Had she made the Canadian Olympic team, Sarah Potomak would have been the youngest player on the team by two years. Though making the team so young would have been a stretch, it's also something Potomak imagined was within her grasp over her last couple of seasons.
She made her debut with the senior team in 2015, winning silver with Canada at the Four Nations Cup. She was a fixture of the senior team in 2017, winning silver at the IIHF Women's World Championships and had high hopes – and expectations of herself – when she was named to the centralization roster prior to Pyeongchang.
Her freshman year at Minnesota back in 2016, the Gophers won the National Championship, thanks in part to her overtime goal in the semifinal to topple rival Wisconsin and send the Gophers to the title game. Despite being young and fairly new to the spotlight, she took to the attention like a pro, handling the postseason press conference confidently and cheerfully.
It was the fourth Gopher national championship in the past five years, which made the disappointment of not even making the 2017 national championship game even more difficult to swallow. In retrospect, Potomak realizes it was her first lesson in disappointment and it helped prepare her for this past year.
Potomak is someone that thrives in the company of others. Naturally vivacious and outgoing, she's a joker who keeps her teammates laughing, said Kelly Pannek. She's almost always got a smile on her face and people are drawn to her.
When she was released from the Canadian national team in late December, it was not only a shocking disappointment and the end of a lifelong dream, but it took her away from everything she knew and was comfortable with.
"When I got cut I came home and I had a lot of time to myself. It's one thing when you're injured and you're still a part of the team – that's still your family. But when you're cut from the Olympic team, you're sent home and you're by yourself," said Potomak.
Where sister Amy headed to the University of Minnesota after being released to start classes, Sarah stayed home with her parents. She went from being surrounded by people 24/7 to spending a lot of time by herself back home in British Columbia without her sister and best friend. Potomak did a lot of soul searching and took time to decide how she'd respond to the letdown.
"Those things kind of teach you a lot about yourself – what you do when you win and what you do when you lose and how you respond to both of those things. It's how I respond to getting cut and showing that I'm not giving up. I want to lead the team to the national championship. I want to be an Olympian in 2022. I think it's pretty special to be able to learn from these things and take positives out of such a negative situation," she said.
She also spent nearly a year learning what it meant to be Sarah Potomak, college junior, as opposed to Sarah Potomak, hockey player. Having worked most of her life to achieve her goal of playing in the Olympics, she was a bit bereft when she went back to British Columbia and didn’t have hockey. "I had to learn how to be someone that's not a hockey player. I think that was a huge step for me as a person to be able to understand that to learn that hockey and whether we're winning or losing, or if I'm scoring or not, that doesn't define who I am," she said.
Finding balance as a student-athlete can be near impossible, but even figuring out how to find time for school, hockey, and a personal life are nothing compared to the absolute constant pressure of centralization. Potomak said she used to think college was stressful before she spent 16 hours a day focusing on hockey, from games and the weight room to video sessions and practice.
The past year has let Potomak become a lot more sure of who she is.
"I'm a very focused hockey player, but I'm a very chill person. I'm really easygoing. When I'm at practice, I'm focused on practice. When I'm away from the rink, I like to have fun and be myself," she said. "When I think of the best leaders in my life, they're the ones that are the most genuine. They have a balance in their life where they're able to play hockey but also be a good person and a good teammate and a good friend to everyone. I just have to be myself."
Minnesota coach Brad Frost has already noticed a new maturity to Potomak and he knows that the tough lessons she learned are ones that she can "continue to mature and grow in."
It's clear how tough the past year has been on Potomak. Her words are more measured, the lightness that marked her sunny personality is a little more weighed down. Though Frost said he thinks she's always had a bit of a chip on her shoulder because she was always trying to prove herself, Potomak admits the disappointment of missing out on the Olympics has added another level of drive and motivation to her play.
The centralization also helped Potomak's game on its own, despite the disappointing ending. She spent months with Hockey Canada, playing at a speed she said was levels above what she was used to. Already a quick player, her speed and hockey instincts had to improve to keep pace. She also believes she became a more complete player, noting that her 200-foot game improved the most.
She wouldn't say it, but Frost noted that improving her defensive game was something of a sticking point for her.
"I think she's always been looked at as an offensive player, and I think she’s taken that a little personally, saying no, I want to be a complete player," he said. "If she had a weakness, it was just the defensive part of her game. I thought even from year one to year two [at Minnesota] for her, she made great strides being on the defensive side of the puck."
There's a saying about learning more about yourself at the bottom than when you're on the mountaintop and Potomak said she knows now how true that statement is. She was used to being at the top and she'll likely end up there again, but it’s a long road.
She said she's looking at this as the start of a new four year process. She has her sights set on Beijing 2022, but she also learned this past year to take things one step at a time. For right now, that means focusing on her own game and how she can help the Gophers succeed. She hopes that includes a national championship, but she's also not even looking that far ahead.
"We always have our three goals in mind – win the regular season, win the WCHA tournament, and then win the Frozen Four. So the first step is just taking it weekend by weekend. Hopefully [we] win the regular season and just go from there. Consistency is huge if you want to win it all," she said.
Winning a national championship isn't easy, she said. The perception might be that it is, after Minnesota and now Clarkson have won multiple championships in a row, but it's a process that includes hundreds of small steps that work together to produce an end result.
She was talking about winning a title with the Gophers, but she could have been talking about the process of making an Olympic team. Beijing is four years away and all she can do is take it one step at a time.
"Being cut was probably one of the hardest things I've ever gone through, but I'm really motivated to come back and prove that I could have been on that [Olympic] team," she said. "I'm never going to not believe that of myself. I think it's important to believe that. That motivation of being cut will drive me for the rest of my life."
Minnesota is where Potomak is most comfortable. She loves the staff and her teammates and the culture of a program that values the individual as much as the hockey player. The Gophers play for each other, she said, and that's why she thinks the program has had continued success.
"We're all little pieces of the puzzle and when we all work together, that's when we're most successful. I'm excited to really do what I can do. Generally my role is to score goals and be offensive. I'm excited to really focus in on that role and just be the player that I am," she said.
And that player is not defined by one decision. Or even by the sport. "I'm not a player that didn't make the Olympic team," Potomak says. "I play for the Gopher women's hockey team and I get to play for the National Team."
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