By Patrick Donnelly
The Boston University women’s ice hockey team returned to the ice at Walter Brown Arena this week as group skates and practices began for programs across the country. With that comes the optimism of a fresh sheet of ice, a promising group of freshman, and new opportunities for the season ahead. After a season that saw the team skate to a record of 24-8-2 overall and 18-6-3 in Hockey East before being upset by Maine in the Hockey East quarterfinals, head coach Brian Durocher is looking to an injection of young blueliners to become big contributors.
“The big challenge for this class will be getting up to speed defensively. First, because there are four defenders, and secondly, because it’s an important part of the game,” Durocher said. “To me, it’s probably the hardest position in the game.
“When the pace of the game picks up in college hockey, you’ve got to answer the bell with your panic point, your skating ability, your agility, your strength etc. To have four of them in a group of about seven or six defenders will put some pressure on them right away.”
The Terriers saw five defenders graduate – do-it-all star Abby Cook as well as stalwarts Breanna Scarpaci, Abbey Stanley, Ali Calderone, and Katie Shannahan – leaving just three who are slated to return to this season. With this much inexperience, the Terriers understand that there will inevitably be growing pains along the way.
“Hopefully they’re ready in the beginning. I know our staff and I will be certainly plenty patient and do our best to teach,” the Terrier bench boss, entering his 16th season as coach, said. “For them to get comfortable, to relax, and just remember it’s the same game they’ve been playing for 15 years will be important.”
Overall, with three skilled forwards (Clare O’Leary, Lacey Martin, and Catherine Foulem) and four touted defenders (Andi Calderone, Madison Cardaci, Julia Shaughnessy, and Tamara Giaquinto), Durocher is confident in this year’s crop.
“We’ve got a real interesting group,” he said. “I’m not sure if there’s just one person I can earmark and say they’re an off the charts player. I think all seven will be contributors.”
Looking at the rest of the roster. BU is returning with elite goaltending with two-time Hockey East All-Star and senior Corinne Schroeder as well as junior Kate Stuart. Up front, co-captain’s Jesse Compher and Nara Elia, assistant captains Kristina Schuler and Kaleigh Donnelly, as well as a talented crop of juniors, will look to maintain the Terriers’ scoring punch.
“I think what’s going to happen on defense is the biggest thing that we’ll have to work on and get up to speed with,” Durocher said. “We’ve got excellent goaltending. Schroeder is an all-star, Stuart has played like an all-star if you look at save percentages, and Nicole McGuigan is a great teammate, who pushes everybody and is a great locker room presence.
“Up front, you’ve got an unquestioned leader in Compher. You’ve got experience with Elia, Schuler, and Rachel Allen, as well as the juniors. There’s enough experience and ability there along with talent In goal. So we’ve got to get the other area up to speed.”
Some other notes from Durocher…
Almost everyone accounted for around Wally B
Durocher was able to disclose that for the most part, mostly all of the Terriers have been able to return to campus and begin participating in team activities amid the restrictions due to the pandemic.
“We still have Elia yet to get back here on campus. Mackenna Parker is back on campus but going through her quarantine time. Nothing too crazy,” Durocher said.
One potential snag that Durocher did note is the status of sophomore defender Nadia Mattivi, who would have to travel from her home in Italy.
“The only person that physically is not here is Nadia Mattivi. What I understand is that she may not be back with us this year. We got everyone else either here or soon to be on campus. So we’re looking forward to getting everybody up to speed and being able to hopefully practice as a bigger group somewhere in early October.”
This year’s leadership group has a strong foundation
After graduating cornerstones like Sammy Davis and Natasza Tarnowski, the Terriers will be turning around with an entirely different leadership core, headlined by co-captains Compher and Elia with Schuler and Donnelly serving as assistants. Durocher knows a four-person leadership group may be somewhat unusual, but he sees strong qualities in this year’s letter-wearers.
“I think a group of four individuals is a little bit bigger than we’ve had in the past,” Durocher said. “They’ll all bring real good qualities to being leaders. They’re following a couple of really experienced captains with Davis being part of the captaincy for three years and Tarnowski for two, so they were able sit back, observe, and absorb the great qualities and experience that those two had.
“When it’s your turn, you’ve got to make the good decisions, say the right thing in the locker room, and generate the right look. That’s usually being as hard of a worker as anybody, looking after the young kids as much as your classmates, and all that. I truly believe that these four will do a good job in that area.”
The juniors will be relied on heavily
The forward group features four juniors, who all hold key roles, while on defense junior Alex Allan finds herself as the leader of the backend. As far as Durocher is concerned, the Class of 2022 is expected to shoulder a lot more responsibility this year.
