“Creating Destruction” ~Jordan Smelker, Boston Pride forward

Winter storm “Stella” is wreaking havoc throughout the northeast of the United States. I am having to contend with it here in Buffalo, while the Boston Pride’s Jordan Smelker is assuredly braving the winter barrens in the Massachusetts area. And as a hockey player, Smelker’s style of play allows her to perform a little “wreaking havoc” of her own. “To put it bluntly”, she says, “I think the best way to describe me is someone who creates destruction in the offensive zone to hopefully create turnovers and help give our team scoring opportunities”. I do not know why, but as soon as she said this the refrain from the Drowning Pool song “Bodies” starts playing in my mind: “Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the FLOOR!!!”.

Smelker goes on to say, “My favorite thing to do is forecheck, so if I can use my size to help regain or maintain possession and create scoring opportunities, then I think I’m doing my job. My playing style isn’t what you would call ‘pretty’ or ‘graceful’, but that’s okay with me because each player is different, and plays a unique and important role. That’s what makes hockey so great I think”. And that is made me want to interview Smelker. I find myself taking a liking toward players that embody a strong work ethic and an intense level of determination. Guts, to do it more justice. Smelker’s role throughout her young career has already brought her a CWHL Clarkson Cup championship and an NWHL Isobel Cup championship as well. I felt a strong inclination to learn more about her, and she was kind enough to grant me the opportunity.

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Boston’s Jordan Smelker “creates destruction” at the doorstep of the Connecticut Whale’s net (Photo credit: Meg Linehan).

Born June 19th, 1992, Jordan Smelker hails from faraway Anchorage Alaska (at least faraway from Boston and Buffalo). “Hockey is pretty big up there”, Smelker tells me. “I started playing when I was 6-years old. My parents got a flyer for the Alaska Firebirds Girls Hockey Association from our elementary school, and decided to have my sister and I give it a try. From what I can remember, when we first started playing, there was really only one girls organization in Anchorage. There were many opportunities to play boys’ hockey, but aside from one year each playing with the boys, my sister and I stuck with girls hockey”.

When I think of Anchorage, Alaska, I always have the same image that comes to mind. That of big Mike Peluso, a former star for the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), sitting on the bench crying with beautiful emotion as he realized he was about to win the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. While Smelker did not closely follow the NHL while in Anchorage, she was very much aware and a fan of the more localized hockey in her hometown and that of Peluso’s alma mater: “In Anchorage we grew up watching the Alaska Aces of the ECHL and the UAA Seawolves. I didn’t really watch the NHL because we didn’t have access to the games to watch on TV, so I was more of a bandwagon fan whenever the Stanley Cup Finals came around. I did love watching the U.S. women’s national team in the Olympics and came to admire those players, many of whom I get to play with now on the Pride”.

Other than my visions of Mike Peluso, I would have to say that I have very little familiarity with Alaska and its many wonders. Photos I have seen make me marvel over its awe-inspiring beauty. And while I could try to imagine what it may be like to live there I know that I could never properly do it justice. For Smelker though, it is first and foremost home. “As far as growing up in Alaska, it was pretty typical for a hockey family. We would spend most weekends during the winter traveling to tournaments and playing games. During the summer we would go on camping trips or biking trips, and work on the house. We had some horses and some land, so we would spent a lot of time at home playing and working outside”, she says. While some of that may be typical like Smelker said, it also sounds quite nice.

In addition to being an elite hockey player, Jordan Smelker is also very much a superb all-around athlete. And while she has excelled in track & field, tennis, and cross country skiing, she is first and foremost a hockey player hands down. “I love sports in general”, she says, “and it was great that my parents allowed me to play whatever I wanted. But I have always been a hockey player. Not only did I love the games, but I loved training for it. The opportunity arose to play hockey at RPI, so it didn’t take much thought to jump on the chance”. Which leads our discussion into Smelker’s remarkable collegiate career.

