Seen here while the coach of the 2014 USA Women's Olympic Hockey team, coach Stone seeks her second national championship at the helm of the Harvard women's ice hockey program.
Seen here while the coach of the 2014 USA Women's Olympic Hockey team, coach Stone seeks her second national championship at the helm of the Harvard women's ice hockey program. By Courtesy of USA Hockey

The Best Team You've Never Gone to Watch

Currently, five players on the Olympics-headed national women's ice hockey team are either current or former members of the Harvard team. The Harvard women’s hockey team is one of the most successful teams on campus but struggles to maintain fan attendance levels.
By Cordelia F Mendez and Bailey M. Trela

It may be 67 degrees outside, but inside the rink it’s more like 45, and out there, on the ice, it feels like winter. A pack of hockey players zooms across the surface, blades scraping up small blizzards; pucks hit the boards with such force that for a split second you’re afraid the plexiglass will shatter.

It’s Monday at the Edge Sports Center in Bedford, Mass., and the 25 members of the U.S. women’s hockey team have started their practice. The date is Sept. 30, 2013, and there are 131 days until the team will compete against Finland in its first contest of the XXII Olympic Winter Games.

Clad in red, white, and blue Team USA practice jerseys, the women line up for speed drills. Veterans like Julie Chu ’07 will race against players who haven’t yet graduated from high school for a spot on the final 21-player roster and a trip to Sochi, Russia for the Olympics. The youngest member of the team, 16-year-old Jincy Dunne, hadn’t even picked up a hockey stick when Chu won the first of her three Olympic medals in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Stay up,” says their coach, Katey Stone, as the players finish sprinting from one end of the rink to the other.

Stone, who is bundled up in dark layers, skates slowly and speaks loudly. Her assistant coaches, Bobby Jay and Hillary Witt, dart about during an intrasquad scrimmage.

“Keep moving,” bellows Stone, who has been the head coach of Harvard’s Women’s Ice Hockey since 1994. “We’re going to play teams that are good.”

To five members of this practice squad, Stone’s words are familiar marching orders—a quintet of national team players are either current or former members of the Harvard women’s hockey team.

A final exercise sees the team break into groups of three and, in succession, attempt to score on the team’s goaltenders. After almost two hours of intensity-laden drills, the women rally around one another, cheering and hollering, and the practice suddenly feels more like a casual pick-up game between friends than preparation for moments of immense international pressure.

It may be September, but the team very much has the February Olympics on their minds. There’s a chronic lack of public interest in women’s hockey, but some believe that a stellar performance in the 2014 Olympics may bring about a sort of renaissance in the field of women’s hockey.

Lack of interest is an all-too-familiar phrase for the five current and former members of the Harvard team currently representing the USA. The Harvard women’s hockey team is one of the most successful teams on campus, but struggles to maintain fan attendance levels, which average about one quarter the total of their male counterparts. It’s a familiar story for many female athletes on campus, and one that the women’s hockey players hope their international recognition can help to change.

“When the US National team won the gold medal in 1998,” Michelle L. Picard ’15-’16 explains, “the number of girls playing hockey grew so much. I think there’ll be the same effect, so hopefully we can make it happen.”

STONE COLD FOX

Katey Stone, the winningest women’s hockey coach in NCAA history, operates at a certain level of obscurity amidst the larger Harvard student body. Despite Stone’s 402 victories and nine NCAA tournament appearances, Harvard students are much more likely to identify men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker, with his two trips to the national tournament while coaching at Harvard, as the most successful coach on campus.

A former captain of the University of New Hampshire women’s hockey team, which captured two ECAC titles during her time there, Stone has also enjoyed success as a coach on the national level. She has coached the various national teams multiple times over the past two decades, most recently leading Team USA to a gold medal at the 2013 World Championships in Ottawa this past winter.

Stone’s pale blue eyes give a piercing stare across the ice. She speaks with calm intent and a fierce modesty and is quick to give credit to her team.

“Honestly, this isn’t about me,” Stone says, “it’s not about the coaches—it’s about the players and us trying to help them get what they want and achieve their goals, whether we’re at Harvard trying to compete for a national championship or on a national team trying to win a gold medal.”

Just as Stone has been immensely successful as an individual, so too has she bred similar levels of accomplishment in the women who have passed through her program.

