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There are ice rinks in Germany that held the shadow of a four year old when she first learned to skate. There are hockey clubs in Europe that knew the rip and turn of an athlete first becoming acquainted with the game. There is a family in Bavaria who watches and cheers for their favorite goalie who plays with the UMD women’s hockey team.
Jennifer Harss is that athlete.
“I was first introduced to the idea of playing hockey for UMD through a teammate I had played with when we were on a national team together,” said Harss. “She was playing for UMD and she told me that if I could play for the Bulldogs, I would enjoy every minute.”
This single conversation turned into a reality three years later. Harss would find herself recruited by assistant coach Laura Schuler, and stepping on American soil for the first time in her life. “There was definitely a language barrier in my freshman year. I lived with Canadian roommates and the immersion was difficult, and lonely. But, I made friends and I had no choice but to really learn the language well.”
Not only did Harss learn how to communicate adeptly in a foreign country, but she also filled the shoes of goaltender Kim Martin during the 2009-2010 season when Harss successfully achieved a Bulldog single-season record of 1,138 saves, the most of any goalie in the NCAA. During the same season, Harss compiled 29 wins in 39 outings with five shutouts. Currently, she has earned a career-best 1.85 GAA with 351 saves. She’s ranked number 10 in the NCAA with a winning percentage of .679, fourth in the WCHA with a saves percentage in league games of .927, and earned her first career assist against Minnesota on October 29, 2010, and has been the Bulldog assistant captain for the 2011-2012 season evidenced by the “A” on her uniform, all while maintaining a 3.0 as a marketing major.
“When I’m facing my opponents during a game, everything fades but the game. The crowd is there but it’s in the background. My academics, the concentration needed to do well, is similar to the game focus. Nothing else but the task matters.”
Before UMD, Harss studied international management in Germany, and while attending UMD in her freshman year she enrolled in pre-business classes. By her sophomore year, Harss recognized that she enjoyed marketing, but it wasn’t until her senior year when she realized that she had an avid interest in one particular aspect of marketing: sports.
“Sports promotion is fascinating,” Harss said. “Even when you go to a Bulldogs game, there is marketing everywhere. There is always so much going on and someday, I would like to be a part of that marketing strategy, the person deciding how it’s presented and why.”
While reflecting on the years spent at UMD, Harss acknowledges how different the educational expectations are at UMD, compared to her experience in other countries. The continual support from key UMD faculty members has made a significant impact. “There is such an open door policy here at UMD. No one cares how many questions you ask, just that you ask the questions. There is always a sense of welcome and the faculty is incredibly supportive. They have flexible office hours, they arrange for tutors—I even have a tutor for this semester,” she said with a laugh. “Math is not my strength and the case studies in the marketing management class are difficult.”
Even though Harss incorporates a rigorous training schedule that includes four or five hours each day, excluding game days and Sunday, she has found time to study and to apply herself academically. During her freshman year, the coaches initiated the newcomers with a mandatory study hall expected of all first-years. The study hall was intended to help students learn how to study, how to make it a priority, and how to fit it into their already busy schedules. “It was the best mandatory expectation. I learned how to balance my life in that one year. It’s also about who you surround yourself with and the coaches have done a great job in making sure that new students, freshmen in particular, are with upperclassmen. When I saw the upperclassmen studying while traveling for games, I realized that’s how it was done. Sacrifice is part of being a good athlete and good student. Sometimes the social life has to go, but it’s worth it. ”
When combining athletic and academic excellence, most students feel the strain. Throw in a different language and a city thousands of miles from home and Harss' scholar-athlete story is quite remarkable. But Harss speaks humbly of her accomplishments, and she describes the differences between Duluth and her home city, Fuessen, as few and far between. “There are differences, but not as many as you would imagine. There are mountain ranges in Fuessen, something to see on the horizon, like your Duluth hill,” she said laughing. “But there is also water, and places to hike. The biggest difference, though, is a strange difference. Here, you can buy huge sizes of things, especially when it comes to food. That was really new to me.”
Although the differences between Fuessen and Duluth are fewer than one would expect, organized sports for hockey players in Germany is quite different from the collegiate league in the United States. “There are not university or college sports. Only club teams,” Harss said. “I played for Worlds, the Olympics, a club team in Fuessen; but my first experience with college sports was here at UMD as a Bulldog.”
Harss’ wealth of international experience includes being a member of Germany’s national team for four years, including three World Championship squads (2008, 2007, 2005). She also played for Germany in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, playing three games and earning a 1.89 GAA after making 97 saves, and she picked up over half of Team Germany’s minutes in the crease in the 2008 IIHF World Championships.
“I have had incredible opportunities to play for really great teams, but I am so happy that I had the chance to be a part of Shannon Miller’s program. She built it—she made it possible for European players to come here and play. It’s pretty incredible what she has done on a global level. I’m sad it’s over, but very happy with the experiences.”
Photography by Brett Groehler, March 2012
Written and Designed by Christiana Kapsner, March 2012
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