It might be easy to overlook Megan Bozek on the University of Minnesota hockey team.
The defending NCAA-champion Golden Gophers are a bit like the 1927 Yankees, filled with great players up and down the lineup, from goaltender Noora Raty to high-scoring forwards Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt.
Minnesota is undefeated at 32-0, ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and has an NCAA-record unbeaten streak of 40 games.
Recently, a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune asked the question: “Are Gophers the best women’s hockey team ever?”
Coach Brad Frost’s team, obviously, has star power.
But it would be a mistake for anyone to be blinded by all that light and miss Bozek.
The 5-foot-9 senior captain, a first-team All-America defenseman last season, gives the Gophers a tough-minded presence in the defensive zone that’s helped the team rank No. 1 in the nation in team defense at 0.91 goals allowed per game.
In addition, Bozek is No. 2 in the nation among defensemen in scoring with 46 points — four points better than last season when she also was No. 2 in the nation. This past weekend, she also became the highest-scoring defenseman in Minnesota history with her 135th point, surpassing Winny Brodt, who had 134.
“When we recruited her, we knew that she was going to be very special,” Frost told the university’s campus newspaper in October. “I think over the last couple of years in particular, she’s really dedicated herself off the ice, which has in turn helped her on the ice to be, in my opinion, the best [defenseman] in the country, both offensively and defensively.”
Bozek is too busy enjoying this winning run to worry about who gets credit on a team that has a chance to win NCAA titles back-to-back for the first time since Wisconsin in 2006-07.
“It’s exciting,” Bozek said. “I don’t think any one of us expected to go this long without losing a game, but the willingness we have and the devotion we have to each other on and off the ice is incredible and is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
“That’s what’s really made us successful this year, and hopefully we can continue that through the playoffs.”
Bozek herself has been among the leaders in willingness to work and improve.
Frost has admitted he challenged Bozek early in her Gophers career to step up her game defensively, asking her, “Do you want to be a great defenseman or do you want to be an elite defenseman?” After Bozek’s work in Minnesota’s run to the championship last season, Frost said, “She clearly took the step to become an elite defenseman.”
Last season was a turning point for her in becoming a defense-first player, and she says extra time spent with assistant coach Joel Johnson has improved her techniques, her knowledge, her footwork and ability in the defensive zone.
“[He] is just remarkable,” Bozek said of Johnson. “He’s taught me things that I never would have thought I would learn about the defensive zone in hockey. How to move your feet … Simple things that really do take a long time to learn.”
Her natural tendency as a defenseman always had been to rush the puck up the ice at every opportunity, but now she’s adapted. She still takes the opportunities when they’re there, but it’s defense first.
Still, she’s a terrific scorer and picks up many of her goals on a hard slap shot from the blue line on power plays.
For Bozek, who began playing hockey at an early age, following in the footsteps of two older brothers and her father, playing defense just seemed the natural position.
First, she was tall and suited for it. Second, her brothers toughened her up for it in basement games where they made her the goalie. She played a lot of hockey with boys, including three years on the Team Illinois boys’ squad.
“It was just a great opportunity to get stronger, faster,” she said. “[I learned] the more physical side of the game. Once the boys started outgrowing me, I decided to switch to girls’ hockey.”
Bozek says improving as a player at Minnesota is a tribute not only to the coaching staff but also playing with such talented teammates — and against the toughest teams in the nation.
“Just moving the puck and playing alongside Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt and knowing that you have Noora Ratay, too, gives you a lot more confidence in your game,” she said. “You’re able to step outside your comfort zone and try different things that maybe will work and maybe won’t, but you know that you have five other players on the ice that you trust and you’re willing to take the extra step and potentially make a mistake. I think that really helps.”
Aside from growth on the ice and in her studies — she will graduate with a degree in sports management with a minor in leadership — Bozek also has made the effort to help others. She’s given more than 200 hours toward volunteer work and community service and has been nominated for the BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award, given annually to a player who not only is outstanding as a player but who also helps others in her community. Bozek, one of 11 nominees nationally, has volunteered at local schools and for several nonprofits, particularly focusing on helping children.
Bozek says volunteering is a priority.
“Ever since my freshman year I’ve dedicated myself to making sure I found time, no matter how busy my schedule was, no matter if we have games on the weekends,” she said.
Bozek isn’t sure what comes next after college. She’d love to get an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team for 2014, but the goal right now is much closer to home.
In fact, the Frozen Four will be played at the University of Minnesota, so getting a chance to play for a second national title would be dream finale.
“To have another chance … in front of our home crowd at Ridder Arena for one last time is great,” she said. “I think there is a little added pressure to us, but if we keep playing how we’re playing, I’m not worried.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.