With her team taking a drubbing in its first game as a varsity program, Jill Pohtilla worried how her players would react. The rookie coach understood Augsburg College wasn't going to win much during its initial season of women's hockey in 1995-96. But for the fledgling program to blossom, her players had to enjoy themselves -- and a 13-3 beatdown might not be their idea of a good time.

Pohtilla pulled starting goalie Heather Hanson and nervously began trying to soothe her feelings. The coach told Hanson she did well, particularly for a softball player trying hockey for the first time. Besides, the defense didn't help out, and the other team had much more experience. Then Pohtilla asked, with more than a little anxiety, what Hanson thought of hockey.

"She smiled from ear to ear and said, 'It's a gas!'" Pohtilla recalled. "What a way to put it all into perspective. Only four of those women had ever played hockey before, but they absorbed so much that season. Those are the things I'll never forget."

Pohtilla compiled 14 more seasons of memories with the Auggies before announcing her resignation two weeks ago. She gave as good as she got, imparting a lifelong love of the game to 150 college women during a career loaded with milestones.

At Augsburg, she launched the first college varsity women's hockey program in the Midwest, two years before the Gophers women began playing at that level. As a teen, she played on the pioneering Minnesota Checkers girls' teams that won multiple national championships. Pohtilla's 171 career victories are the third most in history among NCAA Division III women's hockey coaches, and she exerted immeasurable influence on the development of the women's game as a coach at USA Hockey camps, a member of the Division III women's ice hockey committee and a champion for emerging programs.

What's most telling is that Pohtilla doesn't measure herself by those achievements. Instead, she looks at the piles of Christmas cards she gets every year from her former players -- now mothers, career women and community leaders -- and sees the ultimate benefits of allowing women to discover their best selves through sport.

"I've seen the same story here again and again," said Pohtilla, whose Auggies teams went 171-177-30 and earned two MIAC regular-season titles and a league playoff championship.

"Somebody comes in, and they're very quiet and shy. And after two or three years, their sport helps define them in a way that helps them find their voice. They're leaders and role models, and that means more to me than the championships we've won."

Unlike many young women of her generation, Pohtilla found support and encouragement on every step of her hockey journey. With the blessing of her parents, she learned the game by playing with her brothers on the pond behind the family's Plymouth home, then joined a local girls' team.

Many of her teammates could barely skate. But committed coaches and supportive families nurtured those girls' programs, as well as the locally celebrated Checkers teams. She didn't have the chance to play college hockey, because the few schools that fielded women's teams in the 1980s were all on the East Coast. Only a few years later, Pohtilla found herself in position to change that.

Her plans to attend medical school evaporated in 1993 when she took a job coaching a new girls' high school team, made up of players from Anoka and Champlin Park. Two years later, Pohtilla landed at Augsburg, where she realized the power of sport to influence girls' lives. Her new hockey team attracted some young women who didn't intend to go to college, and she could see the game's impact on their confidence and sense of self.

That first team -- the one defeated 13-3 by the Gophers' club team -- ended the season with a rematch. It won 1-0, completing a year of incredible growth that bolstered Pohtilla's prediction of a swift evolution in the women's game.

Though she needed to take a breather from an all-consuming profession, she's already made plans to begin playing in a women's fall league -- and to see where her beloved sport goes from here.

"Everyone wants to leave a mark in life," she said. "When I get those Christmas cards from players, that makes me feel like I've left a mark. To see young women get these kinds of opportunities is what it's all about."

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com