WESLEY CHAPEL — Cayla Barnes looks every bit the college freshman as she walks with her teammates through Florida Hospital Center Ice on the way to a meet-and-greet with some sponsors of the U.S. women's Olympic hockey team.
At 5 feet 1, Barnes is the shortest team member. Having just turned 19, she is also the youngest.
"But you wouldn't know it by watching the game," team captain Meghan Duggan said. "You wouldn't know it by the way she carries herself, the way she prepares for games mentally and physically. Her age is the only thing about her that's rookie status."
Barnes plays like someone who spearheaded the U.S. under-18 team to three consecutive world championships. A defenseman, she has the skills to move the puck out of her end, and the speed and shot to join the rush. She is unafraid to play physically against women who can be as much 10 years her senior.
"She's not young," coach Robb Stauber said. "In her own mind she's not young."
Cayla Barnes was in high school only months ago. Now she could be going to the Olympics as the youngest player on the U.S. women's hockey team. https://t.co/VOErrG2eVD @TeresaMWalker pic.twitter.com/AWJUCxNJD3— AP Sports (@AP_Sports) December 14, 2017
Barnes might be just what the U.S. team needs in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as it tries to finally take down Canada and bring home the gold medal that has eluded the Americans since they won the inaugural women's tournament in 1998.
Since then, it has been all Canada, with the United States finishing second in three of the past four Olympics.
The United States — which did its Olympic training at Florida Hospital Center Ice — has changed its style of play heading into these games, playing a more free-flowing, up-tempo style. It also turned over its roster, with 13 players competing in their first Olympics.
That Barnes is one of the 13 is by design. The kid gives the roster a jolt of youthful exuberance without sacrificing skill.
She sees that as an asset.
"I think I bring a lot of energy to the team," Barnes said. "I'm the youngest player, and I think that's valuable in itself. Having youth within our team is valuable."
Barnes was five games into her freshman season at Boston College when she received a call from Reagan Carey, the general manager of the women's team, to join the squad in Wesley Chapel. Barnes had seven games to earn a spot on the team. Or maybe that spot was earned early last spring when she was one of the last players cut from the national team.
Barnes was told to stay ready in case she was needed for the Olympics. The call came shortly after the United States lost 5-1 to Canada in late October in the first game of its pre-Olympic tour.
The opportunity to make the team at her age was something Barnes said was beyond her wildest dreams.
And making the team?
"The ultimate dream," she said. "I'm having a blast."
Barnes began playing hockey at age 4, which was about the time she began dreaming of playing in the Olympics. She skated with boys teams in Eastvale, Calif., before heading to boarding school in New Hampshire to better her chances of landing a college scholarship. Along the way she developed into a national team player with abilities beyond her age.
Stauber said he's especially impressed with Barnes' ability to remain calm on the ice, particularly when she has the puck.
"That's a hard thing to duplicate, and she's a kid," Stauber said. "We feel it would be foolish not to pay attention to that. We can play her in any situation because she's not overwhelmed by stuff. She displays it day-in and day-out. That's what you want going into the Olympics with all the hoopla. Do your job. And she does her job. I wouldn't expect anything different than what we've seen from her."
Said Duggan: "She's a veteran; she really is. She's so mature and just smart and poised for her age. She's been a tremendous addition to our team."
Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50.