FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

You would think learning how to focus on trying to stop flying pucks with the opposition impeding your vision or crashing the net would fill enough of your time.

Not for Alexandra Garcia, the junior goaltender on the University of Connecticut women’s hockey team.

Garcia has been the backbone of a freshman-laden Husky team that rebounded from a 1-7-1 start to an 11-6-0 run, capped by five consecutive victories, before running into third-ranked Hockey East leader Boston University, which extended its winning streak to 13 games, and its scoring advantage to 50-13, with hard-earned, 2-1 and 4-1 victories over the weekend.

Though disappointed with the latest developments, Garcia and her teammates will never be on a downer about the selfless work the Huskies have been doing for the Breast Cancer Foundation the last five years.

Garcia, the gregarious “Goose” from Pointe-Claire, Quebec, accepted the job of team coordinator of community service projects after junior forward Jessica Lutz left UConn last year to return to her native Switzerland to try to make the national team for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Huskies’ fund-raising projects have included setting up a table at the Student Union to sell “Stress Pucks” originated by the team to raise money to fight breast cancer. They also have had a lot of “Skates With The Huskies”, with Stop & Shop as one of their major sponsors. Garcia has organized meetings with students in the business community and talked to them about the Foundation.

Fittingly, one of the team’s new major fundraisers is “Storm the Dorm”, in which the players visit dormitories on campus during snowstorms collecting money to fight breast cancer. They wear pink jerseys, symbolic of the fight against the dreaded disease, and sell T-shirts. The gals wish they could autograph and sell the jerseys to raise even more money, but that would be a violation of NCAA rules.

“People are tired of seeing us (in the dorms), but I’m like, ‘Keep going girls,’ ” Garcia said with a laugh.

So what’s harder, Alexandra, trying to sell those “Stress Pucks” and T-shirts while running around to dorms in two feet of snow or stopping pucks flying at you at 75 miles per hour?

“I’m trying to do both right now,” Garcia said, laughing again.

But the cause is no laughing matter to the Huskies, who are 12-15-1 overall and 8-6-1 in Hockey East games. Though Garcia said she has never been directly affected by cancer, she felt it her duty – and honor – to work as diligently as she does in goal to help raise money to find a cure for one of the most dreaded diseases in the world.

“I really wanted to be the organizer this year, and coach (Heather Linstad) gave me the job, so I was pretty happy,” Garcia said. “I don’t have any family members that were touched by breast cancer, but like any cause, I thought it was really important. Also, I’m a business major, so I really wanted to get involved and raise as much money as possible.”

The team completed this season’s fundraising at Saturday’s game against Boston University with the fifth anniversary of the Hockey East Skating Strides program. Fans could purchase a Skating Strides T-shirt, a “Pink Skate” that would be posted around the rink for $1 and Hockey East merchandise. The Huskies raised $9,200 this year, increasing their five-year total to more than $40,000, tops in the conference since the inception of Skating Strides Against Breast Cancer.

Now that’s certainly nothing to laugh at.

Garcia and her thoughtful teammates will face another big challenge Feb. 13 when they play Linstad’s alma mater, Providence, in the finale of “UConn Day” in the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. “UConn Day” will start with an alumni skate at 9-10:15 a.m., followed by a family skating session from 10:15 to 11 and then lunch in the club room in the suites. The UConn men’s hockey team will play Sacred Heart at 1 p.m., and the women will then face the Friars (17-9-1, 8-6-1) at 4 p.m.

Garcia, 21, landed at UConn after playing one year with girls when she was 8 and the next eight years with boys before joining a pre-university team for Quebec residents for one year. She earned a spot on the Quebec provincial team for the Canada Games, held every four years and patterned after the Olympics. A lot of college recruiters got to watch Garcia, who was selected for the Canadian Under-19 national team and then received scholarship offers from several major women’s hockey programs before selecting the Huskies.

“I got some calls from Heather and decided to make an official visit,” Garcia said. “When they showed me the campus, I fell in love with it and decided to choose here.”

Linstad and the rest of Huskies are delighted Garcia did, starting with how she got the nickname “Goose.”

“She doesn’t want to be considered a redhead, she wants to say she’s strawberry blonde,” said Linstad, a native of Chelmsford, Mass. “One of her teammates asked her how they said redhead in French, and she said rouse. They thought she said goose, so it stuck and she’s ‘The Goose.’ ”

And darn good at her job while playing against all of the Huskies’ toughest competition. Garcia is 9-14-1 with a 2.63 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and five shutouts, has allowed one goal or less in 10 games and has been named Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week three times.

“She’s pretty good at what she does,” Linstad said of Garcia. “She’s not a flashy goalie. She’s very square to the puck and doesn’t give up too many rebounds. Or if she keeps the puck in play, she’s not putting it where she can’t make a second save; she’s putting it in the corners. She’s a fierce competitor, and certainly everybody feeds off that.

“But I think (the turnaround) has been a good team effort. When everybody has played well, we’ve had success, but it seems to hit us in spurts. When everybody decides not to play well, we don’t play well.”

Freshman forward Taylor Gross of Colorado Springs, Colo. (10 goals, eight assists) and senior forward Jennifer Chaisson (7, 11) of Cumberland, Ontario, Canada, share the UConn scoring lead, followed by sophomore forward Kelly Horan of Methuen, Mass. (8, 8), junior defenseman Sami Evelyn of Nepean, Ontario (3, 11) and freshman forward Alexandra Vakos of Hamden (3, 8).

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing, after a 21-9-7 season in which the Huskies were ranked as high as seventh in the country and lost to Boston University 2-1 in overtime in the Hockey East final with a NCAA Tournament bid on the line.