From 2010 to 2014, Jordan Smelker excelled on the ice and in the classroom at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), whose team name is quite appropriately the Engineers. Many hockey fans recognize that RPI fostered elite players such as Adam Oates and Joe Juneau, but unfortunately not as many people seem to be aware that a number of premier players came through the school’s women’s program as well like Julie Aho, Alexa Gruschow, and Smelker. “I had met the RPI assistant coach Colette Youlen at NAHA (North American Hockey Academy) summer hockey camps up in Alaska. I visited RPI in June before my senior year of high school. The campus was beautiful and the rink was great. I wasn’t sure right away what I wanted to pursue as a career, but engineering did interest me. So the combination of a great education and the opportunity to play D-I hockey made the decision pretty easy”.

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Jordan Smelker has size and guts, and she is the embodiment of “hard work” for the Boston Pride (Photo credit: Meg Linehan)

During her freshman year at RPI not only did Smelker appear in all 35-regular season games, but also finished second overall on the team in goals (10) and points (20). Academically, she would be named an ECAC Hockey All-Academic, which is an honor bestowed upon collegiate athletes who have earned a cumulative average of at least 3.0. I wanted to know from Smelker what that first taste of NCAA hockey felt like. She explains: “As far as the hockey goes, the best part of transitioning from the travel team in Alaska to playing college was that I got to play so much hockey. Every day was filled with training. I loved the grind of struggling through long days with my teammates. It sounds weird but I got a lot of fulfillment out of that and of course playing in the big rinks against teams like Harvard and Cornell was really awesome”.

It can be funny sometimes the things that our mind’s eye holds onto. For Jordan Smelker it was an image from her freshman season that held a lot of gravity to it, and which ironically enough is still very much in her life today. “I distinctly remember a moment during our first road trip to Wisconsin my freshman year. During the national anthem I was awestruck looking across the rink at the team spread across the blueline seeing names like Duggan, Knight and Decker. There were players that I idolized and watched on TV. I was in shock that I was actually going to play a hockey game against them. It is funny thinking about it now because I get to play with them everyday, which at the time was not even on my radar as a possibility”.

I look at Smelker’s sophomore campaign at RPI as arguably her most remarkable. Once again she played in each game (34) of the season for the Engineers and was a second time straight ECAC All-Academic, all the while leading her team in goals (10), assists (16), points (26) and penalty minutes (50). She laughs, “I’m not so proud of the penalty minutes statistic. I definitely had a temper which I think now I have finally conquered… hopefully (more laughter). As far as the other stuff you mentioned, I just think that getting pushed in the weight room helped me a lot on the ice. We had a pretty vigorous strength and conditioning program which helped us get stronger and faster on the ice. It helped me stay on my feet again college level players. I had spent a fair amount of my freshman year either falling on my face or flat on my back. Strength and speed definitely distinguished the vets from the rookies in the ECAC”.

Smelker’s third season as an Engineer brought more of the same accolades and success. This time it would be all 36-games for the squad while once again leading the team in PIMs (51) and finishing second on the team in assists (12) and points (21). A third in a row All-Academic honor in the books as well, by this point Smelker was a well-established junior who could also be a leader and a guide for the program’s younger players. “I was just focused on working as hard as I could both on the ice and off, in the weight room and classroom, and hopefully lead by example in that way”.

The 2013-14 season would be Smelker’s senior year and her final season at RPI. She would cap off her career at Rensselaer with a big bang. 19-points in 31-games are certainly decent numbers, but what speaks more to Smelker’s character, her skill level, and her leadership was that not only was she named the Engineers’ team MVP, but she was also a finalist for ECAC Hockey’s Best Defensive Forward award. Looking back on her collegiate career, Smelker is able to say “My time at RPI greatly impacted me as a person. I had to grow up a lot, and it was certainly difficult to manage school and hockey at the same time. I wouldn’t say that I am ecstatic about the results we had over the four years; I think we had potential for more success than we had. Having said that, I don’t regret the experience as I felt that I learned a lot and it helped me to grow as a person”.

