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Will to Win Shaped Brianna Decker’s Legacy

By Justin Felisko, USA Hockey Magazine Managing Editor, 03/03/23, 8:00AM EST

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Olympic Gold Medalist and IIHF World Champion reflects on her retirement after 15 years representing Team USA

Brianna Decker had not held or looked at her 2018 Winter Olympic Games gold medal in over a year until this past week. 

Decker was gathering some items around her house in Minnesota in preparation for this coming weekend’s San Jose Sharks Female Ambassador Clinics when she unlocked her safe to grab some of her precious medals from her illustrious career. 

The Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion then glanced down at her hands and paused. Decker had come to relative peace with her ensuing retirement announcement, yet there was still something therapeutic as she held the iconic medals in her hands. 

Decker began to reflect on her hockey playing career. For the last 28 years, Decker has been a hockey player – an extremely fierce, passionate and determined one at that. Her path to international stardom began when she was three years old playing with her three brothers (Bryan, Ben and Brody) in Dousman, Wisconsin. The little girl stickhandling in the driveway of that small town west of Milwaukee would eventually blossom into one of the greatest women’s hockey players of all time as she traveled the world representing the red, white and blue.

“I hadn’t looked at any of the medals for a while, and it’s kind of a cool moment to see them and hold them this week, considering I’m announcing my retirement,” Decker said. “It was kind of a neat moment for myself. It’s really cool to reflect on the journey that I did have. It’s crazy because when you’re in it, you don’t realize it. Then now that you’re starting to segue out of your journey, as far as playing, it’s cool to look back.”

Brianna Decker poses with her 2018 Olympic gold medal.

Decker could have focused on all of her accomplishments during her 12-year career with the U.S. Women’s National Team, such as that gold medal in Pyeongchang, South Korea; her two silver medals from the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia and 2022 Games in Beijing, China; or her six gold medals from the IIHF Women’s World Championship (2011, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019).  The 2012 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner, as the top player in NCAA Division I women’s hockey, will always cherish the monumental victories and moments, including a national title at the University of Wisconsin in 2011 and three national titles at the high school level with Shattuck-St. Mary’s School.

However, it is the people she met along the way that Decker truly relishes. 

Leaving her teammates is the most difficult part about no longer playing the game she loves after nearly three decades. Memories such as eating a ball of wasabi at a sushi restaurant at the dare of a teammate and playing cards and boardgames with linemates are the small moments that will never be forgotten.

“It wasn’t necessarily about winning that gold medal,” Decker said. “That was awesome, but it was the people we did it with. Some of my friends on that team are some of my best friends still today. Some of them I went to high school with, and you go through so much with a lot of those players. That’s why winning together is so special.

“The best part about hockey is it’s a team sport and you can’t win without a team. I was spoiled playing on a lot of great teams with a lot of great coaches.”

COMPETITIVE GENES 

Decker still remembers grabbing her hockey stick and chucking it towards her brothers in a fit of frustration after losing a game of knee hockey when she was younger. 

“Every one of us was a sore loser,” Decker recalled in laughter. “I would be competitive in the smallest games. Maybe I took some of this from my brothers when they would lose, but if we were playing horse or basketball in the street, a ball was being booted down the hill because we were upset that we lost.”

Decker would then run inside to her mother, Marilyn, with tears in her eyes.  

Her mother's response? 

‘If you don’t want to play with them, then don’t go back out there.’

Of course, a fiery Brianna would trek back outside, determined to defeat her brothers. It didn’t matter what sport the siblings were playing either; the Decker children were always pushing each other to be better.

“My childhood set me up for a great career I believe,” Decker said. “Being surrounded by my brothers every single day competing and playing with them outside. I really give a lot of credit to my brothers and my parents (Marilyn and John). I came from a blue-collar family. I had to work for everything, and my parents had that kind of standard for us – 'if you want to go get something, then really go work for it and get it done.’"

BUDDING FRIENDSHIPS AS KIDS

Less than 10 miles away, there was another young girl by the name of Alex Rigsby, now Alex Cavallini, beginning to lace up her skates as well in Delafield, Wisconsin. 

The Rigsbys would become a second family to Brianna as the two hockey loving friends would carpool all over the state to work on perfecting their craft.  

Decker’s competitive soul continued to evolve as she played for the Waukesha Youth Hockey Association with Cavallini, and then the Madison Capitols Girls Team from 1999-2005. Meanwhile, she also played with the Wisconsin AAA Boys from 2002-2005. 

