As Team USA opens its training camp in final preparation for the 2011 IIHF World Women’s Championship in Zurich and Winterthur goalie Jesse Vetter is busier than most of her teammates. Not only is Vetter one of three goalies going to Switzerland to try to win Worlds gold for a third straight time, she’s also involved as a coach at the U19 level with a team that’s in the national championships in Michigan this week as well.
“I won’t be with them because of camp, but I’m sure they’ll be giving me updates minute by minute. I’ll give them pep talks. They’ll survive,” Vetter said good-naturedly. “Because the nationals are in Michigan and our camp is in Ann Arbour, the girls will come and see us in an exhibition game against Canada on April 7.”
Vetter is in her first year as an assistant coach with the Madison Capitals, a level of hockey between junior (U18) and senior level. “It’s a very competitive league and prepares players for the next step, be it NCAA or the national team, and gives them a chance to be seen by scouts,” she explained. Forward Amanda Pelkey, a teammate, has played at this level all year with NAHA (North American Hockey Academy) in Vermont.
The teams in U19 are typically for junior and senior high school players, and getting to the nationals starts by winning at the state and then district levels. “I grew up playing for the Capitals throughout high school, so when they asked me to join as a coach I said sure,” Vetter explained. “It helped me get to the University of Wisconsin and then to the national team.”
This level of play is an ideal way for players too old for U18 play to prepare for a senior career, and it’s one that has grown exponentially since the IIHF made women’s hockey part of its annual program. “It’s been around a long time, but as women’s hockey has grown it’s gotten much bigger,” Vetter said. “There are a lot more teams in a lot more states now, and there are a lot of teams now that weren’t around when I was playing. It’s more competitive than ever.”
Indeed, the facts are clear. “The vast majority of players go on to play college at Division I or III,” she said. “It’s a good league, and the players are very serious about their game. It’s a great first step to the next level.”
For the girls playing at Wisconsin, having Vetter on the coaching staff is like a boys team having Martin Brodeur mentoring them. Vetter has been the goalie for the Americans in the last three gold-medal games against Canada – the 2010 Olympics, and the 2009 and 2008 World Women’s Championships. She lost the game in Vancouver, 2-0, but was the winning goalie in the two World Championships.
Coming into camp this year, there is no pressure about making the team. After all, there are only three goalies here and all three will travel to Zurich, but the number-one goalie still has to be determined. “As a goalie, it’s difficult,” Vetter admitted. “Only one can play in a game. However, the three of us are the best of friends and support each other. Still, you always want to be the one in net.” The other goalies are Molly Schauss and Briane McLaughlin, both of whom played a game in Vancouver, but both of whom will likely play behind Vetter in Zurich later in April.
Vetter is very much looking forward to the upcoming Worlds, the first major event since Vancouver. “We’re just excited to get back together and see friends, and hopefully it will be a tough camp that will get us ready for the tournament,” she said.
But there is no hiding the fact that no matter how great the World Women’s Championship, nothing beats the Olympics. “The biggest difference is the number of people watching,” she explained. “The Worlds are about playing well and being with family and friends, but the Olympics everyone is watching. It’s intense, and there’s a lot more pressure, and in Canada it’s always a packed house.”
Vetter is 25 years old, not ancient by any means, but an age when the future is as much about post-career than the next game. “I could definitely see myself coaching there in the future,” she admitted, noting how much fun her time with the Capitals has been this year. “The thing I like most about it is that the girls are still in high school, still getting better and eager to learn. It’s a league that develops you as a person and a player.”
Something to look forward to once she is no longer playing for gold.