In Meghan Duggan we trust

Ask 1980 Olympic hero Mark Johnson which NHL player comes to mind when he thinks of Team USA forward Meghan Duggan, and the Wisconsin women's hockey coach doesn't hesitate: "I immediately think of Cam Neely."

Johnson's assessment might warm the collective heart of Boston Bruin fans. But Duggan, a Danvers, Mass., native and recently selected captain of the United States women's hockey team, opts for a more contemporary doppelganger.

"I'm from Boston, I love the Bruins and I'm a huge Patrice Bergeron fan," said Duggan. "I love to pride myself on playing great defense, making huge plays, blocking shots, killing off penalties, winning battles when the game is on the line. He's one of my favorite players to watch because he does a lot of those things well."

Team USA will need Duggan at the top of her two-way game in Sochi, Russia, as the Americans aim to topple the mighty Canadians for the first time in Olympic competition since 1998. The Americans won that inaugural women's gold-medal game 3-1. Since then, the Canadians have brought home gold in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Two of those championship victories came at the expense of the Americans (2002 and 2010).

This fall, Canada got the better of Team USA three times, including a 4-2 victory on the sacred ice of Lake Placid, but the Americans have had the upper hand recently, defeating their neighbors to the north four times in December. But the games have been hard-fought and feisty, featuring a scrum at the final whistle of Team USA's 4-1 win in Grand Forks, N.D., on Dec. 20, and a line brawl during Canada's 3-2 win in Burlington, Vt., in October.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and these two squads have plenty ill will in reserve.

"It's an intense rivalry, fueled by emotion and passion and commitment and dedication to each of our respective countries," said Duggan, a two-time NCAA champion with Wisconsin and a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. "Obviously, Canada has a talented team. We don't like each other, to say it in the best way possible. We're training every day in order to be better than them. I'm sure they're doing the same thing. We want to be bigger and faster and stronger and more prepared if we do wind up facing them at the Olympics in the medal game."

The odds favor that matchup. Though the rest of the world is making strides, and a goaltender can always steal a game (see 2006, when Sweden shocked Team USA 3-2 in a shootout), the other teams in Sochi aren't expected to present any serious roadblocks to either Canada or the United States. So with two squads that are so balanced, both on paper and on the ice, what will be the difference?

"It comes down to who is focused, and who wants it," said Duggan. "They're a skilled team and we're a skilled team. If we get the opportunity to play for a gold medal against Canada at the Olympics, it's going to come down to who puts all the pieces of the puzzle together at the right time, and who is really on it on that that given day. And sometimes a little puck luck doesn't hurt either."

There are few elements of Duggan's game that rely on luck. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound winger is the prototypical power forward. She honed her skills early on by playing against boys with Danvers Youth Hockey and was heavily recruited during her stay at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham. Among those suitors was Digit Murphy, the former coach at Brown University.

"Her ability to see the ice is tremendous. Her speed, her power, and her all-around effort and commitment to all areas of the ice," said Murphy. "She's not just an offensive player. She can play defense. She can block shots, she can kill penalties, she can play power play. She's hugely versatile.

"As a younger player, she was always good, always highly skilled," she said. "The biggest difference now is her commitment to both sides of the puck. That, to me, makes complete hockey players. Everyone can play offense. But the ability to come back on defense, and block shots on the PK, that's really a commitment to the total team. That's what Meghan is: the complete package."

Duggan's complete game evolved at Wisconsin, under Johnson's tutelage. Over four seasons, she recorded 108 goals and 238 points in 159 collegiate games and added 35 goals in 92 games for various national squads since 2007.

"At a younger age, she decided she wanted to be an Olympic player," said Johnson. "I'm sure a lot of kids dream of that, but are they willing to sacrifice and have that passion and desire to follow through on that commitment?

"When Meghan came to campus her freshman year, she had some skill and she had some talent, and we just helped her go down the path that she was so passionate about," he said. "She decided that she was going to do the little things, the necessary things, to become a better player."

Clearly, Duggan took full advantage of her opportunity at Wisconsin and at the national level.

"My freshman year at Wisconsin, I was just a wide-eyed kid, trying to figure out what kind of player I was going to be and if I was going to develop into a national team player," she said. "I was so fortunate to learn from Mark Johnson. He developed me tremendously, as an athlete and as a person, in those four years at Wisconsin. I learned a lot from him about just how to put the puck in the back of the net, and the simple things you can learn and tweak to become a better player.

