By Bill Brophy for WCHA.com
MADISON, Wis. – Jincy Dunne doesn't have to think about it long. She can tell you exactly how long it took her before she played her first women's college hockey game for Ohio State.
"I missed 581 days of hockey,'' said Dunne, a heralded freshman, after her first Western Collegiate Hockey Association series last weekend.
Her coach, Nadine Muzerall, didn't overcome a head injury like Dunne to make her first appearance in the Buckeyes' Scarlet and Grey, but her head was spinning as she talked about her head coaching debut.
"The whole thing has been a whirlwind with a lot of moving parts," said Muzerall, who was introduced as the OSU coach Sept. 10, 20 days before the first hockey game, in front of 100,000 people at Ohio Stadium. "I haven't really had time for a breath."
Dunne and Muzerall are the new faces of Buckeyes' hockey. They are the hope for the hockey future in Columbus, Ohio.
However, a year ago Dunne's future was quite cloudy. It was quite a change for Dunne, a mobile defenseman who always stood out as one of the best youth players in the St. Louis area in her early teens.
Growing up, she had played with the best boys players on the St. Louis Junior Blues, including Luke Kunin, the Minnesota Wild's No. 1 draft choice and currently a star at the University of Wisconsin. When she signed a letter of intent to attend Ohio State, Dunne was 16-years-old and a member of the 25-player U.S. national team. Dunne ended up being one of the last players cut from the final 21-player Team USA roster, stopping just short of competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
"Everyone was recruiting Jincy," said Muzerall, a former assistant coach at the University of Minnesota before landing her first head job. "Every school wanted her."
Hardly deterred when she was cut in her quest for the trip to Sochi, Russia, Dunne played three times in the U18 Women's World Championships, was a captain for Team USA and had the gold medal winning goal in overtime at the 2015 IIHF U18 Women's World Championships in Buffalo, N.Y.
But the week before planning to attend college at Ohio State, Dunne suffered a freak injury, bumping her head against a car door. The most highly-sought after college recruit in North America never played a game last season. Forget about skating; a short walk was a challenge.
"It was tough at times," said Dunne. "There were days I remember calling my parents and crying. I couldn't go to class. I was over a trash can throwing up. My ocular system was very sensitive, so if my eye saw something it didn't like, I would get sick immediately. I couldn't walk five steps without my head racing and feeling out of breath. I was in a rough position for awhile. It was hard, very hard -- physically and mentally."
Dunne, a native of O'Fallon, Mo., only watched her team play home games because she couldn't travel. A couple of her doctors suggested she might not play hockey again. When the concussion symptoms didn't improve, Dunne decided to take a medical redshirt and finally was advised to see Michael Collins, a University of Pittsburgh physician and expert on sports concussion who has treated NHL star Sidney Crosby and former Patty Kazmaier Award winner Amanda Kessel.
"He was fantastic," said Dunne. "I have been fortunate. I had to drop some classes and Ohio State has been great with all the support they have given me. I didn't get cleared to play until this summer, but I feel good. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, I guess.
"Not that I am unsure of myself, but there is some rust still. There are things where you have to play games to know what is going on."
Muzerall is very impressed how her mobile 5-foot-6 defenseman has played in her first four college games. Dunne has a goal, an assist and has been used in every situation by the new coach.
"I can't imagine having a year off," said Muzerall, a two-time all-American forward at Minnesota. "I know how tough it was to come back after not skating as a player over the summer, but then to sit out a year… She expects a lot of herself. She remembers what type of player she was and she is getting there. She is moving in that direction.
"She has played on the elite level and has international experience. Jincy has a lot of poise out there. She has great hands, but her vision is next to none. She can see what is going to happen. The way she threads pucks through to forwards and find the seams is what makes her good. She's great, with the puck and without the puck."
Muzerall has no problem identifying Dunne on the ice. Others on her team are still in the meet- and-greet phase. Her hiring was unconventional.
