After back-to-back trips to the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four in 2010 and 2011, it would be natural to assume that Cornell head coach Doug Derraugh and his team are focused on winning the NCAA championship. It would be the program’s first title and would make the first time a team outside the Western Collegiate Hockey Association won a championship since the NCAA began sponsoring a women’s hockey championship in 2001.
At the same time, however, with five games left in the regular season before the ECAC Hockey tournament begins, it’s also understandable that Derraugh would downplay speculation on a national title run.
“I think that every year, we’ve got the same expectations,” Derraugh said. “That’s to be the best that we can be. The last four games, I didn’t think we played our best. I think we can be better. We need to stress those areas and get to work on them right away, so that we’re playing our best down the stretch, but as far as our urgency this year, the expectations are the same every year, and we’re looking to be champions.”
For senior forward Rebecca Johnston, however, this year is definitely different, because it will be her last in a Cornell uniform, and her last chance to be a champion with the Big Red.
“I don’t want to think about the end of the road,” Johnston said, “but it’s definitely been an exciting four years so far, and I’m just excited to be able to see this team grow. I know that my freshman year and sophomore year, we weren’t the best team, so it’s definitely been a great experience being involved with this team and watching us grow each year. This last stretch is exciting, and sad at the same time. I don’t want it to end, but if we play well, we’ve got a chance of making it all the way, so I’m excited about that challenge.”
The challenge of contending for an NCAA title is one that hardly seemed realistic at Cornell when Johnston started her Big Red career in the fall of 2007. Harvard, Dartmouth and St. Lawrence had been established as the class of ECAC Hockey in the modern era, and Cornell was coming off a 4-23-2 season in which the team had failed to even qualify for the eight-team ECAC Hockey tournament. And, as a highly-touted player with international experience, Johnston certainly had her options with more successful programs. However, after seeing older sister Sarah choose Cornell and spending time with her on campus, the younger Johnston was attracted by the prospect of four years at fabled Lynah Rink.
“There were a number of reasons,” Johnston said. “My sister went to the school before me, so that was a big part of it. I’d been to Cornell a couple of years before I was deciding. Also, Doug Derraugh is a great coach, and I thought he’d be a great coach for me. He played forward, he knows a lot about the things I need to work on, and I think he really helped me develop as a player. Then, the school in general, I thought it fit my style well. I really enjoy the atmosphere of the school. Overall, it was the best fit for me.”
As excited as Johnston was about her choice, however, her expectations for competing on the national level were tempered by the Big Red’s lack of historical success.
“Going into my freshman year, I probably didn’t think that was a possibility,” Johnston said of a championship run. “We’d won four games the previous season, so I was going into it hoping that I could change it around and hopefully get better through the years, but school, academic-wise, was the major thing in my mind.”
With Johnston in the fold, however, the Big Red’s fortunes have turned. She was the first player in program history to be named to earn First Team All-ECAC Hockey honors, and she was also the conference’s Rookie of the Year. That level of excellence has continued and risen into a senior year that has Johnston first in ECAC Hockey and eighth nationally with 1.85 points per game. However, Johnston’s impact on Cornell has gone far beyond her own personal performance.
“Obviously, it was huge on a lot of fronts,” Derraugh said, “from players coming here because they see her here, and basically helping us to turn our program around. She’s done a lot of things on the ice and off the ice to help us develop this program, and been a big part of it.”
Cornell’s improved recruiting since Johnston’s arrival has been such that the team’s first appearance at the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four came in 2010, when Johnston was busy winning a gold medal with Canada at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The Big Red advanced to the NCAA championship game that year before falling to Minnesota-Duluth, and returned to the Frozen Four last year, only to fall to Boston University in the national semifinals. This year, with the Big Red riding high again as one of the top teams in the nation, an NCAA title is in the sights, but Johnston and her teammates are trying to keep it in the back of their minds for the time being.
“That’s definitely a goal of mine,” Johnston said, “and it’s something that I know I want to accomplish and every person my team wants to accomplish. When I prepare for a weekend of games, I don’t try to focus on that. I take it step by step and just think about each game at a time and try not to get ahead of myself. It’s definitely in the back of my mind, but I don’t try to focus on it all the time.”
One could argue, of course, that a player who’s already won at the sport’s highest level — the Olympics — doesn’t have anything to prove by winning an NCAA title. However, Johnston certainly doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s a different perspective for me. Yeah, I’ve won some of those championships, I’ve been to the Olympics, but it’s not about that. I’ve spent so many years, so much time and effort at Cornell, competing for my school, and I just think that it would be a great experience and a great opportunity to make it to the Frozen Four and try to win a national championship. It would be a great honor for my school, and for me it would be a great accomplishment. Competing for your school, with the teammates that you’re with every day is something special, and it’s a different experience, and [winning a championship] is something that I would like to try to accomplish in my last year here.”
That’s the kind of dedication to the program and the school that Derraugh has come to expect from his star forward.
“We’re certainly grateful for all of her hard work,” Derraugh said, “and obviously, you want to finish on a good note as a player like that leaves your program.”
Fortunately, Rebecca Johnston isn’t leaving just yet.