Decker and Rigsby would eventually join forces with future U.S. Women’s National Team member Amanda Kessel in Madison too.

“It was really awesome to go on a journey with them and get to where we got,” Decker said. “We were just kind of like the three girls from Wisconsin that played boys hockey and then we played girls hockey together. One thing I loved about Amanda was her will to win. We were cut from the same cloth in that manner, and we would have moments later in our career where we knew we needed to get this done.”

YOU COULD CALL ME A COPYCAT

A 14-year-old Decker felt lucky to encounter two future U.S. teammates when she took her talents to Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minnesota. 

If Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux were doing a certain workout in the gym, you could find Decker doing the same thing shortly after. If the Lamoureux twins arrived early to practice, you would eventually see Decker hopping on the ice right behind them. 

“Going to Shattuck was a huge turning point for me because I got to be surrounded by those two and play against those two at practice every week and play with them on the weekends,” Decker said.

“It really says something when you’ve won at every single level that you played at, but also been recognized as a top player at every level that you’ve played at,” Monique said in a congratulatory video sent to Decker this week. “You were one of the ultimate competitors. Loved playing with you, didn’t really love playing against you, but every time we played against you whether it was in practice, college, competitions in the weight room or whatever, we knew that we were going to get the best from you and that ultimately made everyone around you better.”

Decker would help lead Shattuck-St. Mary’s to three USA Hockey National Championships from 2005-2007, but it was her connections with teammates such as the Lamoureuxs and Kessel, who also played at Shattuck, that pushed her, along with Gordie Stafford, girls prep head coach and director of girls hockey at Shattuck. 

Stafford has remained a mentor for Decker as she transitions into a coaching career as the girls prep associate head coach and special advisor to the Shattuck-St. Mary’s hockey program.

“Gordie Stafford impacted my career like no other coach I’ve had,” Decker said as tears came to her eyes. “I don’t want to be emotional, but being back coaching with him is incredible. I can say I changed this or that at Shattuck when I had him because of how great of a coach he was, but he made an impact on me as a person more than anything. He gave you confidence and humility in the same breath and I just couldn’t thank him more for everything he has done and continues to do.”

Stafford commended Decker for staying humble in the pursuit of excellence throughout her career.   

“The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of you is your humility, but also your commitment to consistent competitive excellence and your intuitive understanding of the standard necessary to achieve excellence,” Stafford said in a congratulatory video to Decker. “That is going to be missed a lot, but I also look forward to the next part of your career here at Shattuck-St. Mary’s.”

FROM ONE FAMILY TO ANOTHER

Whenever Decker returns to LaBahn Arena in Madison, the University of Wisconsin faithful make sure to give her a warm welcome even if it has now been 10 years since she graduated with a degree in human development and family studies. 

It is no surprise as Decker became one of the most decorated athletes in Badger history, delivering the team a national championship alongside Meghan Duggan in 2011 with a program-record 12 game-winning goals. Decker concluded her Wisconsin career with 75 goals and 91 assists. 

“I really hit it home when I went to Wisconsin because it really transitioned well for me going from a family at Shattuck to a family at Wisconsin,” Decker said. “One of the coolest things now is I go back now and watch a Badger game and it’s like family.”

Decker credits Duggan as helping her learn how to be a better leader in her career as well.

“The best leader I ever had, hands down, was Meghan Duggan,” Decker said. “From how you hold yourself, how hard you work on and off the ice, how you care about teammates, how you connect with coaches when you need to. She is a great example of that.”

Duggan explained she quickly realized Decker had the potential to do great things.  

“I feel fortunate to have had a front row seat to watch you over the last 10 to 15 years become one of the best players in the world,” Duggan said to Decker. “I knew there was something special in you from our early Wisconsin days, and I always admired the way you competed and your work ethic and what a great teammate you were.” 

Similarly to Shattuck, Wisconsin offered Decker the tutelage of another coaching guru in Mark Johnson, and Johnson was pivotal in Decker’s development into becoming a force.  

“Mark was a teacher of the game,” Decker said. “He wasn’t a big yeller, but if you listen closely and follow a lot of the tips that he gives you, it can make your career go from good to great over a four-year span. I played with a lot of great players there, and sometimes people always want to coach the great teams and sometimes it’s a little bit harder because kids can go off and do what they want, but Mark is great at managing all of that.”

