For Cayla Barnes, withdrawing from Boston College two months into her freshman year was a no-brainer.
She liked her dorm and her roommate. She was excited about majoring in biology. She hadn’t scored in the first five games of the collegiate ice hockey season, but felt secure in her role on the team.
Then Barnes got the call that changed everything.
The U.S. Women’s National Ice Hockey Team wanted to add the 18-year-old defenseman to its roster. Barnes would be the first addition to the Olympic player pool since the initial 23 athletes were named on May 5.
That meant moving to the training base in Wesley Chapel, Florida – immediately.
“They’d already talked to my coaches and it was a really quick turnaround,” said Barnes. “My team was really supportive, my coaches. I packed up my whole dorm at BC and withdrew and came down here.”
“Anyone would have done that, right?” said two-time Olympic silver medalist Kacey Bellamy. “Your dream is to go to the Olympics. No question, you come – and we welcomed her with open arms because she’s going to make us better."
USA Hockey announced Barnes was joining the team on Oct. 28. Ten days later she was playing in the Four Nations Cup.
Barnes wasted no time proving she belonged. In the first period of her first game as an official member of the national team, she scored a power-play goal in an 8-2 win over Finland.
The next night, Barnes scored on another first-period power play in a 4-2 win against Canada. She added an assist as Team USA beat Sweden 5-0.
“It’s obvious she fits right in,” said Team USA coach Robb Stauber. “We’re thrilled to have pulled her out of college, and she looks great.”
Barnes was called up three days after watching Team USA lose to Canada 5-1 in Boston.
“We brought back a player that was really close to being part of the original group,” Stauber said. “From our perspective, there wasn’t a lot of risk, because she was pretty darn good.”
On Nov. 27, USA Hockey announced that Sidney Morin and Haley Skarupa would join the roster, and then forward Annie Pankowski, Barnes’ original roommate, was released on Dec. 9.
The final team of 23 players for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 – including three goaltenders – is expected to be named Jan. 1, 2018.
“I’m optimistic about it,” Barnes said. “Obviously whatever happens, happens. I’m just going to do my best to help this team. I just want what’s best for the team and whatever that is, I’ll do.”
Two remaining games against Canada will help pare the roster: Friday night in San Jose, California, as part of The Time is Now Tour presented by Toyota, and then the eighth and final pre-Olympic showdown between the two rivals Dec. 17 in Edmonton, Alberta.
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While Team USA defeated Canada in the Four Nations Cup en route to winning three of their first four match-ups, Team Canada has won the last two games to even the record at 3-3.
Barnes was a standout age group player for Team USA, winning three gold medals in the IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship from 2015-17 and receiving the Directorate Award as Best Defenseman the past two tournaments.
She got to know some of her current teammates through camps or when she accompanied the national team for two games in December 2016 against Canada. Barnes was scratched from the first game, but played a bit in the second. “I got a feel for the game,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I got huge minutes, but I played and it was a really good experience.”
When she tried out for the national team in April and was cut, Barnes figured she’d get ready for college and try again the next Olympic cycle.
“I didn’t really think that I’d get called up this late,” she said.
But Barnes did have an inkling, even if she didn’t get her hopes up.
In September, Barnes got a text from Reagan Carey, general manager of the women’s national team and Olympic team, asking for a copy of her passport. “She said, ‘We’re going to put you on the long list,’” Barnes said. “They put multiple players on the long list, just in case of injury and whatnot. It’s pretty standard.”
Then Carey called about three weeks later to invite her to join the team.
“It was completely out of the blue,” Barnes said.
Carey had already discussed it with Barnes’ coaches, who had questions about her eligibility.
This year counts as a leave of absence. Barnes said she has a five-year clock to complete her eligibility, but could ask for a waiver if she needs time off prior to the 2022 Games.
“It’s been done before and I have a plenty good reason why I left school,” Barnes said.
She is the youngest player on the roster by 18 months and the shortest by one inch. Barnes will turn 19 on Jan. 7 and is 5-foot-1, while Emily Pfalzer and Kendall Coyne are each 5-2.
“She’s a tremendous player,” Coyne said. “She’s young, but you’d never know she’s young. She brings a mentality of a pro, and sometimes you forget she’s 18 when you sit down and have a conversation with her.
“She’s small – and I can say that – but you can’t miss her, for sure. It doesn’t matter. It’s the size of the heart.”
The Eastville, California, native followed her four older brothers into the sport after a brief – and ultimately unhappy – start in figure skating at age 2.
“I wanted to do what my brothers did,” said Barnes, who also played soccer and lacrosse in high school. “The game’s just so fun and so complex. And I love the team aspect.”
Her first vivid Olympic memory is watching Team USA play at the Vancouver 2010 Games.
“I remember telling my mom, ‘I want to do that,’” Barnes said.
She said her mother replied, “If you set your mind to it, you can dream it and do it.”
Now Barnes is almost there.
Bellamy, who had worked with her at some camps, said the newcomer had no trouble adjusting to the tempo.
“She’s wise beyond her years, very mature, very poised back there,” Bellamy said. “Since she’s been here, she hasn’t skipped a beat. This style of play is perfect for her. She’s just a treat to have in the locker room."
Yet Barnes said she doesn’t feel wise beyond her years.
“I feel like I’m just 18 years old,” she said. “But these are women (on the national team). They’re adults. They talk about adult things and they act like adults. You have to grow up a little when you come here. And I think that’s what I’ve really learned from coming here. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m still a kid,’ but I’ve learned how they act and what they do.”
And Coynes joked, Barnes might bring something else to the table.
“Her brain might be a little bit sharper than us,” Coyne said, “because she had half a semester at BC.”