Just three months into the season, it's already a well-worn (and likely worn-out) line that this Wisconsin women's hockey team is one without a superstar. All that's really meant is that it's been easier to see some of the spectacular talent that's been hiding a little beneath the surface. These hidden treasures have taken up the mantle and led Wisconsin to a 14-2-2 record and No. 2 ranking at the mid-way point of the season.
One of the players stepping up and taking more of the spotlight is redshirt junior Brittany Ammerman.
Ammerman has put up impressive numbers in the first 16 games of the season. Her 11 goals and 12 assists put her on pace to obliterate her previous career highs. She has already tied her career-high for shots in a season with 98. She has 11 goals, including three power-play, a short-handed and two-game winning goals.
With 1.28 points per game, Ammerman ranks fifth in the WCHA and fifteenth in the nation in scoring.
To talk to Ammerman is to be impressed by her poise, drive and vision for her future. The self-awareness that she shows as a 21-year-old college student is something not commonly found among her peers, much less those 10 years her senior.
It's all that more notable when you realize that she's the youngest of four girls, living 900 miles away from home. Any preconceived notions you might have of pampered family babies, coasting student athletes or aimless college students are impossible to hold on to when you speak to Ammerman.
She lost most of last season to the after-effects of a concussion, but the clarity that came with being off the ice and the possibility of it being a career-ending injury helped Ammerman focus what was already a very clear and laid out career path.
A biology and women's studies double-major, she's known she wanted to be a doctor- specifically a surgeon -- since high school.
"I like the sciences and I like anatomy. I've had good role models and have been through a lot with doctors. I really like to help people and I think that's a way to do it, as a doctor. And I've had really great doctors in my life," said Ammerman.
And while hockey is a passion for her and a large part of her focus at Wisconsin, she knows she has to plan for life once she's done playing.
"You go through a crisis when people say ‘I don't know if you're going to play again' -- I've played hockey since I was five. It's kind of an identity thing. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise that I went through that because I watched people graduate and they don't know what they're going to do because hockey's over. I think that's why my career path is so much more focused -- because eventually hockey is going to end and there's no NHL for us. You just go through this identity process and realize you're more than a hockey player, you're just a girl that plays hockey and a hockey player that's a girl -- that's what I always say," said Ammerman.
In preparation for what she views as her future, she's shadowed an orthopedic surgeon, an OB/GYN and a gynecologist specializing in oncology, which Ammerman thought might be morbid but turned out to be uplifting, seeing patients cured every day.
That last experience led her to apply for a program through Wisconsin called Health by Motorbike where she spent a month in Kenya this past summer helping provide health services, education, water and sanitation to under-served communities.
She used to think she wanted to go into physical therapy or orthopedics, but when she realized those doctors see their patients one or two times and never again, she began to rethink that course. The appeal of women's and children's health, she says, is the frequency with which the doctor sees the patient and their involvement in the patients growth and well-being.
The time spent in Kenya this summer made such an impact on Ammerman that she's already talking about going back, though she knows recent terrorist activity in the country could make it difficult.
"The women are amazing and ideally I'd like to graduate and go to Kenya for a year -- or anywhere in Africa -- and just continue on that path of women's health and educating and then go to medical school," said Ammerman.
In the meantime, she's raising money for a soccer league and continuing to use the relative fame of being a women's hockey player at Wisconsin to bring these issues to people.
"I was just shocked with the amount of fans that we have that read my blog while I was in Kenya -- that was just really touching. I'm over halfway across the world and they're taking the time to read what I'm writing and they were more impressed with that than what I did on the ice. So for me I think that's more of an accomplishment than scoring a goal -- because I'm touching a life and it's outside of hockey and it's something that I'll continue to do. But I'm just happy that as an athlete, I get to use my athletic platform to propel something like that," said Ammerman.
That Ammerman is on the ice and traveling to Kenya are accomplishments in their own right.
Just three games into the 2012-13 season, she suffered a concussion when she was blindsided, falling backwards and hitting her head on the ice. The after-effects lasted for months when she couldn't stand any loud noises or light, didn't go to class and wasn't sure how she'd feel from one minute to the next.
One thing that helped was having older sister Brooke there to take care of her on a day-to-day basis.
"She knows me inside and out and so when I got hurt, she knew something was up and was very good at taking care of me. She was hard on me when she needed to be and soft on me when I needed it," said Brittany.
Where another teammate might not have been as in-tune with Brittany's moods or understood her personality enough to know what she needed to hear through the different moods and emotions of the tumultuous time, having her sister there provided an anchor.
"Brooke and I having different personalities helped, too, because she's kind of the more laid back, just go-with-the-flow kind of girl and I'm more really into my studies and like to have a path," said Brittany.
Those different personalities allow the sisters to get along and not get on each other's nerves as much. In this difficult year of Brittany's life, she says having Brooke there really made a difference in her recovery. Where a teammate might have gotten frustrated with an injury they couldn't see, Brooke was able to see the forest through the trees.
For Brooke, she said the most difficult part of seeing Brittany go through such a difficult time was keeping her spirits up and trying to keep the driven, forward-focused younger sister grounded in what she could accomplish today.
"Every day she woke up hoping there was a positive development and if there wasn't, I still tried to put a positive spin on how she was feeling. During that time it was important to focus on the present and then, when she was feeling better, she could start making decisions on the future," said Brooke.
