumaki,] Finland. It was like some development camp. There were five players from Canada, five from Finland – from different countries. There were almost a hundred players.”
“Noora was on our team as well, and she and Mira were good friends even then,” Ross said. “One of my most prominent memories of Mira is her slap shot. We did some dry-land training where we worked on shooting, and when we were working on slap-shots, she was shooting harder than the 30 year old male instructor that was trying to help us out. He stopped us and had everyone come watch her shoot, and he was basically speechless the whole time. Overall throughout the week, she was a terrific roommate, very helpful and so easy to get along with!”
Jalosuo’s meeting of Ross became her introduction to the Minnesota Gophers.
“I first decided that I wanted to play in the USA because here is the best women’s league, and of course, here is good education,” she said. “I got to go to school and play hockey at the same time.”
What she won’t be able to do is to see much of the people from her home.
“That’s not so hard for me, because I have lived four years by myself, so it’s okay,” Jalosuo said. “But of course, I miss my family and my friends. Sometimes it’s hard.”
Between Gopher road trips and Finnish national team travel commitments for 4 Nations Cup, MLP Nations Cup, and the Winter Olympics, Jalosuo won’t even get to settle down for long in her new home of Minneapolis. The absences create another obstacle in keeping up with academics, but she takes that hurdle in stride as well.
“I think that it’s not a problem, because usually I miss like half of my year in high school because of hockey, so I will miss only one month, and that’s not bad,” Jalosuo said.
“My friends say, ‘I am so jealous of you, that you can travel to different countries.’ But actually, I can see only hockey rinks and hotels. Sometimes when we are there like two weeks, we see something else.”
So far, she has not been surprised by life in America.
“My best friend plays in Mankato, and she has told me how living here will be,” Jalosuo said.
The demands of her position with the Gophers are slightly different than playing with her national team -- she described differences in her role on the breakout. Overall, she has adjusted well.
“Of course there are some language problems,” Jalosuo said.
Her coach lists some of the defenders attributes on the ice.
“Mira is obviously a very big body; her stick is taller than some of our players,” Frost said. “She has great instincts. She has very good vision. She anticipates well, which allows her to be in the right position. And the other thing that she does is if she does get beat, she has a great battle level, and she competes to get back, and with her reach she’s able to recover pretty quickly.”
Jalosuo is studying chemistry, and would like to some day work in a laboratory.
“I know she is going to be an incredible addition to the Gopher team for her personality as well as her on-ice skills,” Ross said.
“Minnesota wasn’t always my first choice growing up,” Becky Kortum said – a statement not often heard from Gophers who grew up in the state. “But when Brad Frost became the coach and I met him, and I came down here on my visit and saw what a great school it was, and saw what a great team we had.”
“It had everything that I was looking for in a school, so I made my decision pretty much right away and I didn’t look anywhere else. I committed like January of my junior year.”
Before her career at Hopkins High School was complete, Kortum led the Royals to the state tournament in 2009 for the first time since 1997.
“Playing in the state tournament was probably the biggest thrill of my hockey career,” she said. “Everyone grows up wanting to play in the state tournament, and having that opportunity was one of the coolest things.”
One downside for a decorated high school player like Kortum who attends college close to home is in trying to meet the expectations that people in the hockey community have for her.
“I was Ms. Hockey [in Minnesota High School hockey], everyone is watching what I do. So if I don’t perform, I’m just another one of the girls that grew up, went to college, and didn’t really do anything.”
As we often find in life, graduating to the next level means starting to climb a new ladder.
“I’m no longer the best player on the ice, but I think that’s a positive thing, because everyone on my team pushes me to be better,” Kortum said. “I just have to step up my game and play at my top game every game.”
“It’s a huge adjustment, especially to try and keep my confidence up, because in high school, if I needed to score, I’d go score. Here, I’m not that person any more. I have a different role, and I’m embracing it, but I’m trying to work towards being that player again eventually.”
Her coach thinks she’s progressing well, and being a fixture on the team’s second line all season would confirm that.
“Somebody like Becky, who really didn’t play a lot of center in high school, we put her at center because we like her size and her speed and the way she distributes the puck,” Frost said. “She’s continuing to grow in that area, and now that she’s getting more comfortable with it, I think she’s starting to take a few more chances offensively.”
Players coming out of high school can sometimes be overwhelmed by the much longer season of D-I, but Kortum doesn’t see that as being a problem.
“I like the longer season; it’s fun for me,” she said. “I never really lose passion – I get tired once in a while. It’s rigorous, but it’s manageable.”
She brings a similar passion to her academic pursuits.
“I’m thinking about choosing physiology; it’s not definite, but that’s what I’m heading towards. I’d like to get into med school and become a doctor. I’m not sure in what specialty, but something medical. I like health sciences.”
A year ago, Mira Jalosuo and Noora Räty came to the United States to visit three college campuses: Ohio State; Minnesota-Duluth; and Minnesota.
“Actually, before we came here to visit, I had no idea where I was going to go,” Räty said. “When we made our visit here, I was sure that I wanted to play here. It was absolutely the best place for us.”
Already possessing two excellent goaltenders, Minnesota may not have seemed to be in the market to add another starting-caliber netminder. But with one Olympic games already on her resume, along with a pair of defeats of the powerful U.S. National Team, Räty is not a typical talent. Minnesota’s coach was happy she chose his program over the other two WCHA schools.
“It wasn’t just great being able to get her, it was also great knowing that the other two teams weren’t,” Frost said. “It was kind of a double success, so to speak.”
Räty admitted to some second thoughts after signing with the Gophers.
“Before I came here, I was like maybe I should have gone to Ohio State,” she said. “But after we played them, I was so happy that I came here. I don’t care if I play every game, or if I play one game a week. I’m fine with that.”
“That’s what I really admire about her – she had an opportunity to go to either of those places and play every game, at least this year and maybe in the future,” Frost said. “She chose to come here with two other really good goalies and battle and not play every game. She’s accepted that and still chose the University of Minnesota, because this was the right fit for her.”
Her impact on the team was immediate.
“We’ve used her a few times already and she’s been very successful, and brought kind of a new jump and a new spark to our team,” Frost said.
Räty intends to be a kinesiology major at Minnesota.
“My dream is that I’d like to have my own gym in Finland or somewhere, and for that, I would like to be a personal trainer.”
Räty understands that she has a lot of hockey in front of her, wedging an Olympics into the midst of an already arduous NCAA season.
“Just keep your body strong, and be mentally strong,” she said. “There can be [times] when you’re homesick, but you just have to get over them, be ready to play all the time, and keep it fun.”
That type of dogged determination is common for people from her country. Being of Finnish heritage, one of the words I heard often while growing up was “sisu”, which Räty explained.
“It’s like toughness, and you never give up, you always keep going. You don’t care what happens. Every person in Finland, they have that.”
But with all of the experience and toughness, Räty is much like any other college freshman a long way from home.
“We’re going to Finland after we play Wisconsin. We have 4 Nations there. We play next to my home, so I will see my family. It’s going to be great.”
|Player photos provided by the University of Minnesota.|