Each week WCHA.com will offer an update on the former Western Collegiate Hockey Association players playing pro hockey. The website will also offer periodic stories on former WCHA players.
By Bill Brophy for WCHA.com
Amber Fryklund hardly looks like a pioneer as she stands with hands crossed behind the Bemidji State bench. She probably doesn't like the title of "trailblazer." She much prefers to be called Coach Fryklund.
Fryklund, you see, is in her sixth year as an assistant coach at Bemidji State, a team that was ranked in the top ten nationally in the country the last two years. She is a proud alumna and can tell you much of the women's hockey history of the school.
But make no mistake; Fryklund is learning every day as a coach at the school where she is still the all-time leading scorer and the place where she got her degree in physical education in 2003.
"It is very special to coach at the place where you went to school and I always felt fortunate to have that opportunity," said Fryklund, who was hired by Steve Sertich in 2011 and is starting her third season with current coach Jim Scanlan. "It is easier to sell your school at the place where you played. You are grateful for the opportunities that came your way. To see where we started and where we are today is really, really neat. It is very cool to see."
Fryklund has had a front row seat to watch much of the journey from hockey start-up to a team that made it to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) Final Face-Off in 2015 and finished third in the regular season standings in 2016. In fact, she has seen girls' and women's hockey flourish in the last few decades.
Amber played hockey with the boys until seventh grade in Hibbing, Minn. and was forced to quit hockey in seventh grade because there wasn't an organized team to play on in the Iron Range town. She played basketball that year. However, the next winter, the Mighty Rangers were formed for Amber and her girls teammates, and then Minnesota became the first state in the United States to offer girls high school hockey as a varsity sport in 1994. Fryklund's Hibbing team lost in the Minnesota state high school championship game in 1996, won the title in 1997 and lost 1-0 in the championship game her senior season, when Amber was a finalist for Ms. Hockey in Minnesota and got a scholarship to play hockey for Bemidji State.
Fryklund is the Beavers' all-time leading scorer, amassing 122 points from 2000-03. She remains the school's leader in both points and goals and is second all-time in assists. Fryklund was also a second team all-WCHA selection following the 2001-02 season – a year when the league featured standouts like Kelly Stephens and Rhonda Curtin at Minnesota and Kerry Weiland and Carla McLeod at Wisconsin. Looking back at her playing days, Fryklund said here is no comparing the era when she played to this season, when Wisconsin is the top-ranked team in the country and Minnesota the two-time defending national champion.
"The talent level and speed are so much better," she said. "There is no doubt the speed and skill level is much different from when I played. There is more parity in the game too. You have elite players still, but the gap has been closed from the elite player to the others. More girls are playing and playing all year long. Overall, women's hockey has grown. There are more great players."
Fryklund is thrilled to be a part of the growth. She never imagined she would be coaching while growing up in Hibbing. After graduating from Bemidji State, she spent seven years teaching physical education at the Marshall School and Duluth Public Schools Academy, both in Duluth, Minn. She also received her master's degree in educational leadership from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2007, while serving as the co-head coach of the Duluth Northern Stars from 2004-09 and an assistant coach for the Proctor-Hermantown-Marshall Mirage during the 2009-2011 seasons.
"When I left BSU and moved to Duluth, I coached high school hockey and a couple years into that I knew that coaching is what I wanted to do," said Fryklund. "But I wanted to do it the right way. I wanted to make sure I had experience coaching before I made that jump so I spent seven years coaching, teaching. That background in education and in coaching high school hockey prepared me and gave me a lot of confidence."
Then Bemidji came calling and Fryklund has coached and witnessed some great players -- like defenseman (and current NWHL player) Ivana Bilic and Olympic goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova, who played for Sertich -- and the best runs in BSU hockey history the last two seasons under Scanlan. While Fryklund has been an assistant and now an associate head coach, the Beavers have had two 20-win seasons, a runner-up finish in the WCHA playoffs, and produced a national team player and two all-Americans, including current goaltender Brittni Mowat. Under Scanlan, Fryklund handles the team's forwards and penalty killing units and helps long-time colleague Shane Veenker with recruiting, the video breakdown and academics.
This season, the young Beavers are 4-7-1 and 2-7-1 in the WCHA, where the top three teams in the country (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth) are the top trio in the standings, but Fryklund is still enjoying the ride.
"We have a young team and we have taken some lumps and bumps," Fryklund said in Madison after the Badgers swept the Beavers last weekend. "But that's okay. Wisconsin is a really good team. If it's always easy, you don't always appreciate it.
"We talk about how lucky we are to play in this league, but how difficult it is. You get to play against the best players in the world and that's good. But it is also bad because it is difficult. It is a challenge, but that can be a gift because challenges make you better."
Fryklund is not the only WCHA alum coaching at a school where she played. There's also Jackie Friesen Crum at Wisconsin, Shari Vogt Dickerman at Minnesota State and Bethany Brausen at Minnesota. All of them are career coaches, just like Nadine Muzzerall, who left an assistant's job at her alma mater, Minnesota, to take the head coaching position at Ohio State in September. The longer women's hockey is around, Fryklund thinks, more women will go into coaching.
"When I was growing up, you could never have told me that I would have a chance to play college hockey, let alone coach college hockey, when I got older," Fryklund said. "People in my generation are going into coaching. They have experience as players so it seems the coaching pool is getting bigger. There are more women who are ready to coach because the game has grown." Fryklund says she loves working USA Hockey camps in the off-season and also is a member of the NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Ice Hockey Rules Committee.
"Those things are great opportunities. It is doing something bigger than the game," said Fryklund. "Being around an environment like a development camp makes you better as a coach. I think it is important. I like giving back to the game and being involved. I think there isn't just your team, but the greater good in women's hockey. I don't take that lightly."
Fryklund, the trailblazer, aspires to be a head coach some day, but she says "in the meantime I love learning. I love what I do. It is easy to do if you have a passion for it.
"Whatever I can do to get better, I am always taking those opportunities. I have had an opportunity to work with a lot of great people and they have helped me. So maybe someday, but until then I am living the dream."