ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine's women's hockey roster will look a little different in a few weeks. After the Black Bears face off against Boston University on Saturday, two players will leave the program for a few weeks.
In fact, they'll leave the state and the country altogether.
Defenseman Amalie Andersen and forward Rahel Enzler will be heading to their home countries as they prepare to play for Denmark and Switzerland, respectively, in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“It was always my childhood dream to play once at the Olympics," Enzler said in a zoom interview Wednesday. "You can say it’s a dream that comes true, and I’m pretty excited about that.”
“It was something I would dream of, but I think it was a little bit unrealistic, so I always had it as a dream, but I never thought it would be achievable," Andersen added.
Those dreams have come true for these Black Bears.
For Andersen and Team Denmark, it was a bit more of a journey to punch the ticket to Beijing. Denmark needed to qualify for the Olympics in a pre-game tournament.
Andersen said the team has a good group of players and beat Italy and Austria in the first two games. Denmark was then one win away from making it to the Olympics in women's hockey for the first time.
"Then it all came down to the Germany game, and we showed up, and it was really amazing," Andersen said.
Now, these two teammates will have just a few more practices and games in the U.S. before they head back for a brief training camp, follow COVID-19 testing protocols, and make their way to Bejing.
Their Olympic debuts will mark the highest level of competition either of them has experienced in their careers. That's saying something considering the two have played in top-tier hockey leagues for years.
Enzler began playing hockey in Switzerland at age five, following in her brother's footsteps.
“Then I started playing with the boys for a pretty long time, maybe like ten years," she added.
Before coming to Orono last year, Enzler played three seasons for SC Reinach in the Swiss Women's Hockey League, the top league in the country. Enzler said UMaine began recruiting her early on in the college decision process.
“I had a feeling I could improve here as a person and as a hockey player. I also liked the program that they have here," Enzler added.
Hockey may not be as popular in Denmark as in Switzerland or other countries, but it sure is in the Andersen household.
“I have two older brothers, my parents played; my uncles, aunts played," she said. “I was on skates for the first time when I was one year old. I started playing with the boys when I was five.”
Playing with boys, and even older boys, allowed Andersen and Enzler to improve at the physical aspect of hockey. That paid off when they came overseas to play college puck in America. The rinks are smaller than in Europe, so the game is faster and more physical.
Making it to the Division I level was another dream these two future Olympians had, and it's another dream they can say they've accomplished.
In Beijing, for the first time ever, the women's ice hockey tournament will feature 10 nations. Switzerland will compete in Group A and face Canada in its first game on Feb. 3.
Denmark will play in Group B and take on China in its Olympic women's ice hockey debut on Feb. 4. Switzerland will play the United States on Feb. 6.
If Switzerland and Denmark were to face each other, it would have to be in the elimination playoff round.
Enzler wasted no time saying the Swiss would take care of business when asked who would win that hypothetical matchup.
But then Andersen had a chance to speak. She had a well-spoken response focusing on how her team has a solid group of players ready for this opportunity, but she ended it with a light-hearted jab directed at her teammate, also on the zoom call.
“I do think we’re not that much behind [other national teams], and I do think that Switzerland, they've got to watch out," she said.
It's tough to predict what these athletes will be able to do once in Bejing. Summer Olympians in Tokoyo followed strict COVID-19 guidelines, so there was limited access to some events.
If given a chance to take in other events, Enzler said she would love to support her fellow Swiss athletes on the ski slopes, and Andersen added she would want to watch Team Denmark compete at the curling rink.
“I’m just amazed at how they can do it. It looks super easy, but I am sure it is very, very hard," Andersen said.
The two Black Bear teammates have been dreaming for years about this opportunity. But if you ask them, the moment has not set in yet. Maybe it will wash over them during their first walk around the Olympic Village or when they take the ice for the first time. But both women agreed it probably wouldn't fully sink in until the two are older and done with their hockey careers.
Playing in the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many athletes. For these two, it's also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread the game of hockey to young girls in their home countries and around the world.
“I just want to show little girls, or prove to them, that we can play hockey as well," Enzler said. “We can do all the [same] stuff as the men can do.”
“When I think about it, it’s super hard to picture myself as a role model because growing up I looked up to a lot of people, and I think it’s weird to think other people [are] looking up to me," Andersen added.
These two still have some UMaine business to take care of. On Wednesday, the Black Bears held a noon practice as they prepare for a weekend series against Boston University. After that, Andersen and Enzler will be wearing different jerseys for a few weeks, but they'll be living out the same childhood dream by representing their home countries at the Olympics.
The Winter Olympics run from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20.