“When everything was said and done, the end result is that last season probably was our best season,” Linstad said.

But the Huskies lost seven forwards and their best defenseman to graduation, Lutz and two others players didn’t return, and their best recruit didn’t qualify academically so she’s sitting out this season. It’s not surprising that with eight freshmen on the roster the Huskies struggled out of the gate against some of their toughest competition before starting to right the ship in early November.

“When we built this team, every four years we have a turnover, so that’s going to happen again for us,” said Linstad, the only coach since she started the program 11 seasons ago. “We built the team and graduated nine seniors, and every four years, we’ve got to replace that class. Last year was a very big class, and it takes the young kids a little time to get going and has a big effect. Right now, we have only three seniors and lots of underclassmen, so it does make a difference.

“We’ve had a tough road to go, but when you graduate that much seniority, it’s hard to get going again. But we’ve been playing a little more consistent. It’s hard when you have eight freshmen, but I think they’re catching on. I think sometimes younger kids come in and think the older kids are going to be able to take care of them the entire time, but it’s a team game, and we need as much depth as we possibly can, so we need everyone going. We need kids that kill penalties, and we need kids on the power play.”

Garcia reiterated her coach’s sentiments, saying the team had “a really, really good year last year but a rough start this year.”

“I think we’ve picked it up, and the freshmen are producing,” Garcia said. “Experience is a big factor, and the freshmen have got a lot from the beginning of the season, and now they’ve started to loosen up and have confidence in themselves. Last season, we had a lot of seniors who could bring the team up and were really good role models, so the young people could focus and want to play like them. So this season we’ve tried hard to bring the younger people to play as hard as everybody else. I think they’re doing a great job now, and we just need to keep going on.”

Vakos is one of the talented freshmen who have helped turn the rudder in the right direction. Vakos is a late bloomer, not having played hockey in the Hamden youth program until she was 10. She played one year with the girls, then went straight to the Connecticut Polar Bears travel team and attended the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass. That got Vakos exposure in the national championships with the Polar Bears and the New England tournament with the Berkshire School.

So why go to UConn?

“I had a lot of looks from recruits, visited like everywhere in most every league and liked the fact I was going to be close to home,” Vakos said. “It was probably my favorite campus, and I liked the team and coaching staff.”

Vakos, 20, said it was a major jump from the Polar Bears and Berkshire School to Hockey East because of the increased speed in the game.

“With the Polar Bears, there were times when we didn’t play very good teams,” Vakos said. “But everyone in college hockey is really good, so every game is going to be up tempo and there definitely was an adjustment. At the beginning, I definitely struggled, but now I’ve been gaining more confidence with myself and trusting my teammates, so I’ve definitely picked it up a bit.”

The 5-foot-2 Vakos is part of what Linstad calls “the Smurf line” that also includes 5-3 freshman Stephanie Raithby and Horan, a 5-foot sophomore. Linstad said the trio has provided a recent spark with their quickness while also contributing on the power play and penalty kill.

“I’ve tried to work on my speed, my strength, everything I can to become better,” Vakos said.

“They’re fast and speedy and can whip around and create havoc, so they do their job,” Linstad said.

Linstad also joked she has to recruit small because any big players at UConn are on the basketball court with coach Geno Auriemma, All-American Maya Moore and the rest of the Hoop Huskies. But with the season-ending knee injury to Caroline Doty and recent defection of Samarie Walker to Kentucky, Geno & Co. likely would appreciate having some of the thoughtful and generous gals chasing around rinks and campus for those donations to fight cancer.

All the Hockey Huskies will be able to show their wares in unique circumstances Feb. 13. They have a practice scheduled at Rentschler Field on Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. after the men work out, and then they will play the Friars, who beat them 5-1 at Providence on Dec. 5. Garcia made 32 saves, but the Huskies were never really in the game and have an added incentive in the rematch.

“We didn’t do too well in that game,” Garcia said. “It was first semester, and people were still adapting to the level of the hockey, so now we’re ready.”

The closest Vakos came to playing outdoors was “pond hockey” in Hamden.

“I’m excited because I’ve never played outdoors before,” Vakos said, “and watching the NHL Winter Classic (on New Year’s Day) makes me want to go outside and play like they did. Last year, there were the Boston schools like Boston College and Northeastern that played outdoors at Fenway Park (around the NHL Classic), and I think it’s neat that we’re doing it this year.”

Growing up in the suburbs of Montreal as a true-blue Canadiens fan, Garcia played with her brother and neighbors on a rink at the end of her street almost daily. She actually started playing ringuette, a game in which a player puts a ring over only the shaft of a stick and skates around. After two years of ringuette, everyone except the goalie on her team decided to switch to hockey, so Garcia began her career in goal at 8 years old.

“We had fun skating around, but my rink (in Pointe-Claire) was really nice, so I didn’t really play (games) outside,” Garcia said.

But now Garcia and all her teammates will have the chance of a lifetime.

“I’m pretty excited because we need to go back to the roots, and now it’s been a tradition because we see it every year on New Year’s Day with the NHL Classic,” Garcia said. “I remember when I was younger seeing (goalie) Jose Theodore of the Montreal Canadiens put a hat over his helmet to keep warm, and ever since I’ve always wished I could have an outdoor game and do the same thing. Hopefully I can find a hat and put it on my helmet for our game.

“We haven’t played a game outdoors, but I feel it’s going to be like when we were younger and just went outside, put your skates on and go for fun. We’re just going to have fun, go out there and just compete.”

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