Members of her team have won the national Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, the women’s hockey equivalent to college football’s Heisman Trophy, six times during the 15-year history of the prize. Nine former players, either representing the United States or Canada, have competed at the four Olympic games that have included women’s hockey, and all nine have medaled.

“Everyone walks away and she’s changed their life forever,” says Laura C. Bellamy ’13, who this year has been hired by Harvard as an assistant coach for her former team. “She’s the most competitive person ever, [and] her knowledge of the game is second to none. She’s the best coach in the world.”

The current team roster, which was announced after a weeklong selection camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. in late June, features Harvard and the University of Minnesota, last year’s NCAA champions and the holders of a record 49-game win streak, as its most represented schools. After paring down the camp from 41 elite American players to just 25, USA Women’s Hockey and Stone will have to weed out four more players in December for the final Olympic count.

Josephine U. Pucci ’13-’15 is one of the five Harvard players, and, as for many, her journey to the Olympic team hasn’t been easy. Pucci, who has already garnered a gold and silver medal competing for the USA at the 2011 and 2012 World Championships, suffered a concussion while playing for the Under-22 team during the summer of 2012. On the cusp of her senior season, she chose to withdraw from the College to rehabilitate her health.

Pucci spent the next several months in Atlanta working with Dr. Ted Carrick, a neurologist who has accrued fame for his research on concussions and has worked with several injured NHL players. Never to be discouraged, she made a return to Boston by January and has since shed any notion that her injury need be career-ending.

“I think it’s been a long way back for Josephine,” Stone says. “She’s really done everything she could to put herself in a healthy position...everything she was asked to do to clear herself, to be able to play and to compete for an opportunity here.”

Pucci is not the only member of Team USA who have endured difficulties on her way toward becoming an Olympian.

Kate Buesser ’11 was cut from the national program in 2010 and began professional life with medical school and a research post at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Buesser, who continued to play as a member of the Boston Blades club team, wrote to Stone after the Blades won the Clarkson Cup and was soon asked to attend the selection camp.

“I hadn’t been lifting weights or anything, because I was working full time,” Buesser says about making the transition from medical school to Olympic hockey. “I took seven weeks off to get in shape, and prepare; I didn’t want to have any excuses.”

Picard and Lyndsey B. Fry ’14-’15, other members of the Harvard quintet, are taking a break from undergraduate life and a team that captured a joint Ivy League title last season.

The two, who have been friends since playing on the Under-18 national team together before Harvard, claimed that the national team training has been similar to Harvard on the ice, yet the off-ice and mental commitment levels have increased.

“Everybody on this team was the star of their school team, and then going into this unbelievable group, it’s hard to hang on to your confidence,” says Fry, who was last year’s number two scorer on the Harvard team. “My role is gonna be different, but I’m gonna embrace that role and play it to the best of my ability.”

“[During practice] you can’t take breaks, you can’t skip drills—you’re being challenged and pushed every single day,” Fry explains. “The competition is so high in practice...We’re competing for spots. [There are] still four cuts to be made.”

Peers point to Stone as one of the reasons why the women’s hockey scene has gotten much more competitive.

“It used to be that our women’s Olympic team would have a mix of some really young kids, but now it’s more and more difficult to make the team, because there are more good players and it’s more competitive,” says Ted Donato ’91, the head coach of the Harvard men’s hockey team and a member of the 1989 national-champion Crimson squad. “I definitely attribute that to a number of factors, number one being the success in the Olympic teams and some terrific coaches—Katey being right at the forefront of that.”

The level of competition within Team USA mirrors the level of competition the team will face in Sochi. After winning its first Olympic gold in 1998 in Nagano, the U.S. has faltered thrice since, winning silver, bronze, and another silver in the last three games. Meanwhile, Canada, often bolstered by former Stone-coached players like Sarah Vaillancourt ’09, a former ECAC and Ivy League Player of the Year, has swept the top of the podium in Salt Lake City in 2002, in Turin in 2006, and most recently, in Vancouver in 2010.

The team has already had its first glimpse at its Canuck rivals. On October 12, USA inched a step closer to Olympic competition when it played its first of six exhibition games on the Bring on the World Tour and fell to Canada, 3-2.

An Olympic medal and an NCAA title are perhaps the only accolades not yet on Stone’s mantelpiece. Luckily for her, this year does offer a chance to acquire the former.

“I expect to play our absolute best when our best is needed—that’s ultimately the most important thing,” Stone says. “You know, we’re not going to make excuses. We’re there to win a gold medal. We’re not just there to compete, we’re not just there to make a roster or be the coach of the Olympic team; that’s all nice, but there’s a job to do.”

