Even after winning her fourth gold medal as a member of the U.S. senior women’s inline hockey team, Jetta Rackleff said the sensation of putting on the Team USA jersey does not get old — or even totally normal.
“I want to say it gives you shivers, but that wouldn’t be enough of a description of how much importance is weighted on what you’re doing,” said Rackleff, who has played in goal at eight senior Inline Hockey World Championships, most recently in Nanjing, China, earlier this month. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’re just a women’s hockey player,’ or ‘It’s just inline hockey,’ but for me it’s something I’ve worked my whole life at. To be the best in the world at anything you do, it takes 20 years (of work) for overnight success. That’s what it feels like.”
Rackleff, who grew up playing roller hockey in Bend and graduated from Summit High School in 2009, played in six of the U.S.’s seven games at the tournament, including the 1-0 shutout of Spain in the gold medal game. With players scattered across the country, Rackleff said the national team has few opportunities to practice together outside of the annual world championship tournaments.
“I’ve been playing with some of these girls since I was 11, 12 years old, and I’m 25 now, so getting that team chemistry and that kind of stuff is pretty easy,” Rackleff said. “Even though we don’t get to train together every day of the week like some (United States Olympic Committee)-funded programs, we often keep in contact with each other. We have an Instagram group, a Snapchat group. We share our workouts, we share what we’re doing. And then on top of it, we end up seeing each other at these tournaments all summer. We’re not there in person, but we are able to connect with each other, and I guess that’s one of the beautiful things about social media.”
Rackleff said one of the highlights of the tournament was a 3-2 victory over Canada in the semifinals.
“I play in a Canadian hockey league, and I have lots of friends on that team, so playing against them and winning was bittersweet,” Rackleff said, referring to her Boston Blades ice hockey teammates and opponents in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. “At one point, the puck hit me in the face, and my helmet popped off. The puck was still live and the ref didn’t see that my helmet had popped off, so I ended up stopping a puck with no mask on. She (the shot-taker) was pretty close, so I’m glad she didn’t shoot it high.”
After the world championships, Rackleff and her teammates traveled to Beijing for a sightseeing trip that included a visit to a surprisingly uneven section of the Great Wall of China.
“Our coach is a hiking enthusiast, so he booked a real Great Wall hike,” Rackleff recounted of the 8- or 9-mile hike along a nonrefurbished section of the wall. “Some areas, the stones are missing and you’re walking right on the edge. And then we start getting into this forested area, and it’s super steep. So we walked through there, which was a complete adventure in and of itself, just to get to the more restored section of the wall. So we have a team joke, when we see (other teams) like, ‘We hiked the wall!’ We ask, ‘Did you really hike the wall?”
Rackleff will soon return to China with the Boston Blades, who are scheduled to play the CWHL’s new expansion teams, the Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays, in December. This season, for the first time since the league was founded in 2007, the CWHL will also be paying players $2,000 to $10,000 annual stipends.
“It’s not a ton of money, but at the same time it covers a lot of bills and a lot of training expenses, which makes it much more attainable to be in this league,” said Rackleff, who graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York this past spring and is now searching for a full-time job in chemical engineering in the Boston area. “The idea is that we bring in the fans … and we’re earning what we’re getting paid. The more we bring in, the more we get paid, and we’ve kind of gotten that momentum.”
Rackleff was drafted by the Brampton (now Markham) Thunder in 2016, but she was traded to the Blades in November.
“My first two games (in the CWHL) I struggled, but after that I kind of started to get my footing a little bit, a little more comfortable,” said Rackleff. “Everybody at a certain level has the skill, but the difference coming from NCAA Division I is that these players consistently make the most difficult play to defend against. You see someone like Sidney Crosby in the NHL batting things out of the air or threading a pass through three people and putting it right on someone’s take. For me, I’ve played with guys and I’ve played at the USA level, NCAA level, but not every time do they get that pass through. And there will be players in this league, that every time they’ll get through that pass. Every time they hit that girl, and every time they’ll hit the top corner (of the net). It’s not like they’ll just put it in my chest. It’s very impressive to me.”
Although life in the CWHL is far from glamorous, Rackleff said she has “found a whole new reason to play” in the young girls who come to watch CWHL games and skate with the players. She hopes that by the time these kids leave college, there will be a women’s league that can provide full-time employment for its players. That may seem a long way off, but then again, Rackleff is currently playing in a women’s league that did not even exist when she was their age.
“We were playing in Calgary (last season), and I look across the ice, and there’s one of the Olympic goalies, she’s playing across from me. And two of the top Olympic defensemen for Canada, and three of the top Olympic forwards coming down on a play against me. And I make the play, I put it (the puck)in the corner,” Rackleff recalled. “My mom and dad flew out from Oregon to watch, and I’m in an Olympic arena. My goal has been to play for Team USA ice and go to the Olympics, and I’m like, right now (this situation is a) 9.9 out of 10 of that goal. The place is packed. All the people that mean something to me are here. I’m playing a solid game. Even if I never get seen by a USA Hockey coach, or they never see me play, I know I can play at that level, with that confidence. Because right there, I was living it.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org