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Jordan Smelker uses her size and determination to wreak havoc against opposing teams like the Connecticut Whale (Photo credit: Meg Linehan).

Upon graduating from RPI, Smelker would sign with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and it would pay most wonderful dividends. The Blades were comprised of a roster that featured some of hockey’s finest. Brianna Decker. Hilary Knight. Monique Lamoureux. Kaleigh Fratkin. Tara Watchorn. Smelker. And I could go on even more from there. “It was a simple decision (to sign with the Blades)”, she recalls. “I wanted to continue playing competitively, and the CWHL was an option with structure and a high level of hockey, so it was a no-brainer”.

Even with a roster with legends such as there were, Jordan Smelker still finished sixth overall in team scoring for the Blades (8-goals, 7-assists in 22-games). Far more importantly though, the 2014-15 Blades would capture the Clarkson Cup trophy. Winning 3-2 in overtime against the Montreal Stars on a goal by Austria’s Janine Weber, Smelker and her teammates would hoist the Cup for the second time in the team’s history. For Smelker, not bad at all for a first season in the CWHL. Smelker tells me, “That was an awesome year. It was the best year of hockey for me up to that point. We had great team chemistry, and all my teammates were such great players; I really appreciated that team. That was the first championship that I had ever won, so it was awesome. But more importantly I loved my team and the friendships I made that year are some of the best I’ve had”.

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A photo from their days with the CWHL’s Boston Blades, Jordan Smelker (far right) and teammates Tara Watchorn and Hilary Knight having fun together (Photo credit: Meg Linehan).

The National Women’s Hockey League would hold its inaugural campaign during the 2015-16 season, and Jordan Smelker would become of the league’s fledgling members of the first paid professional women’s hockey league. Smelker would not have to go far either, as she would opt to sign with the city of Boston’s NWHL club, the Pride. Speaking on the fact that she could have likely signed with any one of the other four newly founded NWHL teams in Boston, Buffalo, New York, or the North Branford area of Connecticut, or even have signed with another CWHL team, Smelker tells me,  “I had a job in Boston, so I didn’t want to move cities. It was an easy decision for me to stay in Boston so that I could have the same teammates who I love and also keep my job”.

The Pride’s first season would be exciting and a whirlwind at times too. Coinciding with having a great deal of success as a hockey club, perhaps largely due to the fact that most of the team was comprised of the same roster of players who had just previously won the Clarkson Cup the year beforehand (i.e. Knight, Decker, Dempsey, Bolden, Smelker, etc.), the team also had to face devastating adversity when teammate from both the Blades and the Pride, Denna Laing, suffered a severe spinal cord injury during an outdoor game. That being said, the team rallied behind one another and became that much more bound together by their heartstrings. Smelker would average better than a point per game by tallying 19 of them (9-goals, 10-assists) in 17-games, and the Pride would capture the first ever Isobel Cup championship in the first season of NWHL play. Teammate Hilary Knight would absolutely explode for 33-points in 17-games, plus 9-more points in 4-playoff games as Boston claimed victory.

“The first season was definitely eventful”, Smelker says. “There were times when the travel schedule was difficult, but the atmosphere at the games was awesome. That was the first year I experienced having a pretty large base of fans who would show up week after week. Sometimes walking around Boston I’ll see a Pride jersey, or a Denna Laing t-shirt, which is really cool. The thing that sticks out most to me is the feeling that I am a part of something that has made an impact on the game and has shown that women’s hockey has the potential to be something that people can get excited about watching”.