Johnson thanked Decker this week for helping elevate Wisconsin’s stature to a national level during her time in Madison, while also commending her for helping make the sport a better place for girls of all ages.

Of the many off-ice initiatives Decker has been involved with through the years, in 2019, she launched the Brianna Decker Endowment for Girls Hockey with the USA Hockey Foundation. The endowment helps grow the game by providing grants to 8U and 10U hockey programs across the country. 

“I want to congratulate you not only on a wonderful career, but so much you did off the ice to promote and really push women’s hockey to a next level,” Johnson said to Decker.

“Obviously, your career at Wisconsin speaks for itself, including national championships and the Patty Kazmaier Award. It was a treat and pleasure to get an opportunity to work with you for four years.”

IF YOU ARE GOING TO BE A BEAR, BE A GRIZZLY BEAR

Decker laughs when asked if her being described as a grizzly bear would be a fitting comparison, but Decker certainly fits the mold despite her 5-foot-4 stature. 

She made her debut for the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2008 and went on to play at every IIHF Women’s World Championship held from 2011-2021. She helped Team USA win gold at the first two IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championships in 2008 and 2009, and she ends her career with the third-most career points (68) for Team USA in Women’s Worlds history. 

On the professional side, Decker played in the CWHL, NWHL and PWHPA. She is a two-time NWHL MVP with the Boston Pride and helped Boston win the inaugural Isobel Cup in 2015-16. 

“From a competitive instinct, and the will to win, and doing whatever it takes to win, I feel like that's what my legacy will go down as,” Decker said. “Not everything was pretty, not everything was maybe done correctly, but I did learn along my way how to manage teammates and relationships with teammates."

“At the end of the day, I wanted to win, and I was competitive as hell.” 

Two teammates who Decker will never forget playing alongside include Kendall Coyne Schofield and Kacey Bellamy. 

“Kendall Coyne and I played together on every single team my entire Team USA career,” Decker said. “It’s crazy to think of how long you can play with somebody, and we were on the same line for almost seven years. So incredible.”

Bellamy called Decker one of her favorite teammates to ever play with, noting how unrivaled her work ethic truly was. 

“Not because of how much fun we had off the ice and as roommates and on the bus, but you just brought it every single day,” Bellamy said to Decker. “You were such a competitor. Anyone in our team if they played with you, they stepped up their game so much and it was so amazing to see. Anytime the opposing team went against you, they stepped up their game. 

“From a competitive instinct, and the will to win, and doing whatever it takes to win, I feel like that's what my legacy will go down as … at the end of the day, I wanted to win."

MY HEART IS READY TO MOVE ON

Decker looks out at the pristine ice at Shattuck-St. Mary’s nowadays and it is almost as if she is looking into a mirror. 

“I see myself in a lot of them,” Decker explained. “Just interacting with these kids and seeing what they pick up on, these kids want to learn. I want to make an impact like coaches did on me throughout my career. I am super passionate about it, but my passion comes from how passionate they are about getting to that next level.”

Decker had been dabbling in the coaching realm, having already served as an assistant coach for three U.S. Under-18 Women’s National teams, including most recently this past January, when the team took home bronze.. She is also a team and player development advisor for the Premier Hockey Federation and has worked plenty of camps and clinics through the years.

Decker has always been a one-track mind kind of person. Whatever her goal is in life, she is going to pursue it 100 percent. She admits that she found it difficult to be both a player and a coach. 

Of course, Decker thought long and hard about returning to the ice following her strenuous recovery from a broken left fibula and several torn ligaments in her ankle at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, but she also knew her heart was pulling her in another direction. 

“It is tough to actually make that call and say you are retiring from something I have done my entire life, but I have been jumping into the coaching role a little bit and I have found a huge passion for it,” she said. “I am a one-point focused person. What I mean by that is when I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, like when I was playing, that was my main focus, and I was doing everything I could to get better every single day. I have realized that is how I feel about coaching now. 

“At the end of the day, if I am still passionate about something like when I was playing, I need to run with it. That kind of helped me segue a little bit. However, it doesn’t take away from me missing the team, missing competing. Ending my career with a tough injury the last Olympics had a little bit to do with it. I would have loved to maybe have recovered a little better, but at the end of the day this is where my heart stands, and my heart feels like I am ready to move on to the next chapter of my life.”


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