SASNER KEEPING TABS ON WHAT'S NEXT
By Al Mattei
The 1999-2000 Wisconsin women's ice hockey media guide has the phrase "Here and Now!" emblazoned across one corner.
But when it comes right down to it, the slogan should be, "What's next?"
The question should not be a bellicose, Bill Goldberg-like bellow, challenging all comers in the ever-growing women's collegiate ice hockey community. Rather, the phrase, "What's next?" neatly summarizes the coaching outlook of Badgers head coach Julie Sasner.
Observe her behind the bench, and you see a woman who plants a firm gaze on the action, taking in every little subtlety, jotting down notes occasionally on a 3-by-5 pad of paper she keeps in her right blazer pocket. She is not below writing down notes in the beginning of the game, in the middle, or the end.
On this night, the Badgers, down two goals to Princeton heading into the last four minutes of play, get two to tie the game shortly before the final buzzer. While the Wisconsin fans and player bench ascend into a state of delirium, Sasner is writing down more notes, apparently as poised as can be.
"Inside, I was exhilerated; don't get me wrong," says Sasner after the game, "but when that game is still going on, there is still something you need to prepare for. You can't stop your job and take a break. It was, 'What next?' 'Who's rested?' "
When Julie Sasner was a record-setting ice hockey player at Harvard in the mid-1980s, her ability to analyze and anticipate situations made her one of the nation's best American players. Eventually, as part of Team USA, she competed in the inaugural world women's ice hockey championship.
Julie Sasner, the coach, has been able to use her knack for analysis and anticipation to make herself into one of the nation's best women's college ice hockey coaches, a position which has placed her on the short list of candidates as head coach of Team USA at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. Ben Smith, who guided the Americans to the 1998 Olympic championship in Nagano, Japan, has a contract with USA Hockey that expires after the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002.
"Ben has taught me a lot," Sasner says. "He does such a good job of relating to players and motivating them individually, and picking out small things that can improve their game. He notices so much about the game. I think I've become a much better bench coach working with Coach Smith."
Until the job eventually opens up, Sasner has been biding her time, and extending her reputation as perhaps the nation's most professional women's ice hockey coach. As head coach at Cornell University, for U.S. select teams, or in her present job at Wisconsin's women's team, Sasner has developed a reputation for game-day coaching that is almost legendary.
"It's what I do," she says modestly. "I try to watch other coaches: I imitate a lot of people, and I've been fortunate that I have had a lot of good coaches and I have worked with a lot of good coaches. Out of everything that happens, you can learn something."
She has called on all of those traits and more ever since being named Wisconsin head coach on July 9, 1998.
"With the 18 scholarships we got, the first thing we did was sit down and figure out how to phase in these scholarships over four years, so that we can consistently build a program that will one day contend for a national championship," Sasner says. "We have some players on scholarship; most are not. We have a lot of walk-ons, and several players from the club program, which has been around since 1973."
She has assembled a roster with a passel of freshmen, several former members of the Wisconsin club hockey program, and one law student. It is enough of a lineup that Sports Illustrated for Women ranked the Badgers the No. 10 team in the country in its Winter 1999 issue.
More importantly, Sasner has latched onto the Wisconsin hockey tradition like the badger that gives the school its nickname. She is photographed with men's ice hockey coach Jeff Sauer in the media guide, and has gotten the team to play "home" games in several venues in the greater Madison area this season, including the massive on-campus Kohl Center, the more modest Dane County Coliseum, the Capitol Arena in nearby Middleton. As if to bring the game to more people, she also has the Wisconsin women playing home games in the towns of Fond du Lac and Eau Claire.
Sasner understands that she is, and always has been, a transitional force in the game of women's ice hockey in the United States. Today, her role is putting the mere concept of a varsity women's ice hockey team at Wisconsin front and center in a state that had virtually no female participation in the early 1980s.
She and Wisconsin are part of a large movement in women's ice hockey into the Midwest; for much of the history of varsity women's ice hockey, the game has been limited to New England.
Sasner, as a graduate of Harvard, knows this about as well as anyone. Skating with long, athletic strides, she was one of the few American-born players who stood out in the college game; rivals like Providence, Northeastern, and New Hampshire were able to attract many Canadian players -- as well as the best American talent -- with scholarships.
Ice hockey in Sasner's era is much different from the brand of ice hockey played amongst the top teams today. Today, ice hockey players are not just converted figure skaters; they are finely-tuned and trained in the game of hockey from an early age, thanks to programs like the famous Assabet Valley (Mass.) program.
The periods are now 20 minutes each, up from 18. The ice is cut after every period instead of just twice per outing: once before the pre-game warmup, once before the second period.
The players are tremendously competitive as well: in the 80s, the penalties -- if any -- were of the holding and hooking variety. High-stick and tripping fouls were of the "excuse me" variety. As the 90s closed, you can look at a women's ice hockey scoresheet and see slashing, cross-checking and the occasional roughing call.
The game has changed enough so that Harvard and Brown -- two non-scholarship schools -- were among the Top 10 teams in the country at the close of the 1990s. One game between the two rival schools played in 1998 drew an estimated crowd of 1,800 people. Even in the mid-1990s, you were lucky to see 50 fans at a women's ice hockey game at either campus.
The game has changed so much that the contributions of some women's ice hockey pioneers have been overlooked. When the Ivy League released an all-time women's ice hockey team in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Ivy women's athletics, the team was heavily skewed towards the modern players. A number of record-setting players from the 1980s like Mollie Marcoux (Princeton), Sasner, and her Harvard teammate Charlotte Joslin were not nominated to that silver-anniversary team.
"I think it's a mistake to forget a Joslin," Sasner says. "The Olympic players got a lot of recognition, and they deserve it. But it would have been interesting to see Charlotte try out for that team."
Sasner does not mind that college hockey observers may view history through a skewed prism. She is busy looking ahead -- not only for her team, but for the women's game in general. Sasner has constructed a system of play which is unique in ice hockey.
Instead of the time-honored system of using two wingers, a defense pair and a center, Wisconsin deploys two wingers, a defense pair, and a "central defender."
"We call them D3s," Sasner says. "We have a pair of defenders who play with a defensive forward, then we have sets of wings we put out there. These are really centers, but we call them defensive forwards. It is important to us that we take care of our own zone, so if you have the same center playing with a defensive pair, they get to know each other better."
It is not the Soviet-conceived system which employed a rover to cover both wings in a deep defensive alignment, but it is something which has been heretofore unseen in much of organized hockey.
There are other ways in which Sasner is looking ahead. As president of the American Women's College Hockey Association (AWCHA), she is now bringing the two major women's college hockey conferences -- the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association -- together.
While there has been an AWCHA tournament at the end of the season, the women do not play for a NCAA championship. When that day comes, you can bet that Sasner's imprint will be all over that decision.