And this feeling that Smelker speaks of has by no means diminished. At the time of this article, the NWHL playoffs are set to begin tomorrow evening (March 16th, 2017) as Smelker’s Pride take on the Connecticut Whale in the opening round. The Pride only lost 1-game all season long, and look to repeat as Isobel Cup champions. They have also secured home ice advantage throughout the entire playoffs. According to Smelker, “The best part about playing in the NWHL is playing at home in front of our awesome fans. The atmosphere is phenomenal and we can attribute that to the fans. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”. In 15-games this season, Jordan Smelker scored 3-goals and 5-assists.

With the 2016-17 season almost at a close, Smelker also has some ideas on how we as a hockey community can continue to build the prosperity and the interest for women’s hockey. We discuss first the concept of “Grow the Game” – the idea of building the road ahead for women’s hockey, particularly for the young girls that comprise the next generation. Smelker explains her thoughts to me: “To me, ‘Grow the Game’ means doing the little things like staying for autographs, volunteering at clinics, and talking to kids who show an interest in meeting you. My teammate Jill Dempsey is an excellent example of the type of person that really helps grow the game. She always is making time for things like that, and it shows the impact it has because you see the number of kids that come to the games looking for a picture with “Ms. Dempsey” or an autographed jersey”.

But after “Grow the Game”, there is a need to garner support from their male counterparts that the NWHL players hope to attain, according to Smelker. “I think that support and recognition of our league from the men’s side would definitely help. It would go a long way for us to have prominent figures in the hockey world (men’s and women’s) to be vocal about their support of the league to help make it more visible nationwide”. Personally, I agree with Smelker’s sentiments exactly, and I think we are just starting to see support coming from the NHL at various functions where the top league in men’s hockey can spread the word on the great brand of hockey that players like Smelker are generating. Let’s just hope that continues.

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Jordan Smelker (center) and Boston Pride teammates Jillian Dempsey and Alyssa Gagliardi are #14Strong for their teammate Denna Laing (Photo provided courtesy of Jordan Smelker).

Having played in and found success with both major North American women’s leagues, Smelker’s experience gives her the firsthand insight into what could potentially be a successful merger or partnership between the NWHL and the CWHL. But, Smelker even takes it a step further. Perhaps if Hockey Canada and USA Hockey both got onto the boat with women’s professional hockey, then it would a “natural hat-trick” of sorts. “I think another huge missing link is a collaboration of the professional leagues with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. It would be incredibly impactful to have the three ‘pillars’ of post-NCAA women’s hockey work together to form or mold a league into something that can help develop players after college, and also feed into the development of the national team programs”. Definitely an interesting idea raised by Smelker; one I have not fully heard discussed as such before. I hope that there are some folks that are higher up who might be listening.

How Jordan Smelker and I end the conversation reiterates further that I was right in wanting to interview her. She tells me, “The most important thing I have learned while playing hockey is how to be a good person and how to work hard”. I do not think that there are two ideals more necessary than the two that she names. They exemplify who she is as a player and as a person. Jordan Smelker may look to create destruction when she competes out on the ice but that speaks most certainly to the hard worker that she is, and I happen to know that she is a very good person too.

Thank you, Jordan!

 

 

 

 

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“Net Presence”: Henriette Behn, Färjestad BK forward

While she tells me that her favorite hockey players are a fellow countryman and arguably the most recognized player presently in women’s hockey, I liken Henriette Behn’s style of play to more of a robust forward who is not afraid to take a puck to the inside of the thigh or the shaft of a stick plastered across the back. Say, a Tomas Holmstrom. Or a Johan Franzen. She has net presence. “My hockey heroes are Hilary Knight and Mats Zuccarello. I wouldn’t say that I am a sniper, no. I would say that I am more of a hardworking type of player. A player who you can put in front of the opponent’s net to screen the goalie and make space for my teammates”. And thus far in her young career, Henriette Behn has done a very admirable job of that.

Born New Year’s Eve of 1998, Behn’s passion for the game was initially instilled in her by her father. “I was four years old when I attended my first hockey school, and then I joined an actual team later that same year. It was my dad who introduced me to the sport. The fact that he was a hockey coach at that time made me become interested in trying it”. Behn hails from the city of Oslo; the capital and most populous city in the country of Norway.

