A hockey player following the path from a little Massachusetts town to a prestigious prep school then a powerhouse college and a trip to Olympus is nothing new. Players like Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick have skated their way from Hingham and Marshfield to the heights on the Olympic Games. When the 2010 Olympic Games begin in Vancouver this weekend, another name can be added to that impressive list – Erika Lawler.
The 23-year old from Fitchburg, MA has just about done it all so far in her hockey career. After a standout career at Cushing Academy where she was thrice named the top female athlete in her class she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. While in a Badger sweater, all she did was win three NCAA championships and lead the country in assists as a senior. In each of the past three years, she has represented the United States at the World Championships, winning two gold medals and a silver. She has donned the red, white and blue nine times in international competition.
Still, it is a fair statement to say none of those accomplishments compare to what awaits in Vancouver over the next two weeks.
“I am so thrilled to be a part of this team,” she said from Colorado Springs, CO where the team was practicing while finishing up the Qwest Tour – a series of games against colleges and national teams to prepare for the Olympics. “Not only are you representing your country but everyone who ever helped you along the way – your high school, college, family, friends, coaches.”
Anyone who has ever pulled a Team USA uniform over their head echoes those same sentiments when talking about what the honor of playing for one’s country represents. Lawler also understands that there is a specific group of people she is also representing. The selection process for the Games began with 40 players in the hunt for a spot of the roster. After a week-long camp in August, that number was trimmed to 23. Recently, two more players were released from the team bringing the final roster to 21. Many of those players Lawler beat out for a place on the squad are life-long friends and teammates, so she knows she owes it to them to play her best.
“There are definitely bittersweet feelings,” she said. “As excited as I am to make the team, watching some of my really good friends miss out on this was sad.”
Having to deal with close friends’ disappointment has helped Lawler begin to fully understand the ramifications of this hockey tournament unlike any other.
“The funny thing is, it hadn’t really hit me until people started saying ‘How does it feel to be one of the top 12 forwards in the country?’” she said. “Statements like that cause me to take a step back and appreciate the situation. As a group, we realize that we are all really fortunate and we want to make the best of every day out here.”
While the men who have skated their way to Vancouver are world-famous millionaires, the women who will compete for gold do not have an NHL to showcase their skills. For players like Lawler, the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of the sport and the best way to put their skills on display.
“We all know that we are not only showcasing ourselves and the team,” said the three-time NCAA champ, “But promoting the sport of women’s hockey.”
Women’s hockey as a viable option for young girls was not a popular one until after the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan where the United States won the inaugural gold in a dominating performance. While Lawler was still too young to be outright influenced by that team – she did mention seeing them on a Wheaties box after the win – a breakout performance on the global stage showed that women’s hockey had a rightful place alongside soccer, basketball and softball as options for young women.
The accepted path for most young female players until that point was to play alongside the boys for a while until the physical size discrepancy became too much. If a girl wanted to play high school hockey, maybe she could skate on a lower-tiered boys’ team or at one of the few private schools that offered an all-girls program. The number of colleges fielding a women’s team was small and relegated mostly to New England and the Ivy League. However, with the success of the 1998 team, more and more programs began to sprout up around the country. Youth teams began fielding all-female teams and that led to more high schools adding programs. Women’s college hockey is a growing sport as well, with powerhouse teams on the east coast and in the Midwest fighting for the national title every year. The 2010 roster for the Olympics has players from 11 states – including Alaska, California, Washington and Ohio in addition to traditional hockey hotbeds like Massachusetts and Minnesota. Every single member of Team USA played collegiate hockey.
So, with women’s hockey now on the table, Lawler watched the 2002 team pick up a silver medal at the Salt Lake City games and decided that playing in the Olympics was now a goal of hers. For the 15-year old, that meant more commitment from herself and family.
The life of a hockey family can be somewhat of a nomadic one, packing the car and driving all over for weekend tournaments. Young players in Canada can sometimes move away from home as early as 13 years of age to chase the dream. In America, it is not uncommon for the best players to head off to boarding school to play against the best competition. Lawler did just that, making her way to Cushing Academy where she compiled 395 career points. It took a big step from her family to allow her to move away for high school, a commitment Lawler appreciates.
