At the beginning of the season, it seemed prudent to ask players getting a chance to step up about the different makeup of this year's Wisconsin women's hockey team. Sixteen games in, it's very clear that forward Blayre Turnbull is sick of hearing about the lack of "superstars" on this Badger team.
"We have people who've played on the under-18 teams for Canada and USA, and Canadian under-22 team as well. Just because we don't have superstar names ... we have a lot of other people who are really good players," she said.
Trying to pin down exactly why she seems to be having a breakout season isn't exactly easy. Turnbull says she was comfortable with the scoring role in high school and coming in to Wisconsin. She's not certain why the pieces haven't fallen into place for her before or why they are now. The things she worked on this offseason were more of the fine-tuning variety.
"I have confidence in myself that I would be able to score and produce offensively, so this spring I worked a lot on getting better around the net and holding on to the puck -- not throwing it away," she said.
Maybe it's timing, or maybe it's opportunity. Maybe it's as simple as Turnbull taking advantage of all the small opportunities being a player at Wisconsin affords her. Maybe it's a confluence of events. Whatever the reason, midway through the schedule, Turnbull has settled in nicely and has career-highs already with eight goals and nine assists. She's confident and has the confidence of her teammates, having been voted assistant captain.
It hasn't necessarily been the course that Turnbull planned on, but the comfort that she's found in the role of center on the top line for the women's hockey team isn't surprising or new to her. She's just surprised it took this long.
"To be honest, going into last season I thought that was going to be the year that I was going to step up, because freshman year I was on the third line behind [Brianna] Decker and Hilary [Knight], so obviously I'm not going to be playing above that. But last year I knew I'd be a second-line player. I thought last year would be the year I stepped up -- obviously it wasn't," said Turnbull.
Brutally honest about her work and her shortcomings, Turnbull is reserved and rather loathe to be interviewed. When she tells you, and coaches back her up, that she's one of the most vocal players on the ice, it's difficult to reconcile that with the quiet person in front of you.
Despite a lengthy interview, it turns out Turnbull's a bit of an enigma to those of us just watching her game from afar.
She seems to be more physical this season. Her physicality is more present on the ice and she's taken more penalties -- has she been making a conscious effort to step into that role?
No -- she says it might just be a product of her increased ice time, but she feels she's always been a big, physical player.
When I asked assistant coach Jackie Friesen about the disparate personalities -- the quiet, reserved Turnbull that was interviewed versus the girl she says she is on the ice -- she didn't necessarily know what I was talking about. Turns out they don't know a reserved Blayre -- just the hard-worker who's always cheering her team on.
But even Turnbull didn't seem aware of the effect that has. I asked if having goalie Alex Rigsby as captain meant that Turnbull's role as assistant was any different. Did Turnbull she feel she needed to step up more since Rigsby wasn't always in the huddle?
"I think that's a big role that I have," Turnbull said. "I'm usually the person that's trying to get the team going. But I don't think that has anything to do with having a letter on my jersey. I think even if I didn't have it, I would still be the person to do it just because that's my personality when we play games. I'm always yelling. I'm always trying to get people fired up and get people going. I don't really think it has anything to do with the A on my jersey."
If that's her natural role, does she think that's why her teammates felt comfortable voting her into the assistant captain role? Turnbull says it has nothing to do with the "A" on her jersey -- in her mind that's not why she does it -- but it's not difficult to surmise that for the rest of the team, it has everything to do with why she has the letter on her jersey.
Friesen backs up that theory: "We appreciate Blayre's vocal leadership skills both on and off the ice. She puts her words into action as she leads with the consistency of her play -- she doesn't take a day off from working hard on the ice. It's a really great thing to count on when you're a coach. I know that her work ethic rubs off on other players as she is able to get the team going hard in practice and battling during every drill."
Turnbull was centering the third line behind two of the best Wisconsin players in program history -- Patty Kazmeier winner Brianna Decker and all-time Wisconsin hockey goal-scoring leader Hilary Knight. Both women will be skating for Team USA in Sochi in the coming weeks. While Turnbull had high hopes for her own role on the team, there's a lot to be garnered from playing with and behind such talent, as well. It's one of the many boons of playing on a team like the Badgers.
She was also lucky enough to have Decker assigned as her upperclassman mentor when she was an incoming freshman. Turnbull said that she learned a lot from Decker's talent, but also from her work ethic.
"She taught me a lot about the game and how to play good offense and how to score," Turnbull said. "I was able to stay on with her after practice a lot and work on little things -- how to get pucks past goalies, pretty much is what we worked on a lot. But she also taught me how important it is to work hard. I think she's a great example of someone who works hard every time she touches the ice.
"I really model that part of my game after her. There are a lot of people who are offensively gifted, but that's where there game is -- they're not going to back check, they're not going to look deep in the corners, but I know she does and that's the type of player I'd like to be: an all-around player with a knack for offense as well."
Turnbull and her fellow juniors are the first class since Mark Johnson took over as head coach to have not won a national championship, though obviously there is the "yet" qualifier. It's been three years since the Badgers last won in 2011 and Badger fans were spoiled with four national championships in six years.
The desire to reach that ultimate pinnacle is what brought Turnbull to Wisconsin -- she'd considered schools closer to her native Nova Scotia, but ultimately knew her best shot was by becoming a Badger.
"Unfortunately, I haven't won a national championship yet, but there's still two years left to do that so hopefully this year or next year -- both years, hopefully, would be great."
Turnbull also said the team is taking it all one step at a time. The Badgers were upset and embarrassed to not have made the NCAA tournament last season, and Turnbull said it was a moment that really made them think "We need to get our act together so this doesn't happen again."
With her increased offensive efficiency -- including three short-handed goals -- Turnbull is doing her part to ensure the Badgers don't find themselves on the outside looking in come March.
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