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Knowing her way most effectively around the front of the net, Henriette Behn is a highly promising player for Färjestad BK (Photo provided courtesy of Värmlands Folkblad; Photo credit: Håkan Strandman).

Though opportunities to play hockey may have been limited to a certain extent, that does not mean that the quality or competition was poor for Behn to partake in. Quite the contrary, actually. “In Oslo there are about five ice rinks so the opportunities to play are definitely there. However being a girl and playing in Oslo of course lessens those opportunities. But in my mind it has only been a positive thing for me. With fewer opportunities to play on girls teams, I have played on boys teams since I was five. This has only been for the better when it comes to my development”.

One of the top hockey clubs in the city of Oslo is Vålerenga, and Behn was able to grow through the ranks of their program since her earliest ages in the game. “I played for Vålerenga’s boys team from when I was five until I was thirteen”, at which age Behn was old enough to play in Norway’s women’s elite league. Having already been a member of Vålerenga for such a considerable length of time, it was only natural that Behn joined their women’s team. “There are six teams in Norway’s women’s league, in the elite series”, she explains. “Vålerenga performed good during the 5-years I played with the team. We always managed to put together a good group of hardworking players who all had a winning mindset. Often our results led us to leading the entire league”. Across those 5-years, Behn appeared in 46-career games in the Norwegian women’s league for Vålerenga and tallied 12-goals and 6-assists.

It was during this time with Vålerenga that Henriette Behn had the opportunity to represent her country in three consecutive Women’s U18 Division-I Championships as a member of the Norwegian national team; each opportunity having been a true honor for her. “It meant a lot to me. You feel a special type of pride when wearing your nation’s jersey, and you naturally always feel very honored when representing your own country by doing something that you love”. I like how Behn recognizes the value of this, and maybe sees it a step further than many athletes. Not only did she have three opportunities (thus far) to represent Norway on the international hockey stage, but she did so – and she was the one to say it – by doing something that she truly loves. Rarer of an opportunity still. When you can combine skill with love and channel it into one focus, one mindset, it is an experience that so few get to feel. And Behn has achieved a trifecta of sorts in that respect.

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Battling for position against Denmark, Norway’s Henriette Behn (in white) fights to establish position in front of the opposing net (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

Behn’s first go-round in this particular IIHF tournament was in 2014 for the games in Füssen, Germany.  Barely 15-years old at the time, Behn would play in all 5-tournament games for the Norwegian team. But seeing limited ice time likely due to her age and experience level, Behn more so utilized this first tournament to gain invaluable experience for future tournaments ahead; the likes of which she could not have foreseen the dividends it would eventually pay. “That first tournament was a motivation to me because it was my first time on the national team. The speed in the games and the tempo in general was much faster than I was used to in Norway. So this was definitely something that helped prepare me for future international tournaments”. In the 5-games Behn was held pointless and the Norwegians would finish fourth overall with 2-wins and 3-losses.

Then came 2015. And for Behn and Team Norway, it would be a tournament for the ages. A full tournament already under her belt, Behn tied for the team lead in goal scoring with 3-goals and a whopping 25-percent shooting percentage throughout the tournament. For a second year player on the national team who does not consider herself a sniper, she was on fire. Describing her mindset when she is in the game, Behn tells me “I’m a player who hates to loose; the coach can expect that I always give 100-percent in the games that I play”. The fire in her belly sparked Norway to a 3-1-1 tournament finish and the silver medal at the games in Vaujany, France.

