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How Blaine became home base, once again, for the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team

The renovated facilities at the National Sports Center bring the women’s program more in line with what USA Hockey provides its men’s National Team Development Program for high school aged up-and-comers in Plymouth, Mich.

USA Hockey not only sprung for the winter-long residency camp — a first — but raised $350,000 to build a modern dressing room in a 9,000-square-foot storage space at the Super Rink.
USA Hockey not only sprung for the winter-long residency camp — a first — but raised $350,000 to build a modern dressing room in a 9,000-square-foot storage space at the Super Rink.
USA Hockey

In September 2008, 18 American post-graduate women’s hockey players gathered at the National Sports Center Super Rink in Blaine for the first U.S. National Team residency camp. At the time, it was a really big deal. No U.S. women’s pro league yet existed, so women who exhausted their college eligibility had few options for improving their skills.

That lack of opportunity showed at the 2006 Olympics when the U.S., co-favorites with Team Canada, lost a 3-2 shocker to Sweden in the semifinals and managed only a bronze medal. National Team veterans Angela Ruggiero, Natalie Darwitz and others lobbied USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body, for more resources and ice time to prepare for international events. 

USA Hockey not only sprung for the winter-long residency camp — a first — but raised $350,000 to build a modern dressing room in a 9,000-square-foot storage space at the Super Rink. Merv Lapin, a Vail, Col. financial executive and philanthropist with a keen interest in women’s hockey, donated $250,000 to get it started. The women’s program finally had a home.

Or did it?

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Once the 2010 Olympics concluded, with the U.S. losing the gold-medal game to Canada, USA Hockey officials wouldn’t give the NSC brass a firm answer about returning. The dressing room sat unused for long stretches, except for occasional camps. The 2014 Olympic team headquartered in greater Boston, where Coach Katey Stone lived, and the 2018 team at a resort near Tampa.

But for this Olympic cycle, at the urging of new USA Hockey women’s program director Katie Million, the National Team returned to Blaine for tryout and residency camps. USA Hockey, through its foundation, raised thousands of dollars from Lapin and others to renovate the dressing room and convert an adjacent dance studio into a players’ lounge. The team will be based here until departing for Beijing on Jan. 27.

The digital "countdown clock" atop the flatscreen TV marks the time until the Winter Olympics begin in Beijing.
USA Hockey
The digital "countdown clock" atop the flatscreen TV marks the time until the Winter Olympics begin in Beijing.
“The first time I walked in here, without the renovations, I was like, my God, this is awesome, why are we not utilizing this?” Million said. “Once we vetted it through the USA Hockey process, everybody was on board to make it happen.” 

Million won’t say how much it all cost — “We’re still trying to work out all the bills,” she said — but the investment is sizable. 

The original dressing area featured nicely-finished wood lockers for 40-plus players in adjacent rooms, along with a coaches office and trainer’s room. That’s been painted and updated with new signage and historic displays. One features nameplates of all U.S. Olympians; another lists former Players of the Year and U.S. and international Hockey Hall of Famers. 

The spacious new lounge offers a full kitchen, conference table, leather couches, flat screen television, hockey-themed ping pong table and even a red, white and blue cornhole set. A mural of 2018 gold medalists Lee Stecklein, Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan and Kendall Coyne Schofield hangs behind Million’s work station.  

“As athletes at the highest level of our sport, we deserve this,” said 2018 gold medalist and former Minnesota standout Kelly Pannek. “We deserve to have the amenities that we need that any other male team would have. We’ve very, very grateful for all the people that made it possible.”

So is Karyn Bye, a 1998 gold medalist and two-time Olympian who works for the company that cleans and disinfects the space. “It’s amazing, I have to admit,” Bye said. “They’ve done a fantastic job. The history they’ve put up on the walls, I was really impressed. I want all my former teammates to get a chance to see this.”

It brings the women’s program more in line with what USA Hockey provides its men’s National Team Development Program for high school aged up-and-comers in Plymouth, Mich. USA Hockey spent millions buying and remodeling the Plymouth arena and relocated the NTDP there from nearby Ann Arbor. 

