Kevin Duffy: Reality is, Julie Chu dreams of Olympic gold
Updated 12:51 am, Sunday, January 12, 2014
BEDFORD, MASS. -- Only here, at an isolated hockey rink in the outskirts of Boston, can a conversation shift from line changes to the one-sided rivalry with Canada to ... Miley Cyrus, Beyonce and Britney Spears.
Cosmopolitan magazine was in the house Wednesday, and Julie Chu was posed a question that seemed more suitable for a 90s child. And there are plenty of those on 2014 USA women's hockey team. Chu, of Fairfield, was born in 1982, making her the eldest of the bunch by a fair margin.
"The thing about being on a team is that age doesn't matter," Chu said. "Minus some jokes about the music we used to listen to and the TV shows we watched as kids, for the most part, you kind of forget.
"I think a lot of the girls even say, `I don't even think of you as being that old.'"
That's because she's really not. Chu is 31 years old, an age at which many professional athletes are still in their primes. But in February, Chu will become the oldest woman in U.S. history to play ice hockey at the Olympics.
She's already accomplished damn-near everything in the sport: Chu was a four-time All-American at Harvard and she held the NCAA's all-time points mark (284) for four seasons until Mercyhurst's Meghan Agosta broke it in 2011. She's now a four-time Olympian, a distinction held by few others.
Yet Chu has a pair of silvers and a bronze.
"The only ones that are Golden Girls are the ones in '98," Chu said. "It's a huge dream for all of us. We've been driving hard toward that since 2010 ending."
The path here, to this near-empty rink in Bedford, began when Chu was introduced to hockey at Bridgeport's Wonderland of Ice as an 8 year old. She initially started in figure skating with her sister, but lasted only a few months before switching to hockey, the preferred sport of her older brother, Richard, who played with Chris Drury in high school.
Then, in '98, the dream took shape. Chu was a freshman at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, an elite prep school that produced elite women's hockey players (current Team USA members Josephine Pucci and Hilary Knight are also Choate grads). Chu watched her high school teammate, Angela Ruggiero, compete in the 1998 Olympics and thought "I want to be there."
"Whether I knew I would be there from 2002 all the way through -- I don't know if I could have predicted that," Chu said. "For me, if you can make adjustments, continue to push the envelope to get better, that's how we can have long careers in whatever we're passionate about."
Chu made the team in 2002 as a "fifth-line extra."
"Sometimes I blink my eyes and I remember being that starry-eyed little kid that was just joining the team for the first time -- not really sure where I fit in, not sure of how everything went," she said. "I was bottom of the pecking order. ... I was probably just passing water to the girls."
In 2006, Chu tallied five assists in five games. In 2010, she handed out four assists and scored a pair of goals. It was her final Olympic experience with Ruggiero, a defenseman who also played at Harvard. Ruggiero, 34, announced her retirement in December 2011. Chu said there was never any contemplation from her end.
"There are always frank conversations after every year to say `this is where you are, this is what role you might be playing,'" Chu said. "And that has to be the case. The honesty, the upfront conversation is needed. For me, after 2010, I still loved playing hockey. I still felt like I could contribute, and it seems everyone thinks so too right now."
Her coach, Katey Stone, told the Boston Globe in mid-December, "if Julie can make this team, I think that's a tremendous accomplishment."
Just a few weeks later, Chu had survived the final cuts. She's currently on the fourth line. She anticipates that she'll be used more on penalty kill than power play, a spot to which she became accustomed over the years. But it's fine by Chu. She's been coaching for a while now -- first as an assistant with 2008 NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth and, more recently, with Union College in Albany. The experience has "put everything into perspective."
"It made me more understanding of decisions coaches make and that, at the end of the day, everything that is being decided and every combination that is being put out there is just so we can be successful as a team," she said.
Chu added: "The reality is, each one of us is an important piece to the puzzle."
It's a phrase Chu uses often. Reality is. She says it quite a bit while discussing the USA's recent history with Canada. Reality is, Chu is 0-for-3 on gold medals because Canada won in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
This past November in the Four Nations Cup, the U.S. lost again to Canada 4-2 and also dropped one versus Finland. But Chu and the U.S. returned after Thanksgiving Break to knock off Canada twice in eight days -- a 4-1 victory on Dec. 20 followed by a 3-2 win in the team's final pre-Olympic tune-up.
"The reality is, those games, minus maybe the first two before Christmas where they were bigger margins, we went into a shootout and then it was a 3-2 game," Chu said. "It's great competition. They're intense. We've done a great job in December to earn those victories and we're proud of what we've done, but we know that we haven't won anything yet."
Reality is, a repeat of December in Sochi would put the finishing touches on Julie Chu's dream.