“I hope that someone who may take a bigger step might be Emma Wuthrich. I think that your junior class with Emma, Donnelly, Parker, and Courtney Correia has had success in the past, but I think they can still take it up another notch in their game,” the former Men’s Ice Hockey assistant coach said.
“One of their classmates on the backend, Allan, is going to have to do that because she’s one of the experiences leaders in our core. So those are the names that come to mind first, hopefully they’ll be ready to play their best hockey.”
Change on the power play
After losing an all-star power play quarterback in Cook and the team’s top offensive weapon in Davis, the Terriers will have a new look to their power play this season. Durocher acknowledges that returning players and new faces will have to emerge to help the team maintain its success on the advantage.
“There’s going to be a changing of the guard on our power play,” he noted. “That’s been one of the best in the league for the last two years, but with Davis and Cook gone, other people are going to have to step up and assert themselves to keep that going.”
Expect a clean bill of health once play rolls around
One Terrier did undergo surgery during the offseason, but Durocher does not expect that to hamper their play once the season begins.
“We had a surgery with one of the kids, and that’s the only big one to worry about,” he said. “It should be fine by the time we start playing hockey if my ‘guesstimate’ is right. They were hoping they wouldn’t have to do it, but it probably made sense to do it.”
Still opportunity for a reward in what is sure to be a modified schedule
With Hockey East announcing plans to have a season centered around league play, and the Hockey Commissioners Association releasing a statement delaying the season, the 2020-21 campaign, whenever that happens, is sure to be different than previous runs. There is speculation out there among folks like Jimmy Connelly of USCHO.com and Mike McMahon of College Hockey News that games could begin sometime in November, perhaps by Thanksgiving.
Durocher still sees an opportunity to have a meaningful season not only for his team, but for all parties involved.
“I really believe that we don’t have to play the full 34 games and full playoffs to have a rewarding year,” Durocher mentioned. “We can have a lesser number than that. If you have 20 games and a league playoff to crown a champion, that could be a rewarding experience for the kids.”
The delayed start to the season only means more time to practice, prepare and perfect all facets of the team’s game.
“There’s never a bad time to keep working on your skills, and I think that’s kind of what you’re doing here, working on things and getting ready to go,” Durocher went on. “When and if things take place, the players will be very excited to be back on the ice and playing games.”
It was certainly a different offseason
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, typical offseason training, preparation and planning for teams, leagues, players and more was upended in most cases. Whether it was access to team or local facilities, being on campus for summer classes, and so on, things definitely proved unusual.
“The biggest difference is that there’s [usually] an on-campus presence,” Durocher said. “Usually the returning kids are here for the first summer term, maybe taking a class and working out together for another six weeks. It’s also good timing to enjoy a little bit of Boston, because they’re school years are pretty jammed up with hockey going from the beginning of the year all the way into March.
“For a while no gymnasiums were open, and people were kind of ‘piecemealing’ things together. I think they were doing a lot more outdoor running and cardio work instead of a combination of cardio and lifting. Some are luckier than others because they have a basement or garage with some facilities. Without a doubt you needed some good discipline and some people who were working hard. I certainly think we have a creative enough, a smart enough group to be able to do that.”
Durocher’s ability to connect via Zoom and keep in touch with his players helped keep some sort of regimen up.
“Just about every week we also had some type of Zoom call, and a couple times it was based on nutrition and strength training. Our strength and conditioning coach threw out programs that he thought would be good options.”
Kids were not here on campus for the second summer term, which is usually when we get the incoming freshman, but this year we did not have any of the returners or the incoming freshmen.”
The pandemic provided lots of spare time
With plenty of time to kill during the dog days of the pandemic, Durocher saw ample opportunity to take advantage of, catching up with the team on Zoom, getting some reading done, honing his golf skills, exercising on his bike, and relaxing on Cape Cod, all the while being mindful of safety precautions.
As for his golf game?
“I’d call it middle of the road,” he said. “Not threatening to win any tournaments or break any course records.”
A Stanley Cup prediction
The Dallas Stars took down the Vegas Golden Knights in five games on Monday night to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, thanks to Denis Gurianov’s overtime-winner. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on the brink of eliminating the New York Islanders. Durocher hopes to see an old friend hoist the Cup shortly.
“First thing that comes to mind is my former teammate and a former coach here at BU, Buddy Powers, is a scout with Dallas, so they may get my sentimental vote,” he said. “Tampa obviously looks like they have a wagon there, and Dallas seems to matchup size-wise and strength-wise.
“Sometimes in this game if you get a couple timely goals and the goalie steals a game here and there, you can get it done. No question [Anton Khudobin] is going to have to steal a game or two because Tampa puts a lot of pressure on.”