When Brianna Decker looks back on 2018-19, she’ll likely do so with a mix of contrasting emotions. That’s because there was nobody in the hockey world who had a stranger, more rewarding and more eventful season.
When Decker was named MVP of the Clarkson Cup in March, neither she nor anyone else knew she would hold the distinction of being the last one to win the award, or that her Calgary Inferno team would be remembered as the last team to be crowned champions of the Canadian Women’s League. There’s a good chance she also didn’t know that months later she’d be facing the most uncertainty she has ever stared down in her career, being one of the 200 female players who vowed to sit out the 2019-20 season unless a viable women’s league is formed.
But uncertainty is nothing new to Decker, who decided along with Kacey Bellamy to make the move to Calgary on a full-time basis last season to join the Inferno, in part because of the opportunity to play for coach Shannon Miller. Joining them in the trek north was Zoe Hickel, who was the first star in Calgary’s 5-2 win over Les Canadiennes de Montreal in the CWHL championship game, along with Hickel’s younger sister, Tori, and goalie Alex Rigsby. “I just wanted a change,” Decker said. “Kacey and I just said, ‘Hey, let’s try something new.’ After the Olympic year, we just needed a change. Coming back to this league, the competition just shows through every single weekend. No game is guaranteed.”
That plan changed abruptly when Miller resigned in December and was replaced by assistant coach Ryan Hilderman. What made it even more shocking was that the Inferno were 10-1-1 at the time of Miller’s resignation. And while there was a certain amount of upheaval, the Inferno didn’t allow it to derail their season. They went 13-2-2 the rest of the way and finished first in the standings.
After losing their first playoff game to the Toronto Furies, the Inferno ran the table the rest of the post-season. “All season, we were battling through,” Decker said. “The coaching change was a bit of a hiccup for us, but we battled through together. We have a lot of experience, and that carried us through.”
When you think of some of the best American players, Decker isn’t the first who comes to mind. But she remains the only player in history to win an Olympic gold medal, a World Championship, a World Under-18 championship, a Clarkson Cup, an Isobel Cup (champion of the National Women’s League) and an NCAA title.
And while Kendall Coyne Schofield garnered most of the headlines for her outstanding showing in the fastest-skater competition at the NHL All-Star Game, Decker – competing unofficially – actually appeared to win her event, the passing challenge, over Leon Draisaitl. Since Decker was only demonstrating in the event, the NHL made the ill-advised decision to not give her the $25,000 prize money, giving it instead to a player who made $9 million this season. CCM ultimately stepped up and paid Decker the money.
So it’s fair to say that with two Clarkson Cups – the first of which she claimed with the Boston Blades in 2014-15 – winning seems to follow Decker around. Weeks after the Clarkson Cup, she picked up her sixth World Championship gold medal with Team USA. “I’ve been on a lot of great teams, and I’ve been surrounded by a lot of great players,” Decker said. “I thrive off that pressure. I thrive off these games. It’s fun to be able to be out there and compete in these championship games every season.”
At 28, Decker still has a lot of productive career ahead of her, the uncertainty surrounding pro women’s hockey notwithstanding. She is an elite offensive player who has averaged at least a point per game since her days at Wisconsin. Teammate Rebecca Johnston said Decker is one of the more underrated players in the women’s game, in large part because of the star power on the U.S. team. But a lack of recognition isn’t something that seems to bother Decker or hinder her game. “I don’t know,” she said when asked about her lower profile. “I just try to do the little things right every single game. I work hard off the ice and try to focus on that. And, you know, flying under the radar isn’t always a bad thing.”