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Desire for change brought Team USA star Decker to CWHL’s Inferno

As one of the most talented women's players in the world, Brianna Decker could have picked her destination for the 2018-19 campaign. She wanted a change and a challenge, though, so she's returned to the CWHL with her sights set on a Clarkson Cup.

The women’s hockey world moves in four-year cycles, each quadrennial punctuated with the Olympics. And the aftermath of every Olympic cycle comes complete with an opportunity for the best of the best in the women’s game to reset, an opportunity to try something different, make decisions with an eye toward the future. For Brianna Decker, that meant a return to the CWHL.

Decker, who was CWHL rookie of the year in 2014-15 with the Boston Blades, has spent the past few seasons elsewhere in the women’s game. Upon the formation of the NWHL, Decker, along with a number of her fellow American Olympians, jumped to the Boston Pride in 2015-16. And after Decker spent two seasons with the Pride, she spent the 2017-18 season in Olympic centralization ahead of the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.

“I enjoyed playing in the NWHL,” Decker said. “I thought it was great to help grow the game in the US, but I wanted the change. I think moving to Calgary was a great decision. It helped knowing Shannon Miller was going to be the coach. I respect her a lot and played against her quite a bit in college when she was coaching for Duluth, so that helped the decision, as well. Kacey Bellamy and I were just like, ‘Hey, let’s do something different.’ And I respect what the CWHL has done for women’s hockey and thought I couldn’t go wrong with coming back to the league.”

Bringing Decker, 27, into the fold can’t really go wrong for the Inferno, either. It was a signing that was, quite frankly, underreported. Though she may not carry the name recognition of a Hilary Knight or Marie-Philip Poulin, Decker is arguably the most gifted scorer in the women’s game and has been among the class of her peers for some time. In 60 regular season and playoff games in women’s pro circuits, be it with the Blades or the Pride, Decker has scored a remarkable 59 goals and 121 points. That includes four goals and seven points in six games with Calgary this season, a top-10 point total and the third-highest point-per-game rate in the CWHL.

Remarkably, though, it wasn’t the Inferno that got the ball rolling with regard to signing Decker. Rather, it was Decker, who reached out to the team and brought up the possibility of heading to Calgary. “The discussion started from there, and then I got on the phone with Shannon and the GM and found out some more information,” Decker said. “The one thing that I’m so happy about is how welcoming the team has been. You look at the Canadian national girls that are on the team, and the other girls who are playing on the team, as well, they’ve been so welcoming.”

And why wouldn’t they be? She’s an elite talent who has been a fixture of the U.S. national team since her sophomore year in college, not to mention often at or near the top of the scoring list for the American side since cracking the roster. Combined, she has 26 goals and 67 points across 40 games at the two major competitions, the World Championships and Olympics, with Team USA. And at the 4 Nations Cup last week in Saskatoon, Sask., Decker helped lead USA to its fourth consecutive gold medal by firing home three goals and six points in four games, including the game-winning goal in the Americans’ 5-2 victory over the Canadians in the final.

Decker brings more than offense, though. Now a veteran of the national team, she has valuable experience that she can pass down to younger players, and she’s willing to take fresh faces under her wing. That was evident at 4 Nations, where she said she helped guide some of the college-aged players wearing the USA sweater for the first time. She was rewarded, too, by having the ‘C’ stitched to her sweater after acting as an alternate at the past Olympics.

“I’ve been a natural leader on teams, but when you get on the national team and you’re eight years younger than some people, you can’t jump into that role and you’re not really ready to yet,” Decker said. “As time is going on, and I’ve been on the national team consistently, I think you end up becoming a leader.”

And a leader does what they have to do to win, even if it means breaking the hearts of some fellow Inferno teammates, five of whom skated with Canada at the mid-November competition.

“That’s one of the hardest things,” Decker said with a chuckle. “I was talking to Blayre Turnbull the last couple days — she plays for Canada and I play with her on the Inferno — and I said it’s the hardest part. We’re both striving to win a gold medal at these international tournaments, and you’re teammates with them the next day. It’s a difficult situation, but it’s reality and we all respect each other for it.”

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