Still raising her game

Julie Chu is working harder than ever at both playing, and growing, the sport of women's hockey

AP Photo

“I was saying goodbye to our Japanese girls on the team and they go, ‘My goal, my dream is to play against you one day.’” – Julie Chu

As a New England prep school, Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., is proud of its hockey history. If it’s not apparent to anyone walking into the small lobby of Remsen Arena filled with mementos of past successes, then it becomes so once you walk through the double doors and into the rink.

Once inside, the most noticeable features are the seven banners hanging beside the scoreboard. Each banner is stitched with an athlete’s name and Olympic achievements in the Wild Boars’ blue and gold.

On the far side is one for Phoebe Staenz, a member of Sweden’s Sochi bronze-medal team, accompanied by banners for Sochi silver-medalist Josephine Pucci, Turin bronze-medalist Kim Insalaco, and Robert McVey, the lone male who won gold with Team USA in 1960.

Then there are three names that have become synonymous with Team USA women’s ice hockey — Angela Ruggiero, Hilary Knight and Julie Chu.

Gathering below the banners on a Saturday night in January are fans of all ages, though noticeably most are women and girls, waiting for the game to start. Some are grasping on to homemade signs, others walk in groups proudly donning their own jerseys belonging to Choate, the Southern and Shoreline Stars, and Connecticut Northern Lights.

Out on the ice the two teams are lined up and dressed in the colors of one of hockey’s most illustrious rivalries, the black and gold of Boston and the blue, red and white of Montreal. While the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens may be bitter rivals, the women of the Canadians Women’s Hockey League’s (CWHL) Boston Blades and Montreal Stars are actually united for a common goal: Grow the sport of women’s hockey.

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As of 2014, USA Hockey had 67,230 women and girls registered to play. In 2002-03, the year Julie Chu made her Olympic debut, there were 45,971 females registered. Compared to the men, who now have over 500,000 documented players, it may not seem like substantial growth, but it’s a bit more impressive if one takes into account the fact that the year Chu made her switch from figure skating to ice hockey there were less than 10,000 girls playing under USA Hockey.

When Chu wanted to trade in her figure skates for bulkier ice hockey skates, her parents didn’t think to tell her no, even if, in 1990, the world was still eight years away from seeing women’s hockey popularized on the Olympic stage.

“[Figure skating] lasted less than three months and I must admit Julie was not very graceful,” Miriam Chu remembers as she waits for her daughter to skate out for warm-ups with the Stars. “Those bunny hops? It was not her thing. To this day she blames me because I would bundle her up, so she couldn’t move her arms, so when she fell, she was like a turtle that ended up on her shell …

“When she asked if she could play hockey and we said, ‘Yes,’ it didn’t even dawn on us that maybe we shouldn’t.”

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Almost 15 years since leaving Wallingford, Julie Chu finds herself back at Choate, where the rink may be slightly different and noticeably warmer, but the memories and faces remain the same.

She waits amongst her Montreal Stars teammates with her back facing the banners, waiting to be introduced as one of the night’s starters.

Chu remembers watching the 1998 Olympic Games in Japan and seeing fellow Choate alumna — “Choaties,” as they call themselves — Ruggiero, winning gold for her country. Chu remembers the Games causing that aha moment, making her realize hockey was something she could strive to do for the rest of her life.

It no longer had to be just a fun hobby.

The 1998 Olympic Team gave her women similar to herself to whom she could look up, and four Games later, she has stepped into that same role, being the one who inspires others.

“I remember looking up to Julie Chu and walking around [Choate’s] campus and seeing her picture or Angela Ruggiero’s picture and being like, ‘Wow I want to be like those girls one day,’” recalls Knight before lacing up her own skates as the Blades’ captain to play against Chu and the Stars. “So to be able to play on the same teams as them is a dream come true, for sure.”

At just 25, Knight is following in the footsteps of her USA teammates and becoming an inspiration in her own right with campaigns like Always’ #LikeAGirl.

In Chu’s opinion, being role models and showing young girls that there are successful women like them is one of the biggest components to developing the sport. Whether it’s staying after a game to sign autographs, or getting out in the community to run clinics, Julie understands that her talent has given her both a stage and a responsibility.

