By Peter Langella
I watched the last two Division III championship games through the webcast on my laptop. The feed came through pretty well, and both games were exciting. The 2011 game saw one team win their first-ever title, while last year's rematch saw the other team win their first championship in front of a raucous home crowd before departing for Division I.
Some of you may be confused. If so, it's because I'm talking about the Women's Championship. Norwich over RIT in 2011, then RIT over Norwich last year. Which brings me to my hockey resolution for 2013:
Watch more women's games.
Living in Vermont, I had the unique opportunity to attend almost a dozen games during the 2012 IIHF Women's World Championship (which was played in Burlington in April), including all games in the medal round. Canada beat the US in the final 5-4 in overtime in front of a sardine-like packed arena at the University of Vermont's Gutterson Fieldhouse. Watching the tournament was easily one of the best hockey experiences of my life. Fans from around the world converged on the rink and all everyone wanted to see was good, clean hockey. Crisp passing, fluid skating, and superb goaltending. No NHL dreams or multi-million dollar contracts waiting around the bend. Just national pride.
What more could a fan ask for?
All of those great games got me thinking about the back-to-back Norwich-RIT championship match-ups. I realized that I wasn't just into those games because I'm a Norwich alum. It was much more than that. I was into them because I liked the style of play on the ice. I liked the fact that nobody was running around simply trying to throw big hits. I liked the fact they weren't doing a lot of the dumping-and-chasing or neutral-zone-trapping that plague so many men's games these days. I liked the fact that the young women on the ice seemed to embody everything that Division III athletics is supposed to be about it. Nobody was treating it as anything more than a hockey game. A championship game, yes, but a championship game for school pride and self-actualization and love of teammates. Love of the game. Nothing more. No agendas.
I'm not trying to create a utopian vision here. I won't lie to you. There was pushing and shoving after the whistle in the game between the US and Canada. Same with the games between RIT and Norwich. They wanted to win. Badly. But the women's games were – are – definitely more pure. The women know how to use their sticks and bodies and brains like few men can.
They may not be as big or as fast in general, but they'll pick off any pass sent up the middle of the ice. They'll make a near-perfect pivot to squeeze an opponent off by the boards. They'll fish a loose puck out from under a mass of skates and knees and swoop a wraparound into the back of the net before you can blink. They'll beat you with their smarts.
Too many men's teams try to create defensive schemes to beat opponents. Systems just for systems sake, nothing more. Defense is important, of course, but trapping doesn't win championships unless you're the 1995 New Jersey Devils. Concentrating solely on defense means your sitting back too much, and teams that sit back too much lose 99% of the time.
It's no secret that teams like St. Norbert, Oswego, Middlebury, and Norwich have dominated the men's game in the last decade. I'll contest that they've done it with offense. Are they great defensively? Absolutely. Have they gotten great goaltending when it counts most? Yes, some of the best. But they also play relentless offensive games. They have fierce forechecks. They pinch down the boards extremely hard. They have super-smart centermen that back up teammates all over the ice. Their guys know how to angle-check in open space. They intercept a ton of passes and play intelligently on special-teams. They're tremendous at cycling.
Simply put, except for a few big hitters here and there, they play a lot like women's teams. I mean that as a huge compliment. More teams would have a lot more success if they gave it a try.
So, as 2013 starts rolling, you'll find me at more women's games. I'll relish in the raw energy of the play, presented in its purest form this side of the Atlantic. And I'll also be the guy at the Norwich men's games, shaking my head as yet another opponent tries to stand flatfooted at the far blueline, attempting to trap the Cadets' top six forwards as they fly up the ice.
Peter Langella played at Trinity College and Norwich University and has also coached at Williams. He is now a writer and librarian in central Vermont.