When the United States women’s national hockey team faced off against Slovakia in Zurich on Sunday night at the first round of the World Championships, the Slovakia net seemed impenetrable. The first period's 20 minutes ticked by painfully as the U.S. slapped more than a shot a minute at Slovakia’s netminder Zuzana Tomčíková.
Standing tall at 5 feet 11 inches, Tomčíková was unfazed. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver she faced more shots on goal than any other player -- male or female -- in the tournament, a whopping 235 shots during Slovakia’s five games. But for the U.S., the world's defending champions, Slovakia was the minor leagues, and the Americans were itching to blow past the tournament’s first rounds to reach the real competitors: the Canadians, with whom they’d split a series only two weeks before.
Finally, nearly four minutes into the second period, an unlikely player, Kendall Coyne, broke the game open with the U.S.’s first goal in the tournament -- suggesting not only that the U.S. is on track to challenging its northern neighbors, but also that Coyne will be a staple of the American hockey scene for years to come.
Coyne, of Palos Heights, Ill., is the youngest and smallest player of the squad: only 18 years old and a mere 5 feet 2 inches, more than a head shorter than most of the teammates. She’s still in high school, taking a fifth year at Berkshire School, a prep school in Massachusetts, after four years at Carl Sandburg High School in Chicago. This year at Berkshire she scored 55 goals and 22 assists, earning her New England Prep School Player of the Year -- just one more award to put on her mantle next to the medley she’s won on the under-18 and under-22 circuit, where she’s been a fixture for the past four years.
The secret to her success? Coyne’s fast -- one of the fastest players on the national team, thanks to years of skating on boys’ hockey teams, hours of Olympic lifts and plyometrics training, and the ever-humble excuse of good genes.
“For me, my speed is genetics -- both my parents are fast, my father especially fast,” said Coyne. “The other half is training.”
But Coyne wasn’t always a hockey player. Like many female players, Coyne found hockey through its more “feminine” sister sport: figure skating. Coyne was 3 years old when her then-6-year-old brother Kevin unsteadily took to the ice, suited up with hockey skates, heavy pads, a helmet, and a stick. Their mother, Ahlise, decided to outfit Coyne for competition too: in delicate white figure skates and a tutu.
“Ech! The difference was the tutu and the dress,” said Coyne. “I couldn’t wear the dresses.”
For Coyne, who still dresses like a tomboy, the foray into figure skating lasted only one week. She made the switch to hockey, and after her first practice, skated over to her mother and declared, “I need this sport.” Since then, she’s played on both boys’ teams and girls’ teams each season until she turned 16 and high school boys were towering over her slight frame. She credits a lot of her success to those hours on the ice as the only player with a ponytail.
“The only way that I’d ever have made the national team was by playing with the boys,” said Coyne. “The intensity is higher and obviously they’re bigger, faster and hit harder. I don’t think I’d be here without them.”
But women’s hockey is improving daily, says Coyne.
“My younger sister, Bailey, only played with boys up until sixth grade, which is pretty young to make the switch. I think girls’ programs are developing tremendously.”
And now on the national team -- which is plowing through the world tournament with 5-0 shutout against Slovakia and a crushing 13-1 win over Russia yesterday, including one goal from Coyne -- she’s more than happy with the level of competition.
“The intensity is at a completely different level, from the coaching staff to every player,” said Coyne. “I just can’t wait to play them, Canada, again. It’s always the best game.”
Tomorrow the U.S. will face off again against Sweden in the match before the quarterfinals on Friday.