By Matt Williams
---- — Not every professional hockey rink was dark for the entire NHL lockout.
The New York Rangers facilities hosted a training camp for the United States Women’s National Team before the Four Nations Cup in November — and helped launch the international career of emerging Marblehead center Lexie Laing.
A 16-year-old junior at Nobles and Greenough, Laing attended the camp with members of the senior women’s national team. Her performance helped her earn a spot on Team USA’s Women’s World Junior Championships roster, where she won a silver medal on January 5.
“The college-aged players on the national team usually stay in college during the camp, so they bring in some Under-18 players to fill in those spots,” Laing explained. “I was there with my teammate at Nobles, MacKenzie Kent, and it was a lot of fun seeing the facilities.”
Laing skated with the US National team’s players that are already through college and were preparing for the Four Nations Cup, women’s hockey household names like Hilary Knight, Kelli Stack and Danvers’ Meghan Duggan.
“It was great to see how the training works at such a higher level,” said Laing. “Being with them showed me how much fun playing at that level can be. They’re working really hard, going at it 110 percent even though its training, and still enjoying it.”
Laing, the youngest of three hockey playing sisters, wasn’t sure if she’d be invited to play at Women’s World Juniors in Finland. USA Hockey held a National Development Camp — a de facto tryout — in July, and she didn’t attend their August call-back. But playing in the Four Nations camp was a sign that she still had a chance.
“It was kind of up in the air, so when I found out I made it I was really excited,” said Laing, who at 16 will have a chance to play in the International Ice Hockey Federation event again next year.
Team USA arrived in Finland (the tournament was held in Heinola and Vierumaki) just after Christmas and played their first game against Russia on Dec. 29.
Pulling on her No. 22 red-white-and-blue sweater for the first time was a feeling Laing won’t soon forget. “An amazing experience,” she said. “So many emotions rush through your body it’s hard to explain. It hits you that you’re representing your country.”
Laing finished second in the entire tournament in faceoff winning percentage. She won 78 percent of her draws and also contributed one assist as the Americans won their first three games: 7-0 over Russia, 10-0 over the Czech Republic and 8-0 over Sweden.
She also had an assist in a 10-0 win over the Czechs in the semifinals, setting up a rivalry game with Canada for the gold.
“It’s such a great rivalry. In warm-ups I was a little nervous and so excited because I’d never played against Canada wearing a USA jersey,” recalled Laing, who centered a line with Kent and Maliya Rodgers early in the tourney and played with Kelly Pannek and Cara Piazza in the medal round.
The Americans grabbed a 1-0 lead over Canada and held it until their rivals tied it up with 13 seconds left in the game. Canada then scored early in overtime to win the gold.
Laing’s older sister and teammate at Nobles, Brianna, was in net when Team USA won silver at World Juniors last year. This year’s coach, Beverly native and St. John’s Prep Hall of Famer Jeff Kampersal, coaches at Princeton, where Laing’s oldest sister Denna is a junior.
“Seeing Brianna on the team last year made me want to have the experience. She really spoke highly of it,” Lexie said. “She told me how different the play would be and to take advice and soak in every moment.”
Laing has been at Nobles, the top girls hockey team in New England for prep schools, since she was in eighth grade and played a season for Marblehead High when she was in 7th grade. She’s also won three national championships with the Assabet Valley program, so even as a young player she has a lot of experience in high-end hockey.
How did her first international tournament compare?
“It seems more intense,” Laing said. “Maybe its because you’re wearing that USA jersey, but you’re against the best teams in the world with some of the best players in the world. It felt more intense.”
The Americans spent more than a week in Finland, including over New Year’s, so naturally there were some cultural exchanges as well.
“I didn’t know what to expect for food, but it was good. There were lots of fish,” Laing said. “The biggest difference was a language, and the rink staff were really nice. They’d teach us a few things between games, like how to say ‘thank you’.”
Now back stateside, Laing is hoping to win another New England title alongside Brianna at Nobles. Lexie is keeping her college options open and figures to be a sought-after Division 1 recruit. A chance to go back to World Junior’s in 2014 would be a bonus.
“So much of the team was 16, it would be a lot of fun to go again, especially if we got to play Canada again,” Lexie said. “We’d all want it so badly, it’d be a great experience.”