April 17th, 2024

Canadians in NCAA Women’s Frozen Four focused on national title, eye PWHL future

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on March 21, 2024.

Ohio State's Jennifer Gardiner, right, celebrates with teammates Teagan Grant (5) and Hadley Hartmetz (6) after scoring during the second period of an NCAA college women's Frozen Four semifinal hockey game against Yale on March 18, 2022, in State College, Pa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Gary M. Baranec

Jennifer Gardiner used to get asked about plans for the future.

Her answer was simple – become a professional hockey player.

“But that wasn’t really an option,” she recalled. “So it became, ‘What do you want to be on the side while you’re playing hockey?'”

Without a sustainable North American women’s circuit and the accompanying competitive salaries, there would have to be a second career to support Gardiner’s passion. That’s what players before her had done to chase their icy dreams.

Times have changed. And fast.

Set to compete in the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four beginning Friday, the Ohio State captain from Surrey, B.C., has a keen eye on the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s banner first season.

A fifth-year senior working toward a master’s degree in sports management, Gardiner sees a future where 100 per cent of her attention is on the sport she loves.

“Actually being able to focus on your craft,” she said. “I have a goal of playing for the national team and making it to the Olympics.

“To be able to play hockey as my full-time job and devote my entire life to that the next couple of years is something I’m really excited for.”

Gardiner and her teammates will first be looking to secure the program’s second U.S. national championship in women’s hockey after winning in 2022 and finishing runners-up last year.

No. 1 Ohio State will take on No. 4 Clarkson in Friday’s semifinals in Durham, N.H., before No. 2 Wisconsin meets No. 3 Colgate. The title game goes Sunday.

There will be plenty of north-of-the-border content. Clarkson’s roster includes 22 Canadians, followed by Colgate with 14, Ohio State with six, and Wisconsin with five.

“My last tournament of college hockey,” Gardiner said.

But not the end of the road.

The six-team PWHL has burst onto the sports scene since its January launch with an innovative, forward-thinking approach to the game that’s been a hit with fans.

“An exciting time for women’s hockey,” said fifth-year Colgate forward Danielle Serdachny. “A lot of players have goals and dreams.”

The Edmonton product added the upstart PWHL has been “the talk of our team” this season.

“Definitely makes me curious,” said Serdachny, tied for fourth in NCAA scoring with 61 points in 39 games. “I’m just trying to focus on the tournament and my final college games, but what they have there is super exciting.”

Clarkson’s Nicole Gosling and some of her teammates have made the 90-minute drive from Potsdam, N.Y., to Ottawa for a couple of PWHL contests.

“Everything is ramping up so quick,” said the defender from London, Ont. “That’s what a lot of the girls playing in the league right now have been pushing for.

“They finally had their voice heard.”

Colgate head coach Greg Fargo, meanwhile, has heard lots of PWHL chatter in the NCAA.

“What an opportunity,” he said. “It couldn’t come at a better time for some of our graduates.”

The Kingston, Ont., product said the league, which will hold its second-ever draft in June, is also a significant boost to U.S. college sports and women’s hockey at all levels.

“I’ll watch a PWHL game with my eight-year-old daughter,” Fargo said. “That has an impact on how she sees the game and the opportunities that will be out there.

“It’s going to grow our game tremendously. It’s not just every four years surrounding the Olympics. It’s going to be every season.”

Clarkson head coach Matt Desrosiers played professionally after his NCAA career ended. He couldn’t imagine holding down a full-time job and pursuing that dream all at once.

“Now they have one, singular focus,” said the native of Fort Erie, Ont. “They don’t have to make tough decisions as far as moving on with their careers if they still have an opportunity to play pro.

“They’ve earned it. They deserve it.”

Those players include women currently in the PWHL who fought for a united North American league on solid financial footing – and past generations that scraped by in hopes of a better future.

“The reason it’s all come to life,” Serdachny said. “All the credit goes to them.”

Gardiner is reassured the end of her NCAA journey isn’t the end of a viable hockey path.

“I’m very passionate,” she said. “Excited to continue to my career.

“And focus on hockey.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2024.

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