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Knight, a four-time Olympian and the only player remaining from the 2010 Olympic Team, loves the remodeled digs. She was among the players who threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championships, eventually leading USA Hockey to pay much larger player stipends and invest more in the women’s program.

“Having a little bit more space definitely helps,” Knight said. “I think it also facilitates the growth of our program to have a home base, somewhere to call home. We’ve never really had that before, just during the residency years. I’m hoping we can continue to build on all the changes that were made in that room, and continue to add to them over the years.”

It’s unclear why USA Hockey hasn’t used the Blaine space more. Million said she asked around and never received a definitive answer. “I don’t tend to dwell on the past,” she said. “Just move on to what we can do to make it great now and in the future.” 

USA Hockey Executive Director Pat Kelleher said the organization likes showcasing its National Teams in different areas of the country so more kids can watch their heroes up close.

A change in USA Hockey leadership may have renewed interest in Blaine. Kelleher succeeded the retiring Dave Ogrean as executive director in 2017, and influential assistant executive director Jim Johannson died in 2018. Million, the former Western Collegiate Hockey Association women’s commissioner, replaced Reagan Carey in 2019. 

Since the 2017 boycott and the subsequent settlement, USA Hockey has been much more attuned to the needs of its women players. Beating Canada for the Olympic gold medal in 2018, 20 years after the U.S. last won the tournament, undoubtedly contributed.

This display, in a hallway off the main locker room, lists every U.S. women’s hockey Olympian and the medals they won.
USA Hockey
This display, in a hallway off the main locker room, lists every U.S. women’s hockey Olympian and the medals they won.
“For us this year, coming into the residency program, we spent a lot of time talking to the players back and forth,” Kelleher said. “OK, what’s most important, what do you need to be successful? 

“From the hockey side, we hit on all of that stuff and felt like this was a big piece of it. Be sure they were in a space that felt a little bit new, felt fresh, looked good, aesthetically pleasing, and had some touches for what they’re here for — trying to win another gold medal.”

It’s easy to see why Blaine made sense this time. Million lives in Twin Cities; staying here instead of relocating near USA Hockey headquarters in Colorado Springs, Col. was a prerequisite for her taking the job. Olympic Coach Joel Johnson, a former University of Minnesota women’s assistant and now head coach at St. Thomas, also lives here.

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Ten of the 40 players invited to initial selection camp in June were from Minnesota, more than any other state. Six made the Olympic team, along with three others with University of Minnesota ties. 

“With obviously the world we’ve all been living in the last couple of years, we felt we wanted and needed to have a home,” Kelleher said. “Blaine and Minnesota is a great spot. We can find competition here. There are all the amenities here. We have players from here. It was the right time to be back in Minnesota to prepare for this year’s Olympics.”

Lapin’s interest in the women’s program dates to early 2008, when he served as U.S. team leader at the Women’s World Championships in Harbin, China. Lapin already had significant experience in China. He took Vail youth teams there beginning in the 1980s, and spent parts of three years in Northeast China establishing North American-style youth hockey programs.

Signage at the Olympic team’s rink in Blaine, with banners listing world championship and Olympic medal results.
MinnPost photo by Pat Borzi
Signage at the Olympic team’s rink in Blaine, with banners listing world championship and Olympic medal results.
More recently, Lapin saw designs for the Plymouth Arena team areas and felt the women deserved something similar. An anonymous donor offered a $50,000 matching grant to augment Lapin’s undisclosed contribution, and USA Hockey raised the rest.

“I just felt it was a good place to put resources,” said Lapin, also the Olympic team leader for Beijing. “So we came to a verbal understanding: I’ll do X if you do Y. USA Hockey has been a tremendous partner. They’ve been extremely supportive.”

So what about the future? Though some camps still will be held elsewhere, Kelleher said the renovated space off Herb Brooks Foundation Rink 6 won’t be forgotten again.

“We’ll be here,” Kelleher said. “With the hospitality we’ve received in Blaine, from the Super Rink, I’m sure we’ll be utilizing it moving forward more than we did previously. It fits in a lot of ways.”