An infectious leader. A fierce, intimidating competitor. A humbling character.
And unimaginable success.
That is what the Wisconsin women’s hockey team has gotten from four years of Brianna Decker. One hundred and forty games after first putting her silver blade on the ice for UW, the standout senior center is faced with the reality that this number could be forever frozen as she enters the playoff season with her Badgers for the last time.
Where that number ends up is entirely in the hands of Decker and her teammates. Losing two games this coming weekend in the first round of the WCHA tournament would make it a lowly 142. Or it could soar as high as 148 and a spot in the NCAA title game — a place Decker is no stranger to with two trips in the past two seasons.
But it is up to this ambitious Badgers team (21-9-2) and their fearless leader as to where this season, and her UW career, will meet its end.
For Decker, the storybook ending with one last championship on the ice would be her obvious choice, but what matters more is the moments off the ice in between.
“Win the national championship, of course,” she said about her final hopes for her time at UW. “But I think I want to just continue to have fun. I think we have a lot of fun on the team and I want to carry that with us no matter what.”
“Yeah, she has always been competitive”
What separates the 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award winner — given to Decker as college hockey’s top women’s player after leading the nation in goals (37) and tying for most points (82) last season — from most other hockey players is her unparalleled competitiveness that, when unleashed each time the puck drops, can’t be taken away.
“Stubborn, it’s between that and being so competitive,” head coach Mark Johnson said with a chuckle. “Whether we are playing ping pong or video games or on the ice playing shinny hockey, she wants to win, and I think that’s what ultimately drives her is that competitiveness.”
“Sometimes that helps her and sometimes that’s a hindrance to her but she is who she is and that’s a wonderful player and a pleasure to coach.”
Her competitive drive appears to those who watch Decker as an asset, and nothing else, to the young star. The 21-year-old has put up some of the most impressive numbers UW women’s hockey has ever seen, including the second highest mark in career game-winning goals (25), scores (113) and points (239). Decker also holds the program record for longest point streak, 32 games, lasting nearly a year, spanning over two seasons beginning Feb. 11, 2011 and ending last season on Jan. 6, 2012.
Not surprisingly, even as a youth player in a boys league she was on the ice with only winning in her mind.
“She would go around and throw some bodies around with the guys because back then we were close to being the bigger ones,” junior goaltender Alex Rigsby, who played on the same team with Decker at age 9, said laughing with an ear-to-ear grin. “So she would throw her body around. Yeah, she has always been competitive.”
As the journey ahead remains unknown, what Decker has done up until this point is nothing short of remarkable.
A Golden Pupil Turns Teacher
The freshman that showed up on campus back in the fall of 2009 had already found success, winning the national title with her high school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, senior year and having played as member of the national U-18 team.
While her momentum briefly went astray by breaking her wrist in her first series as a Badger, causing her to miss nine games, Decker went on to finish her opening season with 27 points, third most for Wisconsin, and 15 goals, earning three WCHA Rookie of the Week titles and a spot on the all-WCHA Rookie Team.
It was after this season when Decker decided she could be even better.
“She decided between April of her freshman year and September of her sophomore year that she was going to make a step and she put in a big effort over the summer and got big results out of it,” Johnson said. “And she has been one of the most dominating players in the world since that point.”
Despite her remarkable individual stats, it was the gold medal hanging around her neck that has meant the most.
“Winning the national championship my sophomore year was something that I never thought I was going to accomplish,” Decker said. “It was awesome to get that under the belt kind of right away.”
Besides the shining badge of accomplishment, Decker also took away invaluable experience playing with 2011’s star senior Meghan Duggan. Decker has consistently credited her mentor with who she tries to emulate both on and off the ice.
Now stepping into the leadership role Duggan held two years prior as captain, Decker is found after practice still on the ice teaching her younger teammates as Duggan once did for her.
“I think that [Duggan] stayed almost every day after practice with me and helped me out so I now try to stay out there and help these girls out whether it be little skills out on the ice or different learning aspects off the ice as well,” Decker, who aspires to be a coach one day, explained.
And no one has benefited more from Decker’s leadership than freshman forward Courtney Burke, who rooms with Decker on the road.
“It’s the leader she is. She is a great leader on and off the ice … you can come up to her and ask anything you want,” Burke said of the player she’s called a mentor all season long. “And [Decker] has a lot of confidence on the ice and it helps the team when we see that.”
Decker’s leadership has been one of the big reasons that a rocky 3-3-2 start to the season turned into one that saw Wisconsin earn its 21st win to end regular season play last weekend, helping the team enter the playoffs with a load of confidence.
The humble player won’t admit to being as stellar of a leader as those who have preceded her, but her role on the ice — leading UW in points (50), goals (27) and assists (23) — is one she takes seriously every game.
You can see it in each and every game in her determined, unpredictable and never-forgiving stride, accompanied by a look that always has one eye on the net.
“I have the same routine. I take a pregame nap … and get mentally ready,” she said. “I think that is a huge part of my game, being mentally prepared because I have to show up every game. My team counts on me so I try not to let them down.”
When her number of games as a Badger are finally set in stone, Decker will be heading off for her next big opportunity: a shot at an Olympic gold medal. Decker will tryout for Team USA in June and, if she makes it, will prepare nine months for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Either way, she will return to UW at some point to finish her final semester.
“I want to make the Olympic team and hopefully win a gold medal,” Decker said. “That’s what I have dreamed about ever since I was a kid so hopefully I can fulfill that within the next year.”
“Hopefully will not have to come back to school in the fall and take a year off,” she added, trying to hide back a big smile.
But right now her entire focus is on game 141, a battle in her home LaBahn Arena Friday night against St. Cloud State and remembering the journey that has got her to this point.
“I don’t have any regrets or anything, and no one should ever complain about going to school here and having a fun time,” Decker said.