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Seen here fighting for a lose puck against Slovakia, Henriette Behn (center in red) is routinely found at the opposing goaltender’s doorstop (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

Arguably though for Behn, the most exciting moment of the series came when she scored the game tying goal against Slovakia with only 32-seconds left in the game to send it to overtime; firing a loose puck past goaltender Olga Jablonovska. After an extra session was played and no decisive winner, the two teams went to a shootout which saw the Norwegians come away with 5-4 victory, well on their way to the silver. Describing that pinnacle moment in which she scored, Behn recalls, “That game was thrilling because the intensity was just so high! I remember I was put on the ice towards the end of regulation so that I could screen the goalie. I remember thinking that I just had to score. When I got that shot from my teammate and managed to score on that rebound, that is a feeling that I cannot even describe”.

And how could she? Once again, it comes down to rarity that few ever get to experience. A tying goal against another nation that keeps your own country’s medal hopes alive. But this is a prime example of Behn’s net presence and when it mattered the most. She also is able to put that medal run into perspective for me. “To win that silver medal was an amazing experience. That meant a lot to me and it’s something I will never forget. Our team was strong that season, and everyone was motivated to show what we really could do. I think this team spirit and the fact that I was in really good shape that season led me to having such strong tournament”.

 

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Henriette Behn in hot pursuit of the puck while playing for Vålerenga in the Norwegian women’s ice hockey league (Photo credit: Kenneth Myrhe).

2016 was Behn’s final U18 tournament appearance and Norway could not recreate their success from the year prior. For Behn, recognizing that it was her last tournament at this particular level was a slightly surreal experience even though she enjoyed it as a whole. “I thought it was a good tournament because that year there were many new players in the group. But of course, it was kind of weird knowing it was my final tournament with the U18 team”. Maybe even somewhat ironic too, that her final statistics from the tournament are incorrect, which she jokingly points out. “I had two goals in that tournament”, she laughs; “the stats are wrong”. Officially, the IIHF has her down as having 1-goal and 1-assist in the 5-game tournament. Norway finished fourth overall with another record of 2-wins and 3-losses.

Though these were Behn’s last U18 appearances on the Norwegian national team, they are likely not her last for Norway, nor does she expect them to be. “I was actually in Hungary with the Norwegian national team back in November (2016), so I hope that I will have the opportunity to play for them going forward. This is something I work hard towards and have in mind every time I workout, so it is definitely something that I am striving for”.

So while she is actively preparing herself for the next opportunity to play for her homeland, what is Henriette Behn’s current status in hockey? Färjestad BK; a hockey club in Sweden that is one tier lower than their Swedish elite women’s hockey league. Asked about the decision to leave the familiar confines of Vålerenga, Behn tells me that she opted for Färjestad BK to further develop her skill level. “I was looking for a more challenging season, and wanted to develop myself even more. As a hockey player this is naturally something you always strive for. Therefore, I was contacted by the Färjestad BK’s coach and received an offer to play there this season. I felt like this was an appropriate league for me where I could develop”.

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Here once again Henriette is jousting in front of the Slovakian net, anticipating a deflection or a rebound (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

And does Behn hold out hope that Färjestad BK may even be promoted to Sweden’s top women’s league? “Yes, there is a possibility that my team will be promoted to the top league. This is what we are working for during the season, so it will definitely be cool to see how we will do in these qualifications. For my part, I definitely want to work hard to reach this goal. And that is to play in the top Swedish women’s league!”. In 6-games this season with Färjestad BK, Behn has 2-goals and 2-assists.

It is interesting to see how this young lady, who knows her way around the front of the net, has no issues with trudging through the trenches in order to better herself. She gets it. She has it figured out. I do not really like the adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It is far too overused and has lost its meaning. But there is something to be said about paying ones dues (to snatch a different phrase). It seems that Henriette Behn has found the proper niche where she can not only challenge herself physically on the ice, but where she also can have an attainable goal in her sights. And while that goal is an attainable one, it is not something that she can just skate right up to and take whenever she pleases. “Nothing comes easy”, she tells me. “You have to put in effort and hard work to get where you want to. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things to reach your goals. But hard work always pays off in the end”.

Thank you, Henriette! Very well stated.