Carla MacLeod was slightly off in her timing during the four years she attended the University of Wisconsin on a hockey scholarship.
Had she put it off even one semester, she might be sporting an NCAA championship ring.
Her college days as a Badger worked out great for Canada, however. On the way to earning a bachelor of science degree, MacLeod was a contributing rock on defense for the National Women’s Team, part of the foundation that struck gold at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
That, she couldn’t have timed any better, and it far overshadowed anything she could have possibly accomplished in college hockey.
“Those four years of school were the best years of my life so far,” said MacLeod, who lives in Calgary. “To be down in Wisconsin, where they’re Badger-crazy, was a blast.
“Apparently I was the reason they were losing,” she chuckled. “When I left, they hadn’t won anything yet, but in the two years since I’ve been gone they’re back-to-back NCAA champions. They have a hugely successful program under Mark Johnson, who was part of the 1980 Miracle on Ice (U.S. Olympic) team and an 11-year NHL veteran. He knows what he’s doing and I have nothing but praise for that program.”
MacLeod is one of hundreds of Canadian women who have turned their hockey skills into paid college educations. The list of scholarship players has grown exponentially since the first IIHF World Women’s Championship was played in 1990. Seventeen of the 40 Canadian players currently attend universities on scholarships in Canada or the U.S.
That’s helped create a groundswell of young girls signing up to play minor hockey.
“With the opportunities in CIS and the NCAA, all the girls coming up now are getting their education, and that’s fantastic, and to have it paid for is just a bonus,” said MacLeod. “It’s a nice thing to come out of school and enter the work world and not be too far in debt.”
Female hockey has made some impressive strides in gaining prominence among Canadians. Winning back-to-back gold at the Olympics had a lot to do with that. Even though the Own the Podium program has directed more federal money at the women’s program, MacLeod says many of the players still feel the need to work at other jobs.
“It’s getting better, but it’s still tough to make a living and the cost of living in the big cities where we live -- Calgary, Toronto and Montreal -- is very expensive,” MacLeod said. “So a lot of girls have part-time or full-time jobs. I’m currently looking for work so I’ll soon be in that boat.”
MacLeod just turned 25, but when she sees all the youngbloods trying out for the national team this week at the International Women’s Fall Festival, it’s hard for her hard not to think of herself as one of the camp elders.
The Team Canada White roster reveals 18-year-olds Laura Fridfinnson and Haley Irwin; 17-year-old Courtney Birchard; and Laura Hosier, Valerie Chouinard and Catherine Ward, all of whom are just barely into their 20s. Canada Red has four players in the Under-22 category -- Shannon Szabados, Jennifer Wakefield, Mallory Deluce and Emmanuelle Blais.
Among the veteran blueliners pushing MacLeod in camp are Annie Guay of Rouyn-Noranda, Que., and Cathy Chartrand of Lac Dominique, Que., both of whom served as alternate captains at the 2007 world championship in Winnipeg. Cheryl Pounder, who is not at the camp, and Becky Kellar are the other Team Canada veterans on defense.
Eight defensemen will go to Harbin, China for the 2008 IIHF World Women’s Championship April 4-13, 2008, and MacLeod says its likely only six will get to play.
“There’s a good core of us here,” said MacLeod. “Getting Becky back is huge. She’s an incredible talent and it’s fun to have her back -- she’s a hoot off the ice.
“None of us are mainstays at this camp, and the minute you think you are, that’s when you get cut. There’s no reason a younger kid can’t outplay me and if they do I’d hope they’d get the spot.”
Next to Gillian Ferrari, who is 27, none of the other Canada White defenseman have walked this earth as long as MacLeod. So it was only natural when the captains were picked for this week’s tournament, MacLeod’s name was on the list.
“This is the first time with the senior national team I’ve worn a letter at any camp or any event and it’s obviously an honour,” said MacLeod. “I was a two-year captain with the Under-22 team so I’m coming in with have a little bit of experience, but this is a new opportunity for me.”