PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A little more than a year from now, Tara Mounsey most likely will make Olympic history playing hockey in Nagano, Japan. For the moment, however, she is pleased to be breaking the ice athletically and academically as a freshman at Brown University.
"I wanted to get the freshman year under my belt and get the college process under way," says one of the most prized recruits in American college hockey.
She's gotten off to a spectacular start, playing defense for one of the best teams in the nation, getting lots of ice time, and even scoring regularly.
Against Dartmouth, a school that dearly wanted her to stay in New Hampshire, she collected seven points on two goals and five assists in a 12-2 win.
Although keenly focused on helping Brown, Mounsey is already anticipating the need to take a year off from school to prepare for the 1998 Winter Games and the first women's Olympic ice hockey competition.
"I'm not on the [United States] team yet," she says during a morning interview in the Brown athletic department office. "I don't want to get all excited."
Even if she doesn't make the Olympics in '98, she figures there's always 2002 in Salt Lake City.
Hardly anyone sees any need for such patience, however, since Mounsey has already made her mark at the international level.
Last spring, while still in high school, she played for the US national team in the four-team Pacific Women's Hockey Championship in Vancouver, B.C.
The Americans, many of whom are now training informally in Boston, lost to Canada, the other major world power, in the gold medal game, but Mounsey's efforts during the tournament earned her one of three Outstanding Performance Awards presented to US team members.
"Granted we didn't come out on top," she says, "but it was a wonderful experience. Just to see women's hockey at that level is great."
She's also been to Finland, and expects to travel to China with the US team in January. That trek should give the Americans a taste of the rigors of playing in Asia before the team possibly goes into residency next summer.
At times, Mounsey says, it seems like her hockey-playing life is stuck in fast-forward. So much is rushing at her.
Her entry into the sport, however, began quietly and uneventfully at age five when her family attended a holiday party that introduced her to pond hockey.
Tara was hooked and before long was playing youth-league hockey in Concord, N.H., mostly with boys but also with girls in order to establish herself in the women's game, which has blossomed in recent years.
"I knew it was important to have the exposure, to be known in the women's game if I was to play women's college hockey," she says.
Her weeks were filled with games, with as many as five for a pair of teams on a single weekend.
She was a key player in all of them, including those of the Concord High School varsity boys' team, which she and her brother, Mick, a freshman, led to a state championship last March.
Tara was the team's elected captain, an honor that demonstrated her acceptance. "I'm sure there were a few people who had their qualms," she says, "but they never came out of the woodwork. Most of the guys on the team had played with me before in youth hockey and the coach was open-minded."
She would change in a different locker room before joining the rest of the team, a situation more annoying than awkward.
An excellent student, she had a pick of colleges. She chose Brown after weighing various factors, including the coach, the team, the facilities, the academics, and the campus. She says she wanted to be in a community that was more metropolitan than New Hampshire in case she works in a city after college (she's contemplating a pre-med course of study).
She also wanted to be "not too far and not too close" to home. Despite a long drive, her parents regularly attend home games.
By enrolling at Brown, Mounsey may help the women's hockey team counteract adverse publicity the school has received. The athletic program has been under siege in the courts for eliminating women's gymnastics and volleyball teams in 1991.
"I'm really not aware of half the stuff that's going on at this school as far as gender equity goes," Mounsey says, adding that she's very pleased with her choice of college.
A multisport athlete, Mounsey spent part of this past fall practicing softball at Brown. She says hockey has always been No. 1 with her, ahead of softball and field hockey, because she loves the game's flow.
"In field hockey there are a lot of whistles and stoppages of play; softball, to some degree, is an individual sport, but ice hockey puts it all together and summarizes what a sport should be like," she says.
The way the Brown team is clicking right now, just playing is its own reward for her.
"I'm a very competitive person and winning is much better than losing," she observes, "but when the team is playing well and the coach is happy and you see smiles all around the bench, I think that's the most satisfying thing."
At the moment, game attendance is sparse and body-checking illegal.
"It's going to be a few years before you get the crowds in women's college hockey," Mounsey says. "Maybe checking would bring the crowds because that's what some people like. At this point, though, I don't think we should have full checking."
The tricky part comes in determining how much the referee will allow in any given game. "That's what makes women's hockey so difficult," she explains.
"You never know what they're going to call so you have to be really careful. Sometimes they won't give you the happy medium and you have to settle for a little less."
Where to Find Women Hockey Teams
EASTERN COLLEGE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (DIVISION I)
Brown University, R.I.
Colby College, Maine
Cornell University, N.Y.
Dartmouth College, N.H.
Harvard University, Mass.
University of New Hampshire
Northeastern University, Mass.
Providence College, R.I.
St. Lawrence University
Yale University, Conn.
EASTERN COLLEGE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE ALLIANCE
Amherst College, Mass.
Bowdoin College. Maine
Colgate University, N.Y.
Hamilton College, N.Y.
Middlebury College, Vt.
Rensselaer (RPI), N.Y.
Rochester Institute of Technology, N.Y.
University of Vermont
University of Maine
Williams College, Mass.
Wesleyan University, Conn.
MIDWESTERN COLLEGIATE WOMEN'S HOCKEY ALLIANCE
Augsburg College, Minn.
Gustavus Adolphus, Minn.
St. Catherine / St. Thomas, Minn.
St. Mary's, Minn.
St. Olaf, Minn.
University of Minnesota
University of Wisconsin