Eventually, however, her brain and her body started to heal and Ammerman began to make the difficult decision about whether to return to hockey.
With such a secure vision for her future, it might be difficult to understand why Brittany would get back on her skates and risk further damage or an injury she isn't able to return from.
What makes such focused, driven individual take that risk? What does she have left to prove? A member of the National Championship winning team in 2011, Ammerman says another National Championship would be the perfect cap to her career. But ultimately it was the natural competitiveness and the camaraderie of her teammates that brought her back.
"I love the sport so much and I came to a point where I was feeling good and wanted to play again and that's what it takes. For a while, you're like, 'I don't know how I'm going to feel in six hours, or six weeks or six months,' but then you come to a point where you don't have a headache and you're feeling well and of course you get the urge to play hockey again. And you have to go through a lot -- you have to go to the sports psychologist -- I did that every week for almost a year. There's a lot of steps to coming back and playing after an injury like that. I was fortunate enough to have the athletic department and my coaches behind me," says Brittany.
She saw a neurologist who told her he didn't see her suffering long-term effects of her latest concussion and that she'd have to be hit in the exact same way to have these same injuries. So she knew she'd be cautious and she admits her first-game back was nerve-wracking, but now she doesn't think about it at all when she's on the ice.
What her sister Brooke said has gotten lost in the retelling of Brittany's comeback is the hours of work and commitment she put in to be ready to play at the beginning of this season. After working her way back from the devastation of last season, Brittany doubled her effort to make up for the lost training time and be ready for this 2013-14 campaign.
"(She) worked extremely hard to be able to be as successful as she has this year. She was up most mornings in winter and spring at 6 a.m. to work on skating, shooting, and getting back into shape. I got to witness that first hand ... I think she deserves recognition for that. Once Brittany made her commitment to come back and play, she attacked that goal at 110 percent and she should be really proud of the first half she has had this year," said Brooke via email.
In some ways, it's ironic that Brooke is the one singing the praises of Brittany's hockey career at Wisconsin. The way Brittany tells it, she ended up becoming a Badger in spite of Brooke, not because of her.
Brittany admits she was "kind of being a brat" when she got to Madison for her official visit. She had visited another school and convinced herself she could be happy there, especially because it would mean being at a different school than Brooke. But where she felt like other schools were telling her what she wanted to hear, at Wisconsin she felt like the players and coaches treated her like more than "Little Ammerman" despite her standoffish demeanor. By the time she made it to the Kohl Center for a game as an official recruit, she was sold.
For the Ammerman family, it was nice to have one school to focus their travel on. Brittany said her parents were at every home game when she and Brooke were both on the team and even now still make it to Madison from their home in New Jersey with regularity. The two older Ammerman sisters, Christine and Megan, have also been known to be found in the stands in Madison.
If nothing else, Brooke thought having Brittany at Wisconsin saved them from some awkward sibling rivalry and splitting the family's rooting interests.
"When Britt decided to come to Wisconsin, it was really exciting because then our entire family had one team to cheer for and we could work together towards a National Championship and not have to go through the torture of having to maybe play each other for that trophy."
The youngest of four girls, Brittany knows she's always going to be the little sister in some respects, but she learned that being at Wisconsin with Brooke did have it's advantages.
"I loved playing with Brooke, we really enjoyed it and being as young as I was when she was here I think that was good and I got to learn from her and all the upperclassmen that she was close with and so I got to become close with them and I think learned from all of them," said Ammerman.
"When I was a freshman Meghan Duggan was here and Hilary Knight was here and those are all great people to look up to and play with."
Now in her fourth year at UW, Ammerman is finding herself in that role of being looked up to, but it's one she takes on naturally.
"I think the longer you're here, as you go on through your career you realize more and more fans begin to take a liking to you ... and they know your name, they know what you did in the game, they know everything," said Ammerman.
Perhaps more importantly, there are young girls in the stands who are watching the Badgers, hoping to be them in just a few short years. One of the best selling points the women's hockey team has going for them is the fact that you can bring your sisters, nieces and daughters to watch Olympic-level talent that also happen to be pretty spectacular role models all for around $5 a ticket.
In what you come to understand is typical Brittany fashion, earlier this season she didn't just meet and take pictures with a 12U girls team from the Chicago area that came to a Badgers game, she made plans to meet up with them on one of her rare off-weekends.
She had planned to attend one of their games, but when the schedule didn't match up that way, she instead strapped on her skates and joined in one of their practices. She also stuck around afterwards to eat pizza, interact with the players and answer their questions. To her surprise, the questions were less about her life on the ice and more about her life as a college student off the ice.
Some college students might find that kind of attention and adoration stressful, but Ammerman just takes it in the stride of the life she's already living.
"If you just are who you are and you're a good person and you just do the right thing, then they're just going to follow you. I don't think you have to put on a show or do certain things to impress them. I just go about my day and work hard on the ice and do the stuff off the ice and if they want to be like that, that's awesome and I'm honored to be looked at like that."
In the re-telling, you sense the interaction was as meaningful to Ammerman as it likely was to the young team.
"They were very interested and I was just happy that I could show them that you can be this high level athlete and then also be good at school and help these other people in another country," she said.
Win a national championship. Double-major. Volunteer in Kenya. Work towards becoming a doctor. No big deal.
If you're Brittany Ammerman.