Karen Thatcher: Overcoming Adversity and Growing Women's Hockey in America

The 2014 Winter Olympics are underway in Sochi, Russia. Canadians are turning their attention to men’s ice hockey and hoping Canada can repeat as Gold Medal champions. While the world tunes into the men’s gold medal match it’s crucial that they don’t forget about the Canadian women’s hockey team competing at the same games.

We focus most of our attention on men’s hockey and the NHL. We often overlook the women who train so hard for the love of the game. Most women hockey players work several jobs to make ends meet. Their hard work and perseverance often goes unnoticed as they frequently play in empty arenas. Skating2[1]

Today we’re going to look at the story of Karen Thatcher, a pioneer of women’s hockey in America. She has overcome so much personal adversity while watching the game grow in leaps and bounds during her time with the USA National team.

By the time Karen was 5 she was ready to ditch the figure skates and pick up a hockey stick like her older brother James. “Wanting to do everything her older brother did” Karen began playing hockey. It wasn’t until she attended a hockey school at age 7 that she set her eyes on Team USA; “When I was a little older from the ages of 7-10, members of the USA national team would come to our rink and talk to our teams about playing in the World Championships. Players like Katie King, Laurie Baker and Cammie Granato became my idols when I was younger.” From that moment, a young Karen was determined to become a World Champion.

However it wasn’t until her sophomore and junior years of high school that she realized she needed to make some changes if she was to one day achieve her goal of being a World Champion. “I started working out more at Mike Boyle’s strength and conditioning camp which made the biggest difference for me. I worked 2 hours, four days a week and my game changed in every aspect. I became much stronger on the puck, my skating improved and I became a better athlete. That work translated really well on the ice for me.” Karen began to see an immediate difference as she made the transfer from an average athlete to an elite talent with a bright future. She also earned attention from Brown University.

Thatcher played 32 games with the Bears in her freshman year before transferring to Providence College where she would finish her last three-year’s of college hockey. She would play in 132 games throughout her college career and finished with 167 points. Along the way Karen earned an East player of the year award and back-to-back Hockey East Championships in 2004 and 2005.

However the highlight of Thatcher’s career didn’t come until 2010 when she was named to team USA’s Olympic hockey 14-hockey[1]team and competed for gold in Vancouver.  “It was incredible. Women’s hockey doesn’t usually have a big fan base, but at the Vancouver Olympics everybody loved hockey. Hockey is huge in Canada so our games were packed and we played in front of 19,000 screaming people every game.” Thatcher and team USA would go on to win the Silver medal after falling 2-0 to their arch rivals the Canadians. Thatcher described the feeling of playing against Canada in three simple words, “it’s so fun.” As big a rival as Canada versus the USA is on the men’s side of World Hockey, one could argue it’s an even bigger rival for the women. “The two teams are so well matched against each other, we practice and train everyday to play against Canada. Having the opportunity to be challenged by our rivals at that level is so fun, so intense. The adrenaline pumping in that moment is what you’ve been working for every day in the gym. Those moments when you feel like you’re going to throw up while training, the thought that you’re training to play against Canada motivates you to continue.”

The rivalry can easily be attributed for the growth and success of women’s hockey as of late with the establishment of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, a semi-professional league for women. “It blows my mind to see the growth of women’s hockey where rinks are so packed people are sitting on top of coke machines to see the women play. It’s incredible how it has now become expected for girls to play ice hockey and have goals of playing in college, the Olympics or the CWHL. Being a part of that growth and now to see the growth is incredible.”

In addition to her time playing in College and the CWHL/WWHL, Karen Thatcher also enjoyed a 10-year stint with the USA Women’s National team beginning in 2003. During her time with the US National team Thatcher brought home 5 gold medals and four silver medals. In all she played 70 games for the blue, white and red, helping to pave the way for young girls dreaming of playing hockey.

Her career was not without adversity though. She tore both her MCL’s, suffered through pneumonia and a partially collapsed right lung in 2008 and had elbow surgery in 2005. “Big injuries can be very frustrating.” Despite the frustrating injuries, which would have forced many to step away, Karen kept battling.

However on February 3rd, 2013 a third concussion left her hockey career in jeopardy. “The third one I had a lot of trouble coming back from. I was cleared to play but the doctors had no idea what harm could be caused by another one.” After Finlandattempting to make a comeback for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Thatcher retired from playing in April. “With all the research coming out from NFL concussions and issues that occur down the line I just couldn’t risk it anymore and decided this was a sign from someone that it was time for me to stop playing and start coaching. Thatcher says it was an emotional decision having to pull back from competing for a spot on team USA for Sochi 2014, but was 100% the right decision to make as she still suffers from post-concussion syndromes.

Now that Karen has hung up her skates she has focused her attention to coaching and hopes to one-day coach Team USA; “That would be an unbelievable opportunity to represent my country as both a player and a coach.” Her coaching philosophy has differed a little since her playing days but it hinges on something her mom told her when she was younger; “Skate hard, have fun and hit back harder. Adversity is going to happen so work as hard as you can everyday, have fun while doing so and adversity won’t stop you from getting back up.”

As for this year’s Olympics, Thatcher has been following the Women’s US team and says they look fast, strong and ready to go and she hopes they can beat Canada. Make sure you check out Karen Thatcher’s coaching profile for details on how to train with Karen directly.

Tags: Karen Thatcher Olympics United States Women's Hockey

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