There aren’t many college hockey teams who have an Olympic gold medalist picking up the pucks after practice and filling water bottles. Those are jobs routinely relegated to freshmen, and at Boston College, Olympian Cayla Barnes is a freshman. For the second time.
Last October, she was five games and a biology class into her first year at BC when the national team came calling. The US coaches asked the smooth-skating defenseman to leave school and join the players in Florida training for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. She was on the next plane.
“She’s just such a dynamic player,’’ said BC coach Katie Crowley, who sent off Barnes with her blessing. “She’s a hard worker — she’s a game changer.
“She’s one of those kids that will do anything and everything to help her team win. And you can see that in her every shift.’’
Barnes had collected an unprecedented three gold medals with the US Under-18 team and had trained with the national team before being cut in the spring. Nevertheless she found the transition to the senior team daunting. The group had been together for three months and Barnes, an 18-year-old college freshman, found herself skating alongside 30-year-old women who had spent years physically preparing themselves for the Games, the ultimate prize in women’s hockey. They were bigger, stronger, and faster, and their conversations off the ice were often about getting married, having families, and figuring out how to pay their bills.
“It’s such a drastic jump,” said Barnes, who grew up in Eastvale in southern California, where it’s always summer, in the wake of the Gretzky Era. “I’m just in such a different place in my life.’’
Nonetheless. Barnes, who left California in ninth grade for New Hampton School in New Hampshire to develop her game, knew that she was a good fit on the national team. It was a different level of hockey but her vision on the ice and her fluid skating translated seamlessly. She scored a power-play goal in her first game, against Finland in the Four Nations Cup, and when the Olympic team was named Jan. 1, Barnes’s name was on it. She was the youngest player on the roster by 18 months and the shortest at 5 feet 1 inch.
“In the defensive zone, she’ll battle with anyone,’’ Crowley said. “It doesn’t matter what size they are.”
Ultimately, young and small didn’t matter. The US went on to produce the most popular victory of the Games, a dramatic shootout over archrival Canada for the gold. Barnes played in all five games of the Olympic tournament, playing 104 shifts and 72:46 minutes, including a regular shift in overtime of the gold-medal game against Canada.
It was the experience of a lifetime, shared not just with her teammates, but with the whole world. After the Games, the US team spent a few weeks barnstorming across the country, drawing crowds, making television appearances, and spreading good will.
“It was a really big deal and I don’t think anyone realized how big of a deal until we got back to the states and we kind of felt that support from everyone,’’ Barnes said.
“One of our team’s missions is to help grow the game. And we’re super big on making it better for the next generation than it was for us. I think the game really opened up eyes, not just to women’s hockey but to women’s sports in general.’’
Now that she’s back in Chestnut Hill, Barnes has turned her focus to achieving what no BC squad has yet managed: a national championship. They have been close, reaching six Frozen Fours. Last year, the Eagles (30-5-3, 19-2-3 Hockey East) were bumped in the NCAA quarterfinals by Ohio State.
With fellow Olympian defensemen Megan Keller and Kali Flanagan also returning to the Eagles, along with Darryl Watts, last year’s Kazmaier Award winner (the nation’s top collegiate player), and junior scoring star Caitrin Lonergan, it might look as if the five-time defending Hockey East champions are unbeatable. But one thing Barnes learned playing with the Olympic team, which didn’t secure its gold medal until plowing through a nail-biting overtime and then claiming victory in a shootout, is that a championship effort requires every last drop from every last player.
“You’ve just got to give it everything you’ve got,’’ Barnes said. “At the end of the day you’re never going to regret giving everything you have. If you could have done this, could have done that — that’s what you’re going to regret at the end of the day. At the Olympics I would say everyone would say they didn’t have anything left at the end of the game; no matter what your role was, you did that to the best of your ability all the way through. That’s what helps you win championships and gold medals.”
The Eagles had an early-season national ranking at No. 4, but their strong lineup faced a stern test in the opening weekend of the season with a pair of losses at Minnesota-Duluth, backstopped by Olympic star Maddie Rooney, and they fell to No. 6.
“As a team we want to win a national championship, we want to win the Beanpot, we want to win the big things that matter,’’ Barnes said. “We believe that this could be our year. We want to get the star on the back of our jersey and bring a national championship here. We think we have the personnel to do it, it’s just that if you don’t want it more than others, other teams have returning Olympians, too.‘’
As the season unfolds, Barnes knows this time she’s not going anywhere but Conte Forum. Her parents have moved to Keene, N.H., to be close enough to watch her play. She’s all in.
“I just like to be present where I am,’’ she said. “For me, this is my team now, this is where I am, this is where I need to be. So I’m going to root myself in that. Winning a national championship is one of the coolest things you can do as a women’s hockey player. Not many get to say they won the national championship. It’s not hard to shift my focus and say I want do that.’’
A look at other Boston teams
Northeastern: Went 19-17-3, 11-11-2 Hockey East last season, won its first HE championship, and lost to Colgate in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Huskies, currently ranked ninth, have added Swiss two-time Olympian Alina Mueller to the front line and veteran goaltender Brittany Bugalski returns for her senior season, challenged by sophomore Aerin Frankel.
Boston University: Went 14-17-6, 8-11-5 Hockey East last season, falling to Maine in the first round of the conference tournament. The Terriers lost their scoring stars (Victoria Bach and Rebecca Leslie) to graduation and will try to fill in holes on offense with sophomore Jesse Compher (9-17—26) and junior Sammy Davis, who returns after missing a year because of injury.
Harvard: Went 13-16-2, 10-10-2 ECAC last season, added seven freshmen — including forwards Anne Bloomer and Dominique Petrie from the US gold-medal U-18 squad — as it tries to climb back up the ladder. Sophomore Becca Gilmore (16-19—35) is the leading returning scorer, and sophomore defender Emma Buckles was invited to the Canadian National Team’s Fall Festival.Barbara Matson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org