She is the third coach in three years for the Buckeyes, who have 10 newcomers on their team. Muzerall was on Brad Frost's coaching staff for four national championships at Minnesota and was expecting to be on the Gophers' bench again when she heard OSU dismissed Jenny Potter the week before school started.
"I liked the situation I was in at Minnesota; it was home," said Muzerall. "But when a head coaching job arises and you hear it is at The Ohio State University -- and I didn't understand what the "The" meant until you find out about the pride and passion that goes into that school -- I had to look into it. My husband said 'you would have to be out of your mind not to go for it.'."
Since getting hired a month ago, Muzerall had to hire an associate coach in Jessica Koizumi, move her family to Ohio and then handle some visa problems that caused the Canadian-born Muzerall to miss practices the week before the first game and leave her coaching debut in doubt.
"I surprised the team by walking in the locker room before the first game," said Muzerall. "The whole thing has been out of the ordinary, but it's very exciting. We have kids that are ready to buy in and the family at the Ohio State University has been fantastic. The men's coaching staff has helped us a lot. My associate coach has worn a lot of hats, but we have sorted things out and moved forward."
In a storybook debut, Ohio State beat RPI in front of their new coach, 4-1 in Troy, N.Y. With her mother Tammy in the stands, Jincy Dunne started the game with her sister Jessica on the blue line and scored the first goal. The Buckeyes took a 2-0 victory the next day. They opened the WCHA season at top-ranked Wisconsin and fell 3-0 Oct. 6, but came back to earn a point in the series finale in a 1-1 tie.
For a team that went 10-25-1 last year, a 2-1-1 start has been uplifting. Ohio State redshirt sophomore goaltender Kassidy Sauve, who like Dunne, missed last season because of injuries (labrum surgeries), has made an NCAA-high 148 saves in four games and has a .967 save percentage (third-best nationally).
Muzerall is more thankful than boastful about the Buckeyes' early record. She gives credit to her seniors Katie Matheny and Breanne Grant for running practice with Lauren Spring and the Dunnes early in September when the team was still interviewing coaching candidates. She is appreciative that OSU men's coaches Steve Rohlik and Mark Strobel ran drills for the women's team prior to her hiring, and she knew Koizumi would step into her new role with aplomb while Muzerall worked on getting her work visa transferred from Minnesota to Ohio.
"Jess had been taking the reins at practice for about a week and a half. We haven't had a lot of time to put in systems and d-zones and special teams. I thought we have really played well defensively," said Muzerall who has hired OSU alum Hokey Langan as a second assistant, only to see Langan experience visa issues. "Getting that first win and now getting a point on the road really relaxes the shoulders a little bit.
"Our goalie has been great. We aren't the most skilled team yet, but we are going to be gritty and work hard and they will give you everything they have. These are fantastic kids and faced a lot of adversity that no other team in the country has. That is why I see us moving forward quickly."
Dunne is the poster child for overcoming adversity. She has a different perspective on the game.
"I view what I went through as a blessing in disguise," said Jincy, who is named after her maternal grandmother. "I got to take a break from hockey. I had been going, going, going and I got to step back. Now I am grateful for the chance to play again for every second I get out there."
She thinks she is blessed to get to play with her older sister ("My rock. Not many players get to play D1 hockey with their sister and best friend. I couldn't be more thankful.") and looks forward to watching the Buckeyes grow this season. "We only had a coach for a week and the team came together and executed," said Dunne after playing the defending WCHA champion Badgers. "I wished we got a W, but we did some good things."
Jincy still has dreams about playing on the U.S. Olympic team and the next Winter Games are in 2018. "Being a women's hockey player, that is the ultimate goal. I would love to play for a gold medal," she says.
But when you have your favorite thing taken away, like Dunne did last year, you are just happy to strap on the skates again, smell the unique scents of a hockey rink and play with your teammates.
"I am just very grateful to be playing again," she says. "It has been a long journey and a long road, but I am so grateful to be back. I want to enjoy every second of every game."