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U women’s hockey team flying high but still under media sports radar

Laura Halldorson no longer has parking privileges at Ridder Arena. She hardly cares, but there’s something wrong with that.

Laura Halldorson no longer has parking privileges at Ridder Arena. She hardly cares, but there’s something wrong with that. Building a program from scratch, as Halldorson did with the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team, ought to get you something besides a windowless office in The Cave, the nickname some athletic staffers give to the basement of the Bierman Building, where Halldorson works these days as a fundraiser.

Her decision to quit as coach last August, after 10 seasons and three national championships, came out of nowhere, and could have left the program reeling. As it was, the Gophers were coming off, for them, a bad season. After back-to-back NCAA titles in 2004 and ’05 and a runner-up finish in ’06, Minnesota missed the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2001. Their 23-12-1 record included the most losses in school history.

Now? Coached by a 34-year-old former Halldorson assistant who looks 16, sports a soul patch and answers to “Frosty,” the Gophers are back among the nation’s best teams. Ranked fourth in both major polls, the Gophers take a 19-4-3 record and a 15-game unbeaten streak into this weekend’s two-game series at Bemidji State.

Coach handoff working smoothly
None of that surprises Halldorson, who attends almost every home game. “If I didn’t feel the program was in good shape, I may not have made the decision I made at the time I did, but who knows?” Halldorson said. “I knew things would go well without me, so why not now?”

By waiting as long as she did to step aside, Halldorson unintentionally insured Minnesota couldn’t start one of those dreaded “nationwide searches” for a replacement. Brad Frost, a Halldorson assistant for seven seasons, became interim coach after recovering from the initial shock of Halldorson’s bombshell.

“Myself and Laura Slominski, the other assistant, went to Laura’s office to have a meeting about the upcoming season,” Frost said. “She said, ‘I’d better go first. I just want to let you know I’m in the process of resigning.’ My response was either ‘Huh?’ or ‘What?’ I don’t remember which.

“I wanted to be a head coach at the Division I level. As my shock showed when Laura announced her resignation, I didn’t think it would be here. If I could have my dream job, it would be at the University of Minnesota.”

The Gophers run the same basic system they did under Halldorson, which eased the transition.  “It was very smooth right from the beginning,” said junior forward Gigi Marvin, one of the third generation of hockey-playing Marvins from Warroad.

With steadier goaltending and a more potent offense, the Gophers avoided the January swoon that wrecked last season.

Competition in net between junior Kim Hanlon (10-1-2, 1.98 goals against average) and freshman Jenny Lura (9-3-1, 1.84) made both of them better. Lura is the Canadian who, playing last year for the B.C. Breakers in the Western Women’s Hockey League, made 60 saves in a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Whitecaps at Ridder.

“That’s probably the biggest change from last year to this year,” Frost said.

Standout forward Erica McKenzie, hampered last season by a knee injury, already has more goals (a team-high 17) and points (30) than she did as a junior. Marvin, whose 31 points lead the Gophers, and co-captain Bobbi Ross, who has 28, are on pace to exceed last season’s totals, too. Minnesota-Duluth transfer Rachael Drazan added an offensive presence on defense with seven goals and 11 assists. 

Team on 15-game streak with no losses

Though ranked behind arch-rival Minnesota-Duluth, the Gophers have taken three of four from the Bulldogs in Western Collegiate Hockey Association play. That’s key, because Duluth hosts the conference championship and the women’s Frozen Four. A 3-0 shutout by Hanlon on Nov. 18 started this 13-0-2 streak.

And as usual, the Gophers are doing this far under the Twin Cities sports radar. Attendance averages 1,308 per game at Ridder. That’s second-best in the nation and the WCHA (trailing only Wisconsin) but far below what the Gopher men draw next door at Mariucci Arena. Staff cutbacks at the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press mean even less coverage than usual. And good luck getting any attention the week before the Super Bowl.

So no other reporters or TV crews bothered Halldorson on Wednesday as she sat on a bench outside the Gopher locker room, talking about the past and the future. Seven huge photos hung from the opposite wall, beneath the heading, “History in the Hallway.” Halldorson is in three of them, one of the team with then-Gov. Jesse Ventura holding a national championship T-shirt.

Players passing by smiled or waved at Halldorson, who doesn’t second-guess her decision to resign.

“There was a day when they won at Wisconsin and I thought, it would have been great to be at that game and on the bus ride coming back,” she said. “Then when they tied Wayne State, I thought, that wouldn’t be much fun. Instead of the highs and lows, my blood pressure remains fairly level.

“As far as the job itself, I don’t miss that very much. But as far as the relationships with the players, that’s what I miss.”