“We get this amazing platform to be able to hopefully influence others in a positive way and hopefully whether that’s through our play on the ice and how we carry ourselves, our sportsmanship, our class, or our effort,” Chu explains.

Julie Chu shows her Vancouver silver medal to a youngster at the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Getty Images)

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Girls in newly bought black-and-gold beanies crowd Remsen’s already-crammed lobby, excitedly holding photos and scrap pieces of papers for players to sign.

“After every game we do autographs and we have the ability to interact with our fans,” Chu explains. “Some days it’s small crowds and some days it’s bigger.”

When the athletes walk through the double doors, the girls erupt and quickly push to get a prime spot to talk to the women they had just seen out on the ice in a Blades uniform.

“We don’t have the same support system that our male counterparts have and in some respects it’s great because it keeps us here for the right reasons, but in other respects you’re paying for a full tank to get down to Connecticut to play an outreach game,” laughs Knight. “But at the same time you have to realize where our sport comes from and where it’s going and it has to start somewhere  …  small steps.”

It would’ve been easy for Chu to board a bus after Montreal’s loss and head back to Canada, or spend her Sunday off with family in Connecticut. Instead, she chose to run a local girls’ clinic at the RoseGarden Ice Rink in Norwich, a task she’s becoming more and more comfortable with.

“Whenever I get a chance to return home and run some local events, especially for the hockey community, I want to,” says Chu. “This past summer, I ran my first hockey school out of Bridgeport Wonderland of Ice and it was great. We had about 40 girls a part of it and again, it was a little bit last-minute. I’m getting better at the organization part. I’m used to the show up and go, so I’m working on the prepping in advance and the cost of ice time.”

Last minute or not, Julie got the turnout she was hoping for on the Sunday afternoon. She even had a few girls patiently waiting to see if there’d be room for them to join, too.

“In 1990 when I first started, you’d see one or two girls maximum all year long throughout a hockey season and now and even as I got older and older, you saw more and more and more and now there’s young girls that don’t even know that it should be weird that girls are playing hockey,” says Chu. “You’ll see some of the younger kids here that grew up in the environment, our early 10-12-year olds or early teens; they’re the direct benefit of ‘98 because once ‘98 happened the growth of women’s hockey was tremendous.”

Whether it’s walking through the rink’s entrance with her family and teammates in tow, running around making last minute adjustments for the upcoming sessions, or even washing her hands in the restroom, there is always someone who recognizes her. There is always someone eager to talk, which she is willing to do, if only for just a few spared seconds.

“There’s always someone better than you out there and God gave you this wonderful gift and she should do something to give back,” says Miriam Chu. “So I’m glad she’s running hockey camps.”

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Since taking home silver in the 2002 Olympic Games, Chu has grown into her role on the team, but she’s also learned to adapt, realizing who she is as an athlete now is not the same player she was at the age of 20.

“A role within a team changes tremendously,” Chu says. “You go from being just a young kid, you have no responsibilities in the world, you just go out there and you play and you have fun, but as you get older and you take on that role of, say, leadership, then you have to still take care of the on-ice portion of executing plays, but you also have to be able to have a good pulse on the team and direct the young kids.”

In 2014, as the most veteran player on the team, she was faced with a fourth-line position that didn’t get as much ice time. This caused her to look outward to see what she could do to help her time off-ice as well, which led her to taking on the team’s “mom” role, something that came naturally.

“Julie’s charge, her personal charge, is to always make sure that everyone always felt welcome and comfortable, and if they needed anything, she’s there to help, sort of like the mother bear of the group,” recalls Harvard and Team USA head coach Katey Stone.

The women on the team looked up to the veteran forward — some, like Knight, even before they made the Olympic squad.

“When I first came [into the national program] I was still in school at Choate and Chuie and Angela took me under their wing and they’re like, ‘This is how we do it, here we go,’ and really supported me throughout the way,” recalls Knight. “I was nurtured within the team, which is great.”

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Chu says she would have understood if her parents told her to stick with soccer and figure skating, but she’s grateful they were so accepting. She and her sister, Christina, joined their brother Richard at the Bridgeport Wonderland of Ice where hockey immediately became the family sport. Full days were spent in the rink watching game after game or practice after practice.

When Chu was 11 years old she split her time with a growing all-girls league, the CT Polar Bears, and her boys team, before moving solely to the all-girls team to hone her skills for the chance of making the Olympics.

