DULUTH — The NCAA began sponsoring a women’s hockey championship in the 2000-01 season, and the early power in the sport was Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs captured the first three titles, then added championships in 2008 and ’10, with their five crowns tied with Wisconsin for second-most, one behind Minnesota’s total.
Since that last title in 2010, though, Minnesota Duluth has only two NCAA tournament appearances, first-round exits in 2011 and ’17. Maura Crowell is aiming to change that, and she might have the team to do so this season.
“Our mind-set is we’re in the same conversations as those teams,” said Crowell, Minnesota Duluth’s fifth-year coach, referring to WCHA and national powers Wisconsin and Minnesota. “We don’t see ourselves any differently.”
So far, so good for the Bulldogs, who opened their season last weekend with a home split against then-No. 3 Clarkson. That moved UMD up one spot to No. 9 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll. On Friday and Saturday at AMSOIL Arena, the Bulldogs being WCHA play Friday and Saturday against Minnesota State.
The series opener will be televised at 3 p.m. on FSN as part of a doubleheader with the men’s team’s opener against Massachusetts Lowell at 7 p.m. What the afternoon viewers might see is the Bulldogs’ Gabbie and Maddie Show.
Gabbie Hughes, a sophomore forward, and Maddie Rooney, a senior goalie, are standouts for UMD. Hughes led the Bulldogs with 19 goals and 18 assists in 33 games last season and had a goal and two assists last weekend. Rooney, the U.S. Olympic gold medalist, shut out Clarkson on 29 saves on Saturday.
A former Centennial High School star, Hughes was the Star Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year in 2018. She originally committed to North Dakota, but that school dropped its program and Hughes found a home at UMD.
“This was meant to be to come here,” she said. “It’s just feels like home.”
She made herself at home in the WCHA, ranking fifth in the league in goals and seventh in points. “From the first practice, the team was so welcoming,” Hughes said. “From that point on, no one was a freshman, no one was a senior. We’re just a team here to play.”
Crowell was quickly impressed with Hughes’ courage.
“When you come into the WCHA as a freshman, it’s hard to make a splash, and she did,” the coach said. “Even by the second half of the year, people knew when she was on the ice. … Secret’s out.”
Rooney, meanwhile, was far from an unknown last season. The Andover native was the winning goalie in quite possibly the best game in U.S. women’s hockey history — the 3-2 shootout triumph over Canada in the gold medal game in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. She stopped 29 shots through overtime, plus two in the shootout.
“When we score on her, we ‘cele’. We’re like, ‘Take that, Rooney!’ “ Hughes said of the good-natured battles with Rooney in practice. “… You gain more confidence in practice knowing you’re going against an Olympic gold medalist.”
Rooney’s status as a gold medalist had one drawback — the demands on her time. “After the Olympics, I felt like I was on a different plane every weekend,” she said. Her play for the Bulldogs tailed off, too. After a 2016-17 season in which she went 25-7-5 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .942 save percentage, Rooney’s stats last season were 12-15-4 with a 2.80 GAA and .919 save percentage.
“This summer after a year back in the college routine last year, I could really focus on training and hockey,” she said. “Just to have that routine again is really nice, and I felt more prepared and confident going into this season. … There were a lot of expectations to live up to, which was a good experience to go through and learn how to overcome that.”
Crowell sees the return to normalcy as helpful for Rooney.
“Coming back from such a life-changing event is so hard to just go back to being a normal college student,” she said. “What I see is a really confident, comfortable, mature Maddie.”
With Rooney and Hughes leading a deep and talented team, UMD is embracing its underdog role in its quest to contend for the WCHA title with powers Wisconsin and Minnesota and return to the NCAA tournament.
“We know we can play with those teams,” Rooney said, “and we’ve proven we can play with those teams.”
Added Crowell, “We like being the blue-collar Bulldogs up here who ruin things for the favorites.’’