Brianna Decker, a star forward on the 2018 U.S. Olympic champion hockey team and a three-time Olympic medalist, retired from the sport at age 31.
She set a new goal to return to the Olympics in a different capacity.
In her final career game, Decker suffered a broken left fibula and torn ankle ligaments less than 10 minutes into last year’s Olympic opener against Finland. Decker stayed with the team through its silver-medal run.
She wanted to take a full year to recover and see where she was at before deciding whether to continue playing. A turning point came in August, when she was named girls prep associate head coach and special advisor to the Shattuck-St. Mary’s hockey program in Faribault, Minnesota, where she played in high school.
Top U.S. national teamers often coach in between playing — and Decker previously did so with U.S. women’s U18 teams — but she also used the early days of this ongoing stint to see if coaching without playing was still fulfilling her passion for the sport.
“It was,” she said, “and I felt like it was a good time for me to decide to retire [and focus on coaching].”
Decker, a Wisconsin native, made her senior national team debut at the 2008 Four Nations Cup at age 17. In 2009, after her senior year of high school, she was third-youngest of the 41 players who essentially tried out for the 2010 Olympic team, but she did not make the cut.
She matriculated at the University of Wisconsin, won a national title in 2011 (which she ranks right up with her top national team memories) and in 2012 won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the NCAA’s top player.
Decker played in her first of eight consecutive world championships in 2011, including winning tournament MVP in 2017.
She then made her first Olympic team in 2014. Decker co-led the U.S. with six points in Sochi en route to a silver medal.
She was an alternate captain on the 2018 team that won the U.S.’ first Olympic hockey title since women’s hockey’s debut at the 1998 Nagano Games. A tenacious, 5-foot-4 forward, she played on the top line with Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield.
After coming back from double groin and double sports hernia surgery in October 2019, she was the third-oldest player on the 2022 Olympic roster behind Knight and Megan Bozek. She was on the second line of forwards with Amanda Kessel and Alex Carpenter.
In the late 2010s, the U.S. won five consecutive global championships (one Olympics, four worlds) to become a dynasty for the first time. A trademark, maybe the trademark of those teams was their fast, skillful attackers, personified by Decker.
“When it came to game time, it was incredible,” she said. “The one thing that goes unrecognized a little bit — you’re competing against those players every day of practice. So you’re competing against some of the best players in the world every single day, and that’s how you excel your game. So I thank them for training so hard to make our team better as well.”
Decker, third on the U.S. career points list in world championship play behind Knight and Cammi Granato, said she brings her playing mentality to her coaching.
“I’m pretty intense,” she said. “When we’re inside the rink, it’s all business for me. I want to get the most out of the players, and I obviously want them to take advantage of every training session that they have. But from an off-ice standpoint, I obviously goof around with them and have fun and make them realize that it’s all about balance.”
When Decker told family members that she was hanging up her skates, one of her three brothers texted to tell her it was time to repeat her playing accomplishments as a coach.
“We’ll see if I can mark off those things,” Decker said. “My list starts now.”
A goal is to coach an Olympic team. Women’s hockey has been contested at seven Winter Games. The U.S. has never had a former women’s national team player as Olympic head coach, and just once had a female head coach (Katey Stone, 2014).
“Right now I’m in the best spot I can be,” said Decker, whose duties at the boarding school include doing laundry and aiding with equipment. “I have a great mentor, [girls hockey director] Gordie Stafford at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, so I’m in a good spot to start my coaching career.”
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