"He took me aside one day, and we talked about priding myself on being one of the best two-way players in the country," Duggan said of Johnson. "He told me that would be a great thing to focus on, being strong defensively, scoring goals, but also doing a lot of the little things -- chipping pucks and blocking shots and making big defensive plays. When you get on the national team, everyone is a goal-scorer. Everyone can do everything. You have to find your niche and what you bring to the team and what the team needs from you. I'm a forward, and my job is to score goals, and set up plays, but I also pride myself on playing great defense and doing the little things that give our team a chance to win."

Duggan will lead a team with a distinct Bay State flavor, including Molly Schaus (Natick/Boston College), Kacey Bellamy (Westfield), Michelle Picard (Taunton/Harvard) and Alex Carpenter (North Reading/Boston College), daughter of former NHLer and Bruin Bobby Carpenter, and those with strong Boston connections, such as Kelly Stack (Boston College), Julie Chu (Harvard), Josephine Pucci (Harvard), Lyndsey Fry (Harvard) and Kendall Coyne (Northeastern). It is not a carbon copy of the Canadians, she said.

"Our teams play very different styles, different games," said Duggan. "We have a lot of youth, we have a ton of speed, but we also play physical. We have some big players, so we're not afraid to rub them off on the wall, to use our body and our size as well.

"We're firing on all cylinders," she said. "No matter what they're going to throw at us, we want to be prepared for it."

According to Murphy, who finally got a chance to coach Duggan when she helped lead the Boston Blades to a Canadian Women's Hockey League title last spring (tallying five goals in 14 games), the former Badger is the ideal candidate to lead Team USA. "Meghan has the ability, and a way about her, to influence the opinions around the locker room," she said. "She's an excellent conduit between the athletes and the coaching staff."

"You've seen great leaders for the USA, from Cammi Granato to Julie Chu," said Murphy. "There's been a phenomenal level of leadership. And what Meghan represents is this new brand of leadership for Team USA. Meghan has an easy way about her that allows a lot of people on the team to be comfortable with her. And I really think she has the ability to be loyal to the team and the coaching staff. That's what I see as her strength."

Murphy acknowledges that it can be a delicate balancing act, but Duggan has the dexterity to handle her new responsibilities. "It's definitely a skill," she said. "I've watched leaders throughout the course of my career almost crash and burn by being too one-dimensional. To be a leader on that national and world stage, you really have to have a buy-in from the whole cast of characters. That's what Meghan can do."

"There's a difference between leading college players and high school players and leading adults, whether it's coaching them or being a captain," said Murphy. "It takes diplomacy, it takes thoughtfulness, it takes compassion, empathy. These are the things that true leaders have when you're dealing at that level of athlete."

Johnson is quick to agree. "Meghan was our captain here at Wisconsin," he said. "Her leadership skills, and the respect that she gets from the people on her team, is unmatched."

"I've been around a lot of captains -- I was captain of an NHL team for a couple of years -- and she's one of the best I've ever seen, as far as knowing what to do, how to lead, helping her teammates, creating unity and creating an atmosphere that gives the team she's in charge of the best chance to win," Johnson said. "She grew into that position, having been mentored by other players we've had, and certainly took it to a whole new level."

Duggan's teammates appreciate the end product of that maturation process.

"Meghan is the epitome of a leader on and off the ice," said Schaus, whose BC Eagles lost to Duggan's Badgers in the 2011 NCAA semifinals. "She will stand up for each and every one of us and loves the game of hockey and this team as much as anyone I've ever seen. She pushes the boundaries of becoming better all the time, and her will to win -- in everything -- is second to none."

While Duggan is hesitant to discuss her captaincy, she admits it was an honor to be selected and that she takes great pride in wearing the "C." In short, she said she prefers to let her actions speak for her.

"My leadership style, in high school and at Wisconsin, has always been to lead by example," said Duggan. "I try to work as hard as I can, no matter what the circumstance, whether it's a 30-minute practice, a two-hour practice or a game. I want everyone on my team to know that there should never be a doubt that I'm going as hard as I can, no matter what.

"As a leader, that's important because you're often guiding people or helping teammates along, and you never want to be a hypocrite," she said. "So I just pride myself on working as hard as I can, day in and day out, focusing on what the staff is trying to teach us and just trying to stay positive."