ADDRESSING THE GENDER GAP

With local and international success to its credit, many wonder why a huge popularity disparity exists between the men’s and women’s hockey programs at Harvard. Last year, the men’s team went 5-7 at home and averaged 2,260 attendees, while the women’s team went 13-1-1 at home and averaged a mere 600. To hear the coaches (and a few players) tell it, the problem is indicative of the status of women’s sports in American society.

“I think it’s a cultural thing,” explains Stone. “People like to watch men’s sports, and in order to expose fans and communities to women’s athletics you need to support them with resources and manpower three to five times more than you would a men’s sport.”

The apathy seems to be endemic. In fact, women’s sports in modern America is partly defined by the idea of not watching—so much so that their perennial unpopularity has become a thing of colloquial humor. As Kate Buesser explains: “People don’t view women’s sports growing up; they don’t really follow it and what’s going on.”

Because one’s particular taste in sports is often familial, passed down from parent to child—which sports and which teams to love—teaching yourself to love a new sport, or an old one played by a different gender, is a mental hurdle that can be difficult to overcome. Many believe that the mass media does little to refocus fans’ attention to women’s sports.

“I think that if you look at any media, including The Crimson, you’ve probably been guilty yourselves of elevating the men’s sports and not so much the women’s sports,” says Kathy Delaney-Smith, head coach of the Harvard women’s basketball team. “When you turn the TV on, when you turn the radio on, when you open the newspaper, when you look online, you’re still seeing 75 to 80 percent men.”

This overarching cultural bias means the sport has to take advantage of every opportunity for exposure. “I think when the Olympics come around it’s the greatest stage for women’s hockey,” explains Stone. “It’s the time, once every four years, that our sport gets tremendous attention, so we want to make sure we capitalize on that.”

Yet while coaches lament a broader inability to appreciate women’s sports, the players, more often than not, point to misconceptions about the roughness of hockey and its misidentification as a so-called masculine sport as specific reasons for the discrepancy in interest.

“Part of the disparity is we don’t hit,” Buesser says.

“But it’s a faster game. The men may have size and strength, but you lose the finesse we have.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by her teammates, who imply that checking spoils the purity of the game.“When you take hitting out,” Fry claims, “it becomes this flow game. You know you’re going to see a lot of great plays, great passes, a lot of speed.”

Despite this lack of checking, the women refuse to cede that it’s a lighter version of the game. “There’s no checking,” Bellamy says, “so people think that it’s not physical, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The perception of women’s hockey as somehow inherently less aggressive (and, the implication is, less interesting) than its male counterpart is a reality the female players try to combat on a regular basis. As Picard explains, “You know, people will say, ‘I’ve never seen a woman’s game before,’ but when they do they’re pleasantly surprised with how physical the game is, even though there’s no hitting. It’s still hockey.”

In a 2012 Crimson article, Picard also emphasized the intensity of women’s hockey. “What I want people to know is that the women’s side is just as worthy as the men’s side,” she said. “It’s the truth. It’s a different game, sure, but it’s a fun game to watch and be a part of.”

But yes, admittedly, there is no checking, an excision that fortunately yields its own reward: a greater focus on the purely athletic aspects of the game. “Because there’s no checking,” explains Bellamy, “it’s a lot more dependent on skill.” She corrects herself, quickly: “I’m not saying we’re better than the men, but without checking we depend more on skill.”

The contact in women’s hockey is not the aesthetically abrasive brand that pops up in men’s hockey. The elegance and complexity of motion are maintained without the graphic interruption of an actual fight, part of why technical virtuosity is of the utmost importance in the women’s game.

Fighting is arguably one of the most inclusive aspects of the men’s game, perhaps because so many viewers can actually envision themselves participating in a fight, rather than hitting a puck. When the players drop their gloves and start swinging at each other, it reduces the divide between athletes and fans, allowing for a more interactive experience.

The endless back-and-forth and the fluidity of the women’s game is immersive in its own way. The commitment the game requires of its viewers—the continuity of attention—might very well be seen as taxing to the lazy fan, but its rewards are all the more satisfying: The skill and effort are even more apparent by virtue of the flow. As Fry explains, “At the Harvard rink—it’s a small building—you’re right up there, you’re close.” She gets excited. “It’s fast, it’s quick, you’re a part of the action.”

