Bulldogs, Buckeyes share what it’s like to welcome back an Olympic gold medalist
Minnesota Duluth and Ohio State battled in the NCAA title game last spring at Penn State, with the Buckeyes edging the Bulldogs for the national championship. Now both teams welcome back Olympic gold medalists Ashton Bell and Emma Maltais from Canada who have a different perspective on the game of hockey.
DULUTH — When Minnesota Duluth drops the puck on the 2022-23 season at 6:45 p.m. Saturday against Long Island University in East Meadow, New York, Ashton Bell will be back in the Bulldogs' lineup for the first time since March 18, 2021.
An All-American defenseman who two years ago advanced UMD to the NCAA Frozen Four in Erie, Pennsylvania, with an overtime goal, Bell spent the past year-plus with the Canadian national and Olympic hockey teams winning gold medal after gold medal in tournament finals against the Americans.
Bell’s return restores an offensive presence that was missing from the Bulldogs' blue line a year ago when they made the run to the NCAA championship game, however, that’s not the most important attribute she brings according to her coach and teammates.
It’s an inclusive form of leadership that stretches beyond the rink, locker room and confines of Amsoil Arena.
“She gets along with everybody and makes sure that everybody is included,” said Gabbie Hughes, who will serve with Bell and Kylie Hanley as a co-captain this season. “She's always rallying people to go for bonfires on the on the beach, on the rocks, whatever. So to have that energy back and to have somebody that really gets that kind of stuff going is obviously super huge for the team aspect.”
Bell is one of two Olympic gold medalists from Team Canada back in the WCHA this season along with Ohio State fifth-year senior forward Emma Maltais. There are three total in NCAA Division I women’s hockey team year, as forward Sarah Fillier has returned to Princeton for her true-senior season.
Like the Bulldogs, the Buckeyes are most excited about the leadership qualities Maltais gained from her time centralized with Canada.
Compared to their college program, where both were leaders and major contributors on the stat sheet, Maltais and Bell took on entirely different roles with Team Canada. Neither had a guaranteed spot in the lineup, and when they were dressed, ice time often came at a premium.
“Emma is going to bring something that this program has never seen in her leadership,” said coach Nadine Muzerall, whose Buckeyes edged UMD in the final of the Frozen Four at Penn State last season for the program’s first national championship. “And what I mean by that is, Emma has always been ranked No. 1 on our team in terms of offense and point production. She was centralized and sitting in a locker room where she was a fourth-line center, sometimes not dressing in games. She now can understand and relate to the other players on our team that might not get a lot of ice time.”
Maltais or Bell — both 22, turning 23 this winter — were both centralization rookies with Canada last season, appearing in their first IIHF Women’s World Championship last August in Calgary and their first Olympics in Beijing. So they took on new roles in the locker room as well.
“She was very vocal when she was here, and then when she's in a locker room surrounded with (Marie-Philip) Poulin and (Natalie) Spooner — your ears are open and your mouth shut,” Muzerall said of Maltais. “She's learning a lot and I think she's going to bring a great amount of knowledge of culture and locker room experience. Her talent on ice speaks for itself of course.”
Maltais — who had a goal and an assist in seven Olympic games in Beijing — had five goals and 11 assists in 20 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season after posting 19 goals and 40 assists in 38 games during her last full season of 2019-20.
Bell — with a goal and four assists at the Olympics — had four goals and 10 assists in the COVID-19 season of 2020-21 and 11 goals, plus 21 assists, in 36 games in 2019-20.
The 11 goals Bell scored during her last full season with the Bulldogs was the number of goals UMD’s defensemen combined for a year ago, even after converting Hanley from forward to defense (she’s back at forward this year).
UMD brings back five of its seven full-time defensemen from last season’s Frozen Four team, including fifth-year senior Maggie Flaherty, who missed the final 15 games due to injury. In addition to Bell, UMD welcomes in defenseman Tova Henderson, who helped Canada win gold at the recent IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship.
Both Hughes and Bulldogs coach Maura Crowell said Bell’s confidence inspires UMD’s blue liner to be more offensive and confident in their play. The hope is that leads to more points from the defensemen, and not just from those who have won Olympic gold.
“I love to see her out there with her speed on the back end and her offensive ability,” Crowell said. “It's just so fun to watch. I really think she inspires that defensive group around her to play a little more freely, a little more offensively, and to try new things.”