“My family is so supportive of me,” she said. “Family is such a big part of everyone’s lives and they have been just as much a part of me making the Olympic team as I have. The willingness to bring me to practice and to go to Cushing and Wisconsin was so important. They believed and made sacrifices for me. This whole trip will be just as rewarding for them. It is overwhelming how excited they are about this.”
The second big step the Lawler family made was when Erika decided to play college hockey at Wisconsin. With options like Boston College, Harvard and Northeastern locally to play, going across the country was a risky move. It paid off in spades, however, with the three national titles and the ability to train under Mark Johnson.
Coach Johnson was a member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team that won gold in Lake Placid and is the head coach of Team USA this Olympics. He has molded the Wisconsin program into the elite squad it is over his seven years behind the bench in Madison as the Badgers have reached the NCAA finals the last four seasons. Lawler feels that it is no coincidence that seven current or former Badgers are on Team USA in Vancouver. Not because Johnson is playing favorites, but because Johnson and his staff recruit players most likely to peak at such a high level.
“We obviously have great coaching out at Wisconsin,” Lawler said. “When a player gets to Wisconsin, we all seem to develop into the player we can be due to the resources – athletic trainers, strength coaches and skating coaches. The WCHA is so competitive and that helps us develop as well.”
It must be hard for Lawler to pick a highlight memory from a college career that includes three Frozen Four championships. However, the final championship may be the one that trumps them all. That title came in her own backyard at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.
“It was funny, because I played at Wisconsin for four years and never got to play in Boston until the Frozen Four,” Lawler said. “People kept calling it a fairy tale ending for me because my final collegiate games were in Boston in front of my home crowds. You can’t cap your career much better than that.”
In the national championship game against Mercyhurst, Lawler did what she does best – dish the puck to a waiting teammate. Lawler had three assists in the title tilt and was named to the All-Tournament team.
Deft passing and the ability to create scoring chances are the hallmarks of Lawler’s game. She dialed up 119 assists in her four years in Madison. She also potted 55 goals, giving her 174 points in 163 career games. Standing just five feet tall, Lawler knows that she has to work harder than everyone around her to keep the puck on her stick and beat taller defenders.
“I tend to use my energy,” she said. “Everyone always says I look like I have so much energy. I am just so excited to play. Being small, you have to be quicker and faster to maneuver around opponents.”
Hard work in practice is what she points to as a reason for her success.
“I am always fine tuning my technique on my strides, starts and stops with power skating,” she said. “Skating and puck handling. When I can lose people with my quickness, I am at my best. I need to use my speed to create scoring chances.”
Lawler’s best this next fortnight may result in a place atop the medal stand in Canada. After coming back from the past two Olympiads with a silver and a bronze, Team USA is looking to reclaim the top spot. Lawler feels that the team is of the right mindset heading into the Games.
“We are so excited,” she said, her rising voice reaffirming her claim. “We are in a really good place confidence-wise right now.
Still, the Olympic rookie knows that she needs to pace herself.
“I am not sure what to expect when I get there as it’s my first Olympics,” she said with the poise of a veteran. “It will be important to stay focused and not get carried away with what is going on around me with other events. At the same time, I want to soak in the experience at the village and the rink with the team.”
Despite not wanting to get too far ahead of herself, she did allow one brief moment of drifting forward.
“We have been working our whole lives for the 60 minutes of the gold medal game,” she said. “The thought of playing in that game gives me goose bumps.”
To get there, Team USA will have to navigate pool play against China, Russia and Finland. The much anticipated game against Canada will not come until the medal round, hopefully for hockey fans in the gold medal game. Lawler knows that advancing that far will be difficult but shows excitement at that possibility as well.
“Playing in front of the Canadian fans is amazing,” she said. “Playing in front of 16,000 fans is such a rush. Whether they are cheering for you or against you it doesn’t matter. The energy in the building is so immense and gets us 100 percent into the game. There is so much passion in every shift in that situation. US-Canada is the best rivalry that I have every played in. That is what we thrive off of and strive for – that pressure. We are all big game players and so are they. It will be a great battle.”
While that potential game is not a certainty, it is no doubt the match-up hockey fans want to see. If that game takes place Feb. 25 at 3:30 p.m. it is a safe bet that the city of Fitchburg will be quiet as it cheers on its favorite daughter playing for the gold.