An award of The USA Hockey Foundation, the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award is presented annually to the top player in NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey.
Sometimes situations can get a bit strange for some of the top Canadian players in women’s college hockey.
Take Sarah Nurse of the University of Wisconsin and Sarah Potomak of the University of Minnesota, for instance.
In November, the two forwards were on the same line for Team Canada in the Four Nations Cup. Both played all four games in Sweden as Canada finished second to Team USA.
Less than a month later, the two were going head-to-head in an intense matchup at Madison, Wisconsin, featuring the top two teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Nurse, a junior from Hamilton, Ontario, had a goal and an assist as Wisconsin swept the two-game series 3-2 and 3-1 from Minnesota, despite a goal by Gophers freshman Potomak, who is from Aldergrove, British Columbia.
“It is totally weird,” Nurse said of the teammate-turned-enemy scenario. “I think we kind of see each other and we love playing together, and when you stop doing that it’s, ‘Oooh, you’re really good and I don’t want to play against you.’ ”
The turnaround, of course, is that Nurse and Potomak often have to face their American friends and teammates when they’re wearing their Canada colors. In the Four Nations Cup, that meant Nurse playing against Annie Pankowski, her Badgers teammate of two seasons.
“We kind of know what each other does on the ice, and so playing against her was really different,” Nurse said.
Potomak, too, acknowledges the college friendships add an extra element to the Canada-U.S. rivalry.
“Before the games it’s fun to see them and hang out with them,” she said. “And then we play each other, we’re not friends at that point. But it’s fun to experience that.”
This season, Nurse and Potomak are among Canadian players making the biggest impacts in college hockey.
Nurse Stars for Surging Badgers
Nurse ranks tied for 23rd in the nation with 29 points in 24 games, with 20 goals (No. 7 in NCAA Division I). She’s averaging 1.21 points per game, far above her average as a freshman (0.68) when she had 25 points and freshman (0.55) when she had 21.
What’s most exciting to her, however, is the Badgers’ success. Wisconsin is 26-1-1 and ranks No. 2 in the nation behind undefeated Boston College.
Nurse said Wisconsin is playing well in all facets of the game.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “We have four solid lines and we have seven solid defensemen and on the back end, with our goaltending, it’s just been really successful.”
Nurse’s game is built on speed. She uses it to harass opponents when they have the puck — “I like to push the pace of the offensive team and make them make plays and work before they want to,” she said — and force the attack when she has the puck.
She said since coming to Wisconsin, her game has improved through weight work in the gym and competing against terrific talent every day.
“I’ve been able to shoot on amazing goalies while I’ve been here,” she said, mentioning Alex Rigsby and Ann-Renee Desbiens in particular.
Nurse, who began skating when she was 3 and playing hockey by age 5, comes from an athletically gifted family. One cousin, Darnell Nurse, is a defenseman with the Edmonton Oilers. His sister, Kia, is a University of Connecticut and Team Canada basketball standout. Her dad, Roger, played lacrosse for Canada. Two uncles — one of whom was longtime NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb — played pro football.
She’d like to add to the family legacy. Her experience with the senior Canadian team at Four Nations was her first, but she has her eyes on making the Olympic team for 2018.
Potomak Makes a “Massive Impact”
Potomak is the highest-scoring freshman in NCAA Division I and tied for seventh overall with 45 points. Her 34 assists are No. 1 in the nation.
She’s on the same line with senior Hannah Brandt and junior Dani Cameranesi, giving the Gophers three of the nation’s top seven scorers. It’s been a perfect situation for Potomak’s introduction to college hockey.
“They’re two of the best players in the country, so we’ve done quite well together,” Potomak said. “They’ve pushed me a lot in practice and have made me look at the game differently.”
She committed to Minnesota when she was in the 10th grade — attracted by the program’s success — and now that she’s finally at the school, she said it’s exceeded all expectations. She loves the “big-school atmosphere,” the academics, the coaches and the level of hockey in practice and games.
“I love waking up every day and knowing I’ve got the opportunity to wear the ‘M,’ ” she said.
Potomak started her career with a bang, scoring a goal in her first game. Over her fourth, fifth and sixth college games she had 13 points (two goals, 11 assists). She said she’s surprised she’s among the national leaders, but her goal was to “make a massive impact on the team as soon as I got here.”
“I guess you could say I’m pretty happy with what has happened so far,” she said.
Potomak turned 18 in December and at 17 was the youngest player on the Team Canada roster for the Four Nations Cup in November.
“It was super cool to play with the players I’ve looked up to when I was young,” she said. It whetted her appetite to make the team for the world championships in March and April in Kamloops in her home province.
Potomak followed four older brothers into hockey. She could skate almost as soon as she could walk, and loved to wear her brothers’ hockey gear around.
“My dad got me a pair of skates and every time they would go skating, I would go with them,” she said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo of Nurse: David Stluka, Wisconsin Athletics
Photo of Potomak: Brad Rempel