One can, therefore, offer ample defenses of the quality of the women’s game, even if the seats remain empty year after year. “It’s unfortunate,” says Picard with a laugh, “that people don’t recognize us. It’s part of being a female athlete, but things are improving. The games are still fun to watch. It doesn’t matter if no one is in the stands, we’re just out there to play.”

Other players brush off the lack of attendees less easily. “For me, this is gonna sound bad,” says Fry, “I wish it was like that [full like the men’s games] for our games, and why shouldn’t it be? We can put the puck in the net too.”

FROM THE SHADOWS

Success in Sochi could contribute to solving the puzzle of popularity for women’s hockey. Players on Team USA, along with Coach Stone and her peers, overwhelmingly feel that the Olympics provide a soapbox for women’s sports, and specifically women’s hockey. Excel on this level, and eyes could turn to the Harvard program.

“It comes down to us playing well,” Pucci says. “I mean, if we’re not playing well, what’s there to watch?”

Playing well certainly worked in 1998, when the United States women took home the top prize from Nagano, and girls’ hockey exploded all over the nation as it never had before.

From 1990-91, when USA Hockey officially created a program for women, and 2009-10, the number of females registered ballooned by 800 percent. Many credit the ’98 U.S. Olympic team, whose success came about in the middle of this timespan, with encouraging such growth. Nearly 70,000 girls and women nationwide participate in official USA Hockey programs; 30 years ago this statistic would have been unimaginable.

As the number of players has skyrocketed, so too has their devotion to the sport.

“The elevation of the commitment from women’s athletes has been really interesting for me personally to watch,” Donato says. “To see even going back to some of my days playing, now watching the women train for the Olympic games and watching our women’s athletes, in particular the women’s hockey team but all the way across the women’s athletics at Harvard, their commitment level is very much in line with the commitment level of their male athletes. And, quite frankly, I’m not so sure that that was the case 20 years ago; but that’s the case now.”

While more women than ever are playing hockey, the crowds watching them remain thin.  However, the Olympics offers a much desired opportunity for more public exposure.

Likely used to that adjustment and the added attention from the public and press is Chu, who has four world championship gold medals, two Olympic silver medals, and one Olympic bronze. Chu has served as captain of both the Harvard and the national teams and was the first Asian American woman to play for the national team. She also attracted national media attention for appearing nude in ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue in October 2011. Beyond setting multiple NCAA records including most points scored, Chu sets herself apart as a leader on the team.

“I first met her when I went to Harvard for my official visit…She made this fantastic batch of puppy chow, which was probably why I chose Harvard,” Buesser says with a laugh. “It’s just amazing to have known her at Harvard, and then to see her still playing, to say, ‘Wow.’ She’s an inspiration to the youth movement. Women’s hockey is growing at a phenomenal pace; she’s a poster child for that. It’s great to learn from her.”

For Chu and the four other current and former Harvard players currently bearing USA across their chests, the Olympics offer a chance to draw the spotlight back to Cambridge and Bright Hockey Arena.

But for people to start paying attention, Team USA needs to win.

Beyond simply attracting a bigger crowd to Bright, the players realize the immense impact they could have on a generation of young girls who are keeping their eyes peeled for NBC’s Olympic coverage. Team USA members hope that the media attention that a gold medal would attract can help them dispel certain stereotypes about female athletes, who some characterize as lacking femininity.

“It’s part of playing on this national team—its part of our job—to go out and show young girls who like any sport that it’s ok to like playing sports,” Picard says. “It’s our job to give these girls someone to look up to, to reverse the idea that hockey and sports in general are more masculine, and to say keep on playing and don’t let it affect you. “

The team faces stark challenges in getting more girls enthusiastic about playing hockey, and more people interested in watching them. In the nine years since Donato has been head coach of the men’s hockey team, his team has had a winning season four times, while Stone’s team has had a winning season every year. And yet student tickets to the men’s Beanpot Tournament are peddled at $16 apiece, while entrance to the women’s equivalent is entirely free, indicative of the relative levels of interest. Perhaps an Olympic medal would turn those tables; but even if not, it would certainly change the status quo.

“I think part of what [Stone] wants to do is make sure they’re not in the shadow of the men’s ice hockey team and that they’re their own entity because it’s a phenomenal level of hockey,” Delaney-Smith says. “I wish we lived in a world that could appreciate it the same.”

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