A VISION ON ICE FRESH OFF OLYMPICS, CHU SEEING TO IT THAT HARVARD GETS A FAST START
By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff
December 4, 2002
The word Julie Chu uses when she talks about hockey is “joy.”
he is sitting in the nearly empty stands at Harvard’s Bright Center late on an almost-winter afternoon, the energy from an off-ice workout still sifting through her body. A handful of players from the men’s team are down on the ice, taking shots, and Chu has piled on her parka, mittens, and a crimson watchcap for the walk across the river to her dorm in the Yard, ready for a night of studying for a math test. She savors this moment.
“This is pure joy,” she says. “Everything is just about playing hockey for Harvard.”
A freshman from Fairfield, Conn., Chu is one of the three much-heralded Olympians who have punched up an already strong Harvard team, joining senior Jennifer Botterill and junior Angela Ruggiero in giving the Crimson a stellar squad in the rapidly expanding constellation of top women’s teams.
Harvard, 7-1-0 overall and 5-0-0 in the Eastern College Athletic Conference, topped the national rankings this week for the first time in three years.
“I always liked team sports,” says Chu, who started off figure skating like many little girls, but lasted only two months. She wanted to go to the other end of the rink, where the kids, including her older brother Richard, were playing hockey.
“I always loved the team aspect,” she says. “I like the camaraderie of it, putting your trust in other people and they put their trust in you.”
Chu is just 20 years old, but a veteran of international ice hockey. A member of the US national team since 2000, she won a silver medal in the Salt Lake City Olympic Games in February, a thrill that still makes her eyes light up. Yet somehow, moving from the international arena to her first collegiate season has distilled her intoxication with hockey.
“There’s no sport like it,” she says. “You’re out on the ice moving fast, changing direction. There’s a flow.
“On the ice, there’s the freedom of defying . . .” – it’s not exactly defying gravity, and Chu considers and rejects that idea, but then, skating is a little bit like flying. “It’s the freedom of defying what’s normal and natural, I guess,” she finishes.
Only 19 at the Games, she was giddy with excitement and awed by the enormity. A high school freshman watching the Nagano Games on TV when the US won the first gold medal in women’s hockey, here she was on the ice with many of those same players. She grinned her way through the Olympics, full of bounce. And she was one of the few players gracious and composed enough to talk with reporters after the US team lost the gold medal game to Canada. She was as disappointed as her teammates, but Chu carries a remarkable sense of commitment, of honor, in everything she does.
“There’s nothing like playing for your country,” she says. “That’s an amazing, amazing experience.”
Chu has embraced the Harvard hockey experience – and college life – with the same energy and commitment. On Sunday, four weeks into the season and before she had taken even her first college midterms, she scored her eighth goal, in a 3-2 victory at Brown.
She also scored the Crimson’s biggest goal of the young season (and earned ECAC Rookie of the Week honors), a power-play goal with 28 seconds left in the game Nov. 16 to beat Minnesota-Duluth, ranked No. 1 at the time.
Chu has eight goals and 10 assists and is third on the team in scoring behind Botterill (14-16-30) and Ruggiero (5-16-21).
At 5 feet 8 inches and 155 pounds, Chu is strong and athletic, but since she was in about fifth grade, she has drawn attention for her remarkable vision on the ice. Others watch the puck, Chu watches the plays – sometimes before they develop. As a result, Chu is always in the right place.
For Harvard coach Katey Stone, the right place is simply on the ice. That might be crowding the goal post, waiting for a pass and a quick shot, or circling the zone, weaving possibilities, or stationed at the point, surveying movement. Often, Chu takes some magical path between.
Chu skates on the Crimson’s top line with Botterill and Nicole Corriero. When Harvard goes on the power play, she moves back to the point. In a tight game, she never seems to leave the ice. And yet she never slows, never stops.
“She’s just a huge weapon for us,” says Stone. “She finds her teammates, most often with ease.
“It all starts with her work ethic – she builds her game from there. She’s a tireless worker. Plus she’s got great hands. And she has great anticipation for the game.”
“Even as a ninth grader, she saw the game better than . . . well, anyone,” says Kristin Moomaw Harder, Chu’s coach at Choate Rosemary Hall, which won the 1999 NEPSAC New England Championships in her sophomore year, when Chu scored a pair of goals in a 4-2 victory over Cushing.
But what exactly does seeing the ice mean?
“It makes your power play work,” Harder says. “I put her on the point, because at the point she can see even better. So instead of having a go-to person on the power play to take shots, any one of four players can score, and she draws assists on all of them.”
That ability to move the puck and to find the open player has pushed Chu up the ladder of women’s hockey, moving her from youth teams to high school teams to the national team.
“You can’t be so focused on one thing, you’re not able to spread out and see the rest of the game,” Chu says. “You know, there’s an analogy with life. If you focus on the thing in front of you, you can’t step back and see the whole picture.”
Chu can be very deliberate off the ice. She was a Choate senior when she was invited to join the national team in residence in Lake Placid, N.Y. This was her dream, and still, it took took her a week to decide, as it meant giving up positions as student body president and captain of the soccer team, commitments she respected.
But on the ice it’s all flow, as she slips from place to place. “Julie quietly gets points,” says Stone, “but she makes a lot of noise on the ice.”
Chu usually deflects praise, but she appreciates her athletic gifts. Though she was on every coach’s wish list from the time she was a preteen and scoring buckets for the Connecticut Polar Bears, who won four USA Hockey Girls’ National Championships in five years, she worked to improve. Skating wasn’t always a strength, but she made it one.
“She’d always make whoever was our fastest kid on the team stay out and sprint against her,” says Harder. “That’s just who she is.”
Chu is the first woman of Asian descent to play for the US team. Her grandmother, Lai Fong, immigrated from Hong Kong more than 30 years ago as a single mother with three children. Her father came from Hong Kong when he was 16. Now his daughter has visited China – as an American hockey player.
Not many kids get to make that kind of family circle. For that matter, not many 19-year-olds get a tattoo with the blessing of their mom and dad. Fewer still get the same tattoo their parents have already had etched onto their bodies: the Olympic rings with a No. 13 underneath.
But Julie Chu’s parents have been solidly behind her. When she decided figure skating was not for her and hockey was, her parents walked her into the pro shop and said here she is, make her a hockey player. An armload of shin pads, elbow pads, skates, hockey pants, and helmet later, she was on her way.
“They let me take my own path,” says Chu.
She has followed a path to Harvard, and though already much accomplished, she is exhilirated to learn more.
“At college, you see where you fit in,” says Chu. “You’ve got a lot more freedom. You have the option to go to class or not to go, in a way. Of course, you’ll suffer the consequences.”
Chu is ready to watch the play develop. She can anticipate the next move, or perhaps she will decide to make it herself, trumping the competition.