Skills, Thrills and Fun
by Elliot Olshansky/Special to CHN
MILWAUKEE Denver senior forward Gabe Gauthier was pumped up as he stormed out of the Bradley Center locker room.
"There's going to be a big brawl in there," he said, as he headed back toward the ice, leaving behind the locker room that the male participants from the East and West teams in Friday night's Frozen Four Skills Challenge shared.
Of course, no brawl followed, although Gauthier and his West teammates had reason to be upset at the outcome of the event, as the eventually-victorious East team had been awarded an extra shooter in the sudden death shootout that decided Friday's competition. Instead, the participants were all smiles after the event, which was attended by a crowd of approximately 5,000 fans (no official attendance figure was released), and included five events: a puck control relay, a fastest skater competition, a hardest shot contest, a "rapid shot" test on the goaltenders, and a penalty shootout.
The reasons for those smiles varied around the ice, as different players found different things to enjoy about the event.
For the 16 women who competed, the skills challenge was a chance to bring their game to a new audience, playing on the large stage of the Bradley Center during the Frozen Four.
"Being part of this inaugural skills competition has been an awesome experience," Yale goaltender Sarah Love said. "Nike/Bauer has done a phenomenal job putting this together. Getting to compete on the same ice as the guys definitely helps the exposure of the women's game, and hopefully, it'll create more fans."
"It's just a great experience," echoed Providence forward Karen Thatcher. "Getting to participate in this event with the guys at the Frozen Four, it's just great for women's hockey."
Thatcher was one of three participants Providence. Torry Gajda, a senior on the Friars men's team, also competed for the East, Thatcher's coach, Bob Deraney, who went to the NCAA Tournament in 1986 as part of Boston University's Hockey East championship squad, was one of two honorary coaches for the team. "I thought I was done with him," Thatcher joked.
For Harvard goaltender John Daigneau, a native of Brookfield, Wis., the night provided a pair of special opportunities: the chance to play in his home state, and the chance to interact with former Crimson bench boss Bill Cleary, who coached current head coach Ted Donato during his own playing days with the Crimson.
"It was something I'd been looking forward to for a long time," Daigneau said. "To come home to Milwaukee made it even better. I get to play in front of all my family and a lot of friends, and to have Coach Cleary as an honorary coach was a lot of fun, to be able to do that with someone with as much history in the hockey world as he has, and with what he means to the school.
Daigneau wasn't the only one looking to shine in front of a home crowd. James Shipley, a forward from Division III Milwaukee School of Engineering, relished the opportunity to play at the Bradley Center in front of a home crowd, competing side by side with Division I athletes.
"It was nice having a little cheering section here," Shipley said. "You saw the difference between D-III and D-I right away in the shootaround. I had fun, and the skill these guys have is amazing."
One of the goaltenders he was shooting on was Army's Brad Roberts, who kept in training for this event with his team, even after the Black Knights' season ended in a double-overtime loss to Bentley in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs.
"After the Bentley game, we still practiced every day," the firstie (West Point senior) from Cassville, N.Y., said, while holding his black and gold helmet, which bears Chinese characters representing "Courage" and "Duty." "The guys would come out and shoot on me, so it didn't feel like the season was completely over yet, but I guess when I get back, there'll be nothing left to practice for in the near term."
Though Roberts must fulfill a five-year service commitment upon his graduation from West Point this spring, he hopes to continue playing competitively through a new Army program that allows accomplished athletes to play professionally while completing their service commitments.
"I don't know a whole lot about it," Roberts said. "I know that it's on an individual basis. You do a lot of paperwork and send it to the Department of the Army, and they decide whether or not they should let you play a professional sport."
Still, Roberts did not see the event as a tryout of any kind.
"Beforehand, it seemed like there was a little bit of pressure," Roberts said, "but then you get out there with all the guys and they're all joking around, it's just like another day out on the pond, having fun playing the game."
For Gauthier, the event was an odd way to end a season after ending his sophomore and junior campaigns with a pair of national championships.
"Yeah, it's a little different," the California native said, "but if you look back at the career I had at Denver, it was definitely a memorable career. Two national championships, and coming out of such a great university, I'm going to be sad to leave, but I wouldn't ask for anything else."
However, it was well worth the trip, as Gauthier was able to be in attendance and see his Pioneers co-captain Matt Carle receive the 2006 Hobey Baker Memorial Award.
"I'm so proud of him," Gauthier said, "because of the hard work he's put in, and because he got the first Hobey for the University of Denver. He's very well deserving of it, and his career's just going to keep going."
Like Gauthier, Dartmouth forward Mike Ouellette had another reason to enjoy being in the building. Shortly before the start of competition, the Ivy League Player of the Year was announced as a Second Team All-American, following in the footsteps of former linemate Lee Stempniak, who was a First Team All-American in 2004 and a Second Team All-American in 2005.
"I honestly don't know what to say about that right now," a visibly emotional Ouellette said. "I was caught off-guard by that tonight. I feel very privileged right now, and very honored. It's a great honor to have and I didn't see it coming, but I got shivers out there when they called my name out there like that. It's a great feeling."
Ouellette displayed some of the skills that helped him earn that honor when he burned Ohio State goaltender Dave Caruso on the final shot of the penalty shootout event, forcing the sudden-death session where Michigan's Brandon Kaleniecki appeared to have it won when he beat Army's Brad Roberts. However, the East was mistakenly awarded another shot, and Niagara's Justin Cross beat Adam Hanna of Division III Saint John's (Minn.) to force another round. In that round, Colgate's Allison Paiano scored on Bemidji State's Jill Luebke to win it.
An injustice? Probably. A cause for controversy? Possibly. Consequential in any way? Hardly.
This was an event where everybody won.
This article originally appeared at CSTV.com.