- First Olympic gold medal ever awarded in their sport.
A.J. Mleczko, Olympian at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the U.S., and Canadian women’s ice hockey teams battled for the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded in their sport. Stunningly, the U.S. women rained six unanswered goals into Canada’s net for a jaw-dropping 7-4 victory and went on to beat them again, 3-1, in the gold-medal game. One of the victorious Americans, A.J. Mleczko ’97 (’99), says, “What they did and what we did brought women’s hockey to a new level.”
It may also have brought Harvard women’s hockey to a new level.
Co-captain Mleczko (pronounced Muh-less-ko) plays center for her explosive line, where she is both an offensive catalyst and a scoring machine. She returns to college after taking two years off to train for the Olympics. On our line, when anyone scores, it’s likely that the other two got assists.” Mleczko, who also skates for Harvard’s power-play unit, brings a formidable array of gifts to the ice. “A.J. has a great vision–she reads everything so well,” says her coach. “The great players don’t go after the game; they let the game come to them and find the holes when they are there.” Indeed, Mleczko has superb anticipation, allowing her to be in the right place at the right time. “I don’t consider myself a flashy player,” she says. “I’m not real fast and don’t have great stick skills.” But she does have tremendous hands (a great asset in face-offs), and her 5-foot, 11-inch frame allows her to use a long stick: Mleczko often cantilevers out to intercept a pass an opponent thought was out of her range. “Unbelievable reach,”. “She could be three steps behind somebody and take the puck away from them because of her extension.” Leverage also adds zip to Mleczko’s slap shots; she feels more effective from outside than at close range and could score even more goals if she weren’t so eager to distribute the puck.
The tall center plays excellent defense and enjoys penalty-killing work. “It was a lesson in how important chemistry is,” she says. “It’s so rare that you could get a group of 20 women who would want to spend six months together, 24 hours a day–that’s the edge we had over the Canadians. We knew that if we didn’t have heart, a team that wanted it more than we did would just take it away, even with less talent. We had four lines that worked together. The Canadians went to two lines in the last period of the gold-medal game, but we played four lines all the way through.”
In those Olympic years, Mleczko had some hardships to endure to keep her college eligibility–she passed up grants and stipends from USA Hockey and the U.S. Olympic Committee, as well as “Operation Gold,” a $15,000 cash bonus offered to all American gold medalists. When the U.S. team was photographed for the Wheaties box, five athletes, including Mleczko, were missing: although there was no cash payment, the NCAA considers the photograph a commercial endorsement. When invited to opening day at Yankee Stadium, Mleczko had to buy her own ticket into the park, and for the Boston Red Sox home opener, she could attend the brunch but, according to the NCAA, could not eat. “Nobody is making it easy to do the right thing,” she says. “People say, ‘You’ll miss your window, your 15 minutes of fame,’ but I don’t play hockey for money. I love to play, and there is something special about college sports.”
One of the most special rewards of Mleczko’s Olympic run came, she says when she and her teammates noticed that “both girls and boys were asking for our autographs. When I was a kid that never would have happened.” Throngs of other young autograph seekers queued up at Bright Hockey Center after Harvard’s shutout of Princeton.
This historic season is a far cry from the tenth-place ECAC team that Mleczko played on as a junior; the current squad has so much young talent that the star predicts her scoring records will “be broken really quickly, and that is great–think what it says about women’s hockey.” The American history concentrator has no idea what she wants to do next, although the 2002 Winter Olympics loom invitingly. “I hope to play with the national team again,” she says. “But this is my last chance to play with a Harvard jersey on.”