Saturday is moving day at the 2014 Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships, as some teams move on and others move out. The St. Louis AAA Blues are locked in a nip-and-tuck battle with the Chicago Mission, a familiar foe in the ultra-competitive world of Midwest travel hockey.
As parents and a few remaining scouts watch from perches high above Cornerstone Ice Arena in Green Bay, Wis., another team warms up in the far corner of the rink.
In between stretching and juggling a soccer ball, one player notices the ponytail jutting out of the helmet of a Blues’ defenseman, cutting a swath between the 5 and 5 on her white jersey.
“Dude, check it out,” he shouts to no one in particular. “They have a girl on their team.”
The observation quickly spurs the type of comments one would expect from a bunch of high school-aged boys whose testosterone is racing minutes before a big game. But the observant teen interrupts the frat boy humor with an astute observation.
“No dude, check it out. She can play.”
Still, the jokes and comments ensue.
“Just shut up and watch. That girl is good.”
That’s been a common consensus with all who have bore witness to Jincy Dunne on the ice. This girl is good. She impresses teammates and rivals alike, showing poise in the rough and tumble world of high-level youth hockey.
“It’s amazing to watch her, even playing with the boys, just how composed she is and how fluid a skater she is,” says Blues’ assistant coach Brock Wilson. “It’s a more physical game, but you don’t see her get hit that much. That’s because she’s always in good position. It’s really amazing how well she thinks the game.”
Those sentiments bridge the gender gap as Dunne has long impressed U.S. Women’s National Team coaches, including Olympic coach Katey Stone, who selected the 16-year-old as part of the 25-player pre-Olympic roster. And more recently Dunne was named the captain of the U.S. squad that won a silver medal at the 2014 IIHF Women’s Under-18 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
“Wearing the USA jersey is always a privilege any time you get to put it on. We had a great team and it was fun. Unfortunately we didn’t have the end result we wanted, but the journey was just awesome,” says Dunne, who was named the tournament’s top defensemen.
“It’s an honor that people would think so highly of me and give me that award, but I would trade it all for a gold medal.”
But only hours after touching down on U.S. soil and making her way back to her O’Fallon, Mo., home, Dunne repacked her hockey bag and hit the road again. This time she would be making the 500-plus mile journey to Green Bay to join her St. Louis teammates in time for their first game against the Omaha Lancers in the 16 & Under Tier I National Tournament.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind, to say the least,” says Jincy’s mother Tammy, who recently traded in her white Suburban after the odometer hit 320,000 miles from driving her six hockey-playing children to rinks around the Midwest and beyond.
For Dunne, playing with the Blues, which includes her brother, Joshua, has been therapeutic after being one of the last cuts from the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team that competed in Sochi.
The bad news came around Thanksgiving, and while she was the youngest player on the roster by several years, Dunne was devastated after her Olympic dreams were temporarily dashed. Fortunately, the Dunnes are a close-knit family who quickly rallied around Jincy as she sorted through a myriad of feelings.
“After I got cut I was upset and I wanted to take a break and step back from the game,” she recalls.
Once she was ready to return to the ice, her first thought was to join her older sister Jessica on the Lady Blues in a blue-line reunion as a stellar defensive pairing that earned them the nickname of the “Twin Towers.” But no matter how good a player she may be, Dunne found that roster spots are hard to come by at that point in the season.
Fortunately, another Blues team had an opening and Dunne knew many of those players having been with them during their runner-up showing at the 2012 Tier I 14 & Under National Championship in Amherst, N.Y.
“I’ve been very blessed with the group of guys that I play with now,” she says. “I know it can’t be easy having a girl join the team, and I try to see it a little bit from their point of view, but they’ve been awesome.”
As the only female on the Blues, and the only female competing at this year’s Youth Nationals, Dunne knows that her presence on the ice produces second looks. Still, she expects no special favors, even when things get physical on the ice.
“She does a very good job of standing up for herself. She has the mentality where she doesn’t want anyone to stand up for her,” says Wilson, who admits that even he gets a little riled up when opposing players take runs at her.
“You have to respect that. She’s a competitor. Still, the guys kind of know when to jump in. It’s pretty neat to see.”
No matter how heated the action on the ice, her dad Tom can be found quietly standing off in the corner of the rink while Tammy keeps her mind off the physical play on the ice by snapping hundreds of photos that will eventually populate the players’ Facebook pages. Still, no matter how skilled Jincy is, Mom can’t help but worry about her little girl playing against teenaged boys.
“It’s always a concern playing boys’ hockey, but she is smart and she is skillful,” Tammy says.
“Still, some of those boys are like men; they’re big and strong. Sometimes in the heat of the game they’re not necessarily making the same decisions they would make outside of the rink.”
For her part, Dunne is poised beyond her years. She is not afraid to take the body when she has to, but relies more on her slick skating ability and knack for being in the right place at the right time to stymie the opposition. And while she has heard her share of trash talking on the ice, she chalks most of it up to boys simply being boys.
“Most of the time I try to keep my mouth shut,” she admits. “For me personally all the jibber jabber between the teams doesn’t help anything. I just try to keep my head up, stay smart and know that my teammates have my back.”
Still, it takes time to make the transition from the women’s international game to the fast and furious world of boys’ AAA hockey. While the world is slowly starting to catch up to the North American powerhouses of Canada and the U.S., there is more time and space when it comes to making plays against some of the less talented teams that were competing in Budapest.
“For me personally it’s not an easy transition just because with the guys it’s faster and you have to have your head up at all times or you’re going to get hit,” she says. “I just try to have the mentality that everything has to be done as fast … and just be aware of everything that’s going on around me.”
By the time Saturday evening rolls around, the Blues just don’t have enough to make another run at the finals and fall to the eventual national champions from Wisconsin.
On the heels of another silver medal at the World Championships, Dunne joins her teammates they slowly skate up to receive another symbol of coming so close but coming up short of their ultimate goal.
As quickly as they have cruised into town, they will load up their team bus and prepare for the nine-hour drive back to the Gateway City.
After logging so many miles and so many hours of ice time on two separate continents, Dunne has come to Green Bay with two goals in mind. One was to finally get over that last hurdle and win the gold medal. The other was to find a dress she could wear to an upcoming junior prom at the Fulton School. And now she’s leaving here with neither.
“That’s all right. I still have time,” she says of her quest to find the perfect gown before the big dance.
She could just as easily be referring to her shot at hockey’s ultimate prize. N