SOCHI, Russia – Goalies are quirky. Goalies are in the spotlight. Goalies get the glory and the grief.
Even in the less publicized women’s game.
If an Olympic viewer can name one player on 2010 bronze medalist Finland’s team, it’s fortress Noora Raty. Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados has earned headlines for denying men’s shooters in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference as a five-year player for Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Then there’s U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter.
She is not the biggest star of her team and, though she has played against men, it hasn’t been regular. She is from cozy Cottage Grove, Wis., the type of village that’s asking for substitute crossing guards for the school year on the front of its website.
That’s not to say the average U.S. sports fan is oblivious to Vetter. In fact, looking at her might give one that “I know her from somewhere” feeling.
Vetter is the daughter of an American Family Insurance agent and manager. (A goalie with insurance genes seems fitting.)
American Family Insurance bought ad space for Super Bowl XLVII, which featured a spot with Wisconsin sports stars Russell Wilson and Steve Stricker. Vetter, a former University of Wisconsin standout, was also shown for about three seconds. It wasn’t her first commercial for the company.
In 2010, Vetter played every minute of the final four games of the Olympic hockey tournament. In the most crucial three minutes, she was beaten twice by 18-year-old Canadian Marie Philip-Poulin while Szabados blanked the U.S. as Canada won its third straight gold medal.
After the Olympics, Vetter, a 2009 Wisconsin graduate, could have joined the professional women’s league, called the Canadian Women’s Hockey League with four Canadian teams and a Boston club.
She elected instead to stay in the Madison area and cede game time for more training with a goalie coach, Larry Clemens.
“She’s kind of a hometown person,” Clemens said Wednesday by phone from Sun Prairie, Wis., during the second intermission of a 3-2 loss to Canada in a preliminary game. “She doesn’t leave very much.”
They worked together for three years before Vetter and the national team began living and training together in the lead up to Sochi. The lynchpins of their routine were hand-eye coordination and muscle memory drills.
“It’s something that I think has worked well for me,” said Vetter, an avid golfer. “I have an opportunity to have a job [working with area kids as a trainer after school] and kind of a normal life while I’m training and working hard towards this Olympics.”
Clemens admitted the drawback of not playing on a club team between Vancouver and Sochi.
“The biggest thing is game management,” he said after stepping out of the Sun Prairie Ice Arena for better phone reception. “You can’t recreate that in drills.”
Vetter managed random game action when area ex-college players gathered for games, most of them in their mid-20s to early 30s. But the Olympics were always the goal, even if it wasn’t a spoken one.
“We normally don’t talk about it too much,” Clemens said. “It’s obviously driving her. She doesn’t talk much about what she’s trying to accomplish.”
Vetter became the all-time minutes played leader for U.S. Olympic goalies on Wednesday. In 2012, it looked like that might not have been possible.
Molly Schaus was the No. 1 goalie for the World Championships in Burlington, Vt., two years ago. The U.S. pounced Canada 10-0 in preliminary play and then lost 5-4 in the gold-medal game. Vetter watched from the bench. She returned to the net at the 2013 World Championships, where the U.S. exacted revenge in Ottawa. Schaus was not on the roster because of a personal matter. Vetter and Schaus split the first two games in Sochi before Vetter played the third against Canada.
Canada, meanwhile, sat Szabados in the preliminary game against the U.S., a matchup that meant very little since both nations were assured opposite semifinal berths.
On Wednesday, Vetter was largely credited by players and U.S. coach Katey Stone with keeping her team in the game. She stopped 28 of 31 shots. (perhaps 29 of 31 given a controversial review to uphold one of Canada’s goals that may have crossed the line after a whistle)
The starting goalie for the next game, a Monday semifinal, hasn’t been decided yet.
“We’ve got some time to think about that,” Stone said. “I’m sure if [Vetter] gets another opportunity, she’s a very competitive kid, she’ll show up.”
Clemens believes that if the U.S. does reach the gold-medal game, and Vetter does start again, the result will determine her future with the national team.
Olympic gold would be a great way to complete a career. She could then return to Wisconsin with her sociology degree and myriad opportunities, not just substitute crossing guard.
Vetter wouldn’t commit though.
“Any athlete probably wants to go out on top,” she said, “but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”