Brianna Decker had a clue that the 2022 Winter Olympics would be her last.
She did not envision her decorated international women’s hockey playing career ending in excruciating pain on the ice of the Wukesong Sports Centre in Beijing during Team USA’s opening game against Finland.
The injury – a broken left ankle and several torn ligaments – made Decker’s announcement last week that she was retiring that much easier.
She’s also not going far from the ice at all.
In August, Decker became the girls prep associate head coach and special advisor for the Shattuck-St. Mary’s, her prep school alma mater in Faribault, Minnesota. The program has produced countless NHL and women’s national team players. Decker is coaching under Gordie Stafford, whom she played for.
“It’s been incredible being back there,” Decker told USA TODAY Sports.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER:Sign up now for daily updates sent to your inbox
Before her playing career formally ended last week, Decker was already an assistant on three U-18 women’s world championship squads: 2019 (silver), 2020 (gold), 2023 (bronze).
“I think when I was playing, that was my main focus, and coaching was something I picked up and wanted to dip my toes into,” Decker said. “Now I’m two feet in with coaching and that’s what I would say the difference is. I can put my full focus on these kids.”
USA TODAY Sports caught up with Decker this week to reflect on her playing career – which included the 2018 gold medal, two Olympic silvers, six world championships golds and an NCAA title – and to discuss her next one.
Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
USA TODAY: When did you arrive at this decision to retire?
Brianna Decker: Basically when I got hurt at the Olympics last year. I wanted to give myself a full year to physically and mentally heal and basically just be fair to myself. And when I picked up the coaching job at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in August, I just realized it was a really great transition for me and I have a huge passion for coaching. I really didn’t miss playing as much as I thought I would have. Obviously, there’s many components about playing that I do miss. But I just found myself super happy from a mental standpoint, and physically, making the right decision for my body. My leg was pretty beat up last year. It just feels like it was a great time to transition.
USAT: How much did health play a factor in this decision?
BD: I’m one of those players that I want to be 100 percent. And I will be frustrated with myself if I wasn’t at 100 percent, trying to come back. I’ve done that before with injuries in the past. I just felt like where I’m at, the age that I’m at, it just wasn’t worth trying to come back from it. There’s still things, even when I was just skating for coaching, where my ankle wasn’t feeling a hundred percent. Kind of just went in waves. So full from a health standpoint and making that decision, I would say that it factored in for sure. But it wasn’t the main reason why I decided to retire.
USAT: After the Olympics is when a lot of players evaluate their next steps. Do you feel like you would have been in that position even without the injury?
BD: Yeah, I think so. I went into the last Olympics being like, ‘All right, this is probably my last one.’ I want to also say I’ve said that before this last one. You always get a certain itch, but as an elite athlete – and I had talked to retired athletes in the past – something in my heart felt just a little different compared to the past. With time, I just realized that I wanted to take my time with the decision and reflect a little bit. I guess I’m making the best one for myself.
USAT: Two-part question: What will you miss the most from a camaraderie standpoint? And what will you miss most from an on-ice standpoint?
BD: I think from a camaraderie standpoint, I’m going to miss the locker room, the teammates and the memories you make. When you have those big wins. How much fun it is to celebrate with one another. When you have those tough losses. How you’re there for each other in every aspect. That’s the best part about being on a team. You’re able to create so many memories and travel to amazing places with some of your best friends.
I think from an on-ice perspective, I’m going to miss the competing aspect the most. I’ve been a competitive athlete my whole life. It could be the smallest board game or smallest card game that I’m competitive in, and when I’m on the ice, I just lock into a different level. I’m definitely going to miss that aspect the most.
USAT: Do you get that fulfillment in coaching?
BD: Yeah, that’s what I realized. From a coaching standpoint, I’m very competitive, too. That ‘I want to win’ standpoint, it’s there just as much as when I was playing. The only difference is you have less control when you’re coaching.
USAT: What’s something about coaching that you have learned so far?
BD: There’s a patience aspect. When I’m there at Shattuck, I’m there the whole season, which was awesome. Because you can really break down everything and you can help these kids develop from day one, the first practice of the year. And it’s awesome to see what they progress at, what they get better at, over time.
USAT: Is there a level or league that you would like to reach one day as a coach?
BD: A goal of mine would be to coach the Olympic team at some point. That might be far out from now but it’s definitely a goal of mine. I know that I have a lot to learn and a lot more experience to be had before I have that moment but that is definitely a goal of mine. Coaching college is obviously an option, too. I think right now, though, I’m in the right spot, learning things about coaching that you need to learn in order to get to those next levels. I’m not going to want to cheat the system and get up to a different level without taking those initial steps. That’s what I did as a player – just go along the path that you’re supposed to along. Do the right things and the right doors will open.
USAT: Assuming the gold medal is your favorite hockey memory, what is your second-favorite hockey memory?
BD: Aside from the gold medal, winning the NCAA championship at Wisconsin. Yeah, that was hands down one of my favorite hockey memories. It’s hard to do. We had a great team. Great culture. It’s just hard to beat that moment.
USAT: Which names should U.S. hockey fans be on the lookout for?
BD: From a U-18 standpoint, I had the opportunity to coach her this year – I coach her at Shattuck as well – Maggie Scannell. I think she’s got huge potential based on her skill and work ethic. I think you got to find players that can meet both of those things.
Joy Dunne, she’s going to Ohio State the next year, she plays the game right. She’s big, she’s competitive, she wants to win.
USAT: Favorite goal you scored?
BD: The one that stands out to me: it was my Senior Night at Wisconsin. We won in overtime against Minnesota-Duluth. I scored off a draw. Just kind of walked to the center and was able to tuck it home to win in overtime.
USAT: Favorite place you visited?
BD: Best trip would be to Switzerland. It was my first senior world championships in 2011. It was an incredible area, incredible weather. It was like 65 (degrees), 70 (degrees) when we were there and it wasn’t supposed to be. And obviously, we won, and that was my first one, and it was an all-around great trip.
USAT: How do you wish fans will remember “Decks?”
BD: I hope they remember me as somebody who was super competitive and did anything I had to do to help the team win on any given night.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.