SHE'S READY TO PLAY: Northbrook's Jesse Compher, Team USA eager to defend IIHF women's world title
Northbrook's Jesse Compher was poised to help continue United States dominance in women's hockey.
But she and her teammates will have to wait.
As Team USA prepared to compete in the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship from May 6-16 in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia, on April 21 the provincial government canceled the tournament over COVID-19 safety concerns. The tournament also was canceled in 2020.
National Women's Team director Katie Million delivered the dour news to Compher and her teammates -- including local training partners Megan Bozek from Arlington Heights, Kendall Coyne Schofield from Palos Heights, and Savannah Harmon from Downers Grove -- as they finished their last skate of team camp in Portland, Maine. The team was then scheduled to depart for the tournament, preceded by an eight-day quarantine.
"I kind of felt like she was just going to wrap up camp before we left for Halifax," said Compher, selected to the U.S. Women's National Team a third straight year, the youngest on the squad in 2019 at 19.
"When she broke the news to us, we were all devastated, clearly -- tears were coming out of everyone's eyes, the coaches, the GM, all the players. I think it was a hard pill to swallow at first, and it doesn't really make sense to us," Compher said.
"We just kind of wanted to show off our ability to help grow women's hockey."
Team USA's ability, with 15 Olympians, is outstanding. The defending Olympic gold medalists won the 2019 IIHF Women's World Championship in a shootout against Finland to capture gold for a fifth consecutive time and eight of the last nine tournaments. Compher contributed an assist in 6 games.
Team USA has won either gold or silver medals in every IIHF championship since they began in 1990. Compher also helped her squad take gold at the Under-18 Women's World Championship in 2016 and 2017.
A Boston University forward who, as a sophomore in 2019, finished third in the nation with 61 points and was a Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award top-10 finalist, Compher thought there was a bit of an equity issue in the cancellation.
"I think it's hard knowing that the (Under-)18 boys are playing right now (in Texas from April 26-May 6), and World Juniors went off (Edmonton, Dec. 25-Jan. 5) and they found a way for both of those but they didn't find a way for us," she said.
"We know the health and safety of everyone in Nova Scotia is important, but we deserve better as women's hockey players. And we're tired of saying that over and over."
The good news is, on April 30, the IIHF announced that after working with the 10 participating nations' teams and Hockey Canada, new dates have been announced, Aug. 20-31. The location has yet to be determined.
Asked before this announcement if she felt encouraged by the IIHF's determination to go on with the tournament Compher said, yes, with a qualifier.
"It's nice to know that they're still working on it," she said then, "but it just sounds like this is a backup plan and we shouldn't be a backup plan. We should have been given the chance to compete when we were ready."
Regardless, there will be little downtime for this 2017 Glenbrook North graduate. Olympic tryouts start June 1 in Blaine, Minnesota.
And she is always ready.
"She was at the rink from the time she was in a bucket seat," said Compher's mother, Valerie.
Bob and Valerie Compher have three children -- Jesse, Morgan and J.T., a 26-year-old forward in his fifth season with the Colorado Avalanche. Morgan played hockey for a bit, but was more interested in basketball, dance and softball.
Morgan works in Boston, which has enhanced Jesse's experience there. Finishing her senior year of hospital administration studies, Jesse still has a year of hockey eligibility remaining should she accept it, granted due to COVID.
Whether Jesse continues playing for the Terriers in the Hockey East, focuses on the Olympics or follows teammates like Coyne Schofield, Harmon and Hilary Knight into the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, one thing's certain: Compher will be playing hockey.
"The competitive part of hockey," she said, "that's the part you fall in love with."
Little Jesse didn't just tag along and bug her parents for hot chocolate when she watched her brother, five years older, get his feet wet with the Northbrook Blues.
"You could see that Jesse just didn't come and run around the rink. She was fully engaged and watching the games and trying to figure out how to play the game," said Evan Poulakidas, former Blues coach, now president of the Scholastic Hockey League and Glenbrook North's hockey director and varsity coach.
"She was different. Her wanting to play hockey was never in doubt. She just loved being at the rink," said Poulakidas, the 2015 and 2021 SHL coach of the year.
Compher eventually joined the Blue Hawks, playing alongside boys. In warmups they licked their chops. Once the puck dropped they licked their wounds.
"We would get in boys games and you could see the other guys, 'Oh, that's a girl out there.' And all of a sudden she was running them through the boards, and they were like, 'Oh,'" Poulakidas said.
She joined the Chicago Mission program upon entering Glenbrook North, playing on the 14-U team as a freshman then up on the U-19 team each of her last three years in high school.
Compher's Mission teams won four straight state titles and never placed lower than third at the USA Hockey Youth Nationals. In 2015, coach Tony Cachey's team won the 19-U title.
Compher had the stuff to be a two-time captain.
"Jesse's strength is her ability to compete, to begin with, and her will to never, never give up on a play," Poulakidas said. "She's physically strong and she's getting stronger. She had a big brother to follow and she always wanted to be as good if not better than J.T."
Poulakidas believes Compher may be on track to be the top American women's hockey player.
"People like Kendall Coyne are trailblazers, and I think Jesse is the next generation of power players," he said.
"Kendall was all speed and grace, Jesse is more like, I'm going to go into the dirty places and score goals. She can put teams on her back. She's capable of turning a game around."
Time is on her side; she doesn't turn 22 until June 1.
The team-first attitude is there, too. Averaging better than a point a game in four seasons at Boston, Compher sees her role as a complete, two-way forward even more engaged defensively than offensively.
Be it on a Canadian rink in August, or perhaps Beijing in February 2022, she'll be a hard pill for the competition to swallow.
"I think I'm just a hard worker who's ready to go anytime I'm put on the ice," Compher said.