“I took her to a U-20 tournament in Canada, the highest level of tournament in Canada at the time,” recalled Maurice Fitzmaurice, the CT Polar Bears founder. “She was 11, playing 20-and-under and the coaches didn’t know who she was. [Coaches] knew my team members, but they didn’t know her. After the first game they were asking me, ‘Who the hell was that?’ So I said, ‘Well boys, you’re gonna have to wait a little while. She’s in the fifth grade!’ She was still a wunderkind from the start, but more than that she’s a wunderkind as a person.”

Her talent and drive brought her to Choate and then Harvard where she was coached by Stone and won the NCAA’s Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top player in women’s college hockey. It also got her on to the national team and in a place to make the Olympic roster four times, but her off-ice personality has made her a true ambassador to the sport.

Julie Chu serving as United States flagbearer during the Sochi Olympics Closing Ceremony. (Getty Images)

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In 2014 Chu was bestowed with the honor of carrying the American flag during the Sochi closing ceremony. As a woman who once had to prove to Stone and her staff that she belonged on the team, Chu was now voted to represent all of Team USA and America, becoming the second American ice hockey player to do so in that capacity.

“It speaks volumes to the person and the master that Julie is, and not just because she expands her friendship and loyalty to her immediate teammates, but she does that to kids on other countries’ teams and different sports,” says Stone. “I just think a large majority of people know who Julie is, know what she stands for and wanted to bestow that honor on her.”

It also speaks to the popularity of women’s ice hockey.

Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have been possible for a female hockey player to take on that role, but Chu has proven the game has gained ground, despite rumblings that it should be removed from the Olympics for lack of international competition.

“It’s hard,” Chu explains. “Until we can find other ways for these countries [outside of North America] to start investing more in their programs, the growth is going to be a little slower, but we are seeing a bit of a push. After 2010, when the president [of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge] at the time said that maybe we’re going to have to pull women’s hockey, it kind of lit a little fire under our International Ice Hockey Federation and got them to start doing all-nations camps in the summer.”

In 2011 the IIHF introduced the World Girl’s Ice Hockey Weekend, a worldwide initiative to allow girls to try hockey for free. The 2014 fourth annual weekend was held in 150 locations across the United States and in 32 countries internationally.

Team USA’s Knight and Anne Schleper made additional headlines when they participated in the practices of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Internationally, Chu has participated in the camps and initiatives hosted by the IIHF to bring players from different countries together in an environment that supports growth and long-term learning.

“I got to be in one in Slovakia in the summer of 2010 and basically they had an under-18 age group and over-18 and they brought in probably anywhere between 12 and 15 nations and we just mix-matched into teams,” Chu says. “So I was on a team with Japanese, Swedish, Finnish, Canadians, Czechs, all these players together and it was such a powerful time.”

While at the camp, Chu found out she was an inspiration to the Japanese team, which hadn’t made the Olympics since the sport’s 1998 inception. That year, as the games were held in Nagano, Team Japan was given an automatic bid.

In 2010, after years of missed qualifiers, Japan was an up-and-coming national team making its way in the B pool, while the United States continued to securely play in the A pool. “Maybe two years later they earned a spot in the A pool and I played them and it was awesome,” Chu says. “I go, ‘Now you’ve got to get to the Olympics’ and then they got there and it was really fun to see them work so hard to get there.”

In Sochi, Team Japan finished eighth overall in the eight-team field, but they had accomplished what they had set out to do. They had made the Olympics and played with Julie Chu.

Chu’s influence has reached beyond America’s borders, though it’s not necessarily what’s been accomplished so far, but what goals still remain. For instance, a competitive Olympic field, or a league that can pay women to play like the men.

Chu preaches patience in the sport’s expansion. She points out, Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was competitive men’s ice hockey and neither will its female counterpart.

At 33, with her own Olympic future unknown, Chu will continue to play in the growing CWHL, in search of her third Clarkson Cup. She’ll carry-on as an assistant coach of women’s hockey at Concordia University and find the time to run clinics for the next generation, all for the furtherance of the sport she loves.

It may be a slow, uphill effort, but as she skates forward in her Stars jersey, to the energetic cheers of a sold out Remsen Arena, in a non-Olympic year, it appears to be an effort that is working.