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Everything is coming together for Megan Bozek

12/18/2012, 1:45pm MST
By Drew Silvermen

Three years ago, Megan Bozek never could have imagined that she would be in this spot.
 
A senior standout for the University of Minnesota hockey team. A first-team All-American and an NCAA champion. And most importantly, a member of the U.S. Women's National Team.
 
Those are accolades that any women’s hockey player would drool over. But they are accolades that did not come easily, particularly when Bozek thinks back to her first collegiate practice.
 
“My first Bozek Mugpractice was 2 hours, 45 minutes, and I didn’t think I’d be able to last all year,” she says in retrospect. “It was different coming from a travel team in Chicago where we practiced twice a week to practicing every day here.”
 
At the time, did she envision one day playing for Team USA?
 
“Making the national team was a stretch,” she said flatly.
 
Bozek acknowledges that the turning point for her hockey career came between her sophomore and junior seasons for the Golden Gophers. She decided to get in better shape. She really dedicated herself to defense. In short, she began to emerge as the superstar that she is today.
 
And now Bozek is one of the nation’s best defensemen, whether you judge greatness by leadership and character, by statistics (29 points in 20 games) or by team record (20-0-0).
 
“Hard work does pay off,” she said with a smile.
 
Indeed, her dedication resulted in a spot on the U.S. team at the Under-18 World Championships in Germany in 2009. And most recently, Bozek participated in the 2012 Four Nations Cup — a tournament featuring the United States, Canada, Finland and Sweden — that the Americans won this past November.
 
“It was great,” Bozek said. “It’s so exciting going to your first international tournament, so to speak, with the national program. Knowing that we have a group of girls that doesn’t play together all season that can come together and play together and bond as a team in that short a period of time is great.”
 
Asked about the level of competition in international hockey, compared to her college rivals, Bozek did not hesitate.
 
“You forget about everything that’s gone on in college,” she said. “You’re there for the week to represent your country.”
 
Bozek admits that she gets charged for a Minnesota-Wisconsin matchup. And the Gophers have several other rivalries that create a buzz around campus. But still, she says, nothing compares to Team USA.
 
“It’s a whole different atmosphere,” Bozek said. “We have a lot of rivals at school, and putting on the ‘M’ jersey is incredible. Every game I get chills before the game putting on the jersey. But playing for the national team, I mean you put on your country’s colors and compete against other countries. It’s just great.”
 
But exactly why do the international rivalries, such as United States vs. Canada, carry a much greater weight than, say, Minnesota vs. Wisconsin?
 
“I think it goes much deeper within the U.S. program because girls have been there longer,” Bozek explained. “And they’ve played Canada much more, so I think it goes deeper there. There’s a lot of competition. I think Canada vs. USA is just one of those games that everybody gets fired up for.”
 
Of course, no potential Canada vs. USA matchup consumes Bozek more than the thought of the world’s two biggest powerhouses squaring off at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. There are no guarantees that the matchup will take place — or that she will be a member of that Olympic team — but considering the way things have gone for her over the last three years, it seems to be a pretty safe bet.
 
“It’s exciting. It’s something that I’ve been striving for,” Bozek said. “Anything can happen between now and the Olympic Games, and I’m hoping that I will get a shot to try out for the team. But it’s just exciting to have an opportunity to represent your country in the Olympics.
 
“It’s a dream of mine. It’s always been a dream of mine.”
 
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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USA Hockey: What was it like to be a part of the U22 and U18 Select Series’

Melissa Szkola: The experience was wonderful. It was fantastic. We’ve essentially got the two best teams in the world competing against each other, so the learning experience, working with the officials that we have, is always amazing. You leave here a better person, a better official; that’s what we’re here for. That’s what I look forward to the most at these big-time events: the level of hockey and what you get out of it as a whole.

USAH: How did you first get into officiating?

Szkola: It’s been nine years since I got my start. I was a competitive figure skater and my older brother played hockey, so I’ve always been around the game, but it was my husband who actually got me into the officiating side of it. When we started dating, he was a roller and ice hockey official. He asked me to come with one time and I said ‘okay.’ That’s how I got started. It’s something he and I have in common and he is my biggest supporter. I wouldn’t be here without him.

USAH: So nine years under your belt, how would you describe some of your past IIHF events?

Szkola: I’ve had a handful of experiences with international tournaments. Each one has brought a new set of skills to my plate. You learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot from your supervisors from different countries as well. To get out and work with other female officials and learn from them and your supervisors is amazing.

Being in another country, where sometimes there aren’t people who even speak English, is a really unique experience as well. The communication that you learn to speak with non-English speaking officials really makes you appreciate what you have in common – hockey.

USAH: How did the Select Series compare to those events?

Szkola: The level of play, it’s definitely much higher at the Select Series than any of the championships that I’ve been to. I wouldn’t say that the intensity is much different, because at each level they are competing for their highest achievement. The intensity is the same, the importance is the same, but the level of play is definitely much better; it’s faster, it’s crisper. Your awareness just has to be that much higher.

USAH: Did calling a game with high-caliber players like those at the Select Series shake up any nerves?

Szkola: I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous before we got on the ice. I’ve watched Team USA and Team Canada compete before, so you know the level at which they intend to play. Being out there with it, you just know where the emotions can go sometimes. It was a little nerve-wracking before the start, but as soon as that puck drops, you have a job to do. USA Hockey does a fantastic job developing us; I feel like they wouldn’t put you out there if you weren’t ready. Once that puck drops, you’re kind of at home.

USAH: What’s next for your officiating future?

Szkola: The support that I have, not only from my hometown in Michigan, but also the support and development USA Hockey has given really sets you up for success if you want to take it in that direction. That is my goal. I do want to skate in the Olympics. Moving forward I am going to continue to improve upon each experience that I have, because you can always be better. Mistakes do get made, so you learn from those and improve yourself. 

Tag(s): Women's National Team