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By BOB YORK
The New England Prep School Girls Ice Hockey Association playoffs will take on a new look this season – start to finish.
The revisions will begin when the selection committee gathers at its roundtable on Sunday to hand out more invites to more tournaments than it ever has before. This season, the entry field is expanding and teams will now be seeded into three tournaments, not two.
This year, the top eight teams will enter an Elite Division, to be called the Chuck Vernon Tournament. The Large School Tournament, meanwhile, has been renamed the Patsy Odden Tournament, while the Small School Tournament is now the Dolly Howard Tournament and they will host six teams each, based on school enrollment.
The three tournament winners will then receive their respective trophies the following Sunday after the finals at the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center – from the people those trophies are named after.
What this means is that the Elite champion will receive the Chuck Vernon Trophy from Vernon, a long-time Loomis-Chaffee mentor, while Odden, a former coach at the Taft School, will hand out her newly minted trophy to the Large School winner. The Small School victor, meanwhile, will earn a trophy honoring Howard, a former coach at St. George’s School. Howard, however, is currently living in Florida and will not be on hand for the ceremonies.
“Over the past two to three years there has been a group of girls hockey coaches who wanted to see the tournament expanded to include more teams,” explained Christa Talbot-Syfu, the co-president of the NEPSGIHA and head coach at Williston-Northampton School. “In an effort to do this, a proposal was put together to move to one division and create three tournaments … similar to the boys tournament, which took on this format back in the 2008-2009 season. Ultimately, we voted on it last spring and implemented it this year.
“The naming of the tournaments came from talking with Robin Chandler of Hotchkiss, Chuck Vernon of Loomis and Caroline Heatley of Lawrence,” added Talbot-Syfu. “All of them have been involved in the game for a long time and gave us a good sense of the history of girls prep hockey and the key players involved in getting the sport off the ground.”
“They say I coached a total of 135 teams during my career at Loomis,” quipped Vernon, and considering the recently-retired veteran coached all three seasons, mentoring both boys and girls sports at all levels from varsity to JV to thirds as a head coach as well as an assistant coach for 52 years, “they’re probably right.”
Vernon’s half-century of coaching at Loomis included any sport that needed a scoreboard. In the fall, there was varsity and JV football, varsity and JV boys’ soccer, as well as varsity and JV girls’ soccer. The winter featured varsity and JV girls’ hockey, plus varsity and JV boys’ hockey, while the spring highlighted lacrosse: boys varsity and JV, as well as girls varsity and JV.
The important thing, however, was that like his counterparts … Odden and Howard … Vernon was around when the sport of prep school girls hockey needed him most – during its fledgling days in the early 80’s. Today, there are 54 New England prep schools fielding girls hockey teams, but when Vernon and Odden were on hand there were just six, the Original Six: Loomis-Chaffee, Taft, Choate, Pomfret, Northfield Mount Hermon and Williston.
“It’s hard to believe now, but that’s all there were back in those days … just six teams,” said Vernon, who began coaching boys hockey at Loomis in 1967, then took over the girls program in 1981 and remained there – in one coaching capacity or another – for 38 years until his retirement in 2018. “Back then, not even the prep schools down around the Boston area had begun competing yet.”
One key factor, according to Vernon, that helped put girls hockey on the map throughout western New England prep schools was that during the early 80’s, girls in the Hartford, Conn., area were able to play up to Bantam-level youth hockey (ages 17-18) on boys teams and therefore, many of the more talented girls had been skating on boys teams for their entire careers and were thus more than ready, willing and able to take their talents to their nearest girls prep school hockey team.
Despite a lack of competition, the Original Six made the most of the rivalries they developed among themselves via home-and-home series, which gave them 10 games each. Plus, they managed to attract a few independent games throughout the season – from the collegiate ranks.
“I remember we picked up some strong opponents from the Ivies … teams like Princeton and Cornell, who we beat that first year we played them, as well as Dartmouth, who we tied,” said Vernon. “It was a very competitive schedule and it went a long way in attracting talent from all over.
“Heck,” added Vernon, “back in those days, there wasn’t really even much going on in girls hockey up in Canada, so you’d often find a number of Canadian girls on our rosters, too.”
Back in those days, Patsy Odden, who was both Vernon’s good friend and chief adversary, was coaching what Vernon described as “the best girls hockey team on the planet … I don’t know of a better girls hockey program anywhere back then … not even on the collegiate level.”
“Chuck and I go back a long way … he’s a good friend, a great coach and a tremendous advocate of girls hockey,” said Odden, who began the girls hockey program at Taft in 1973, making it one of the oldest girls hockey programs in the country.
“I had never coached hockey prior to that,” admitted Odden. “In fact, the closest I ever came to playing hockey was when I played with my brothers on neighborhood ponds. As I got older, I took up figure skating, but I never really thought much about hockey until my husband (Lance), who was the headmaster at Taft, decided we should have a girls hockey program.”
Like Vernon, Odden was able to lure some of the premier girls hockey players from throughout the country to Taft during the early 80’s and her first blue-chipper proved to be Katey Stone (’84). Stone, who is in her 25th year as coach of women’s hockey at Harvard University is the game’s winningest coach as she closes in on the 500-win plateau (492), showed what she could do as a player as she helped lead Taft to a 17-0-1 record during the 1983-84 season.
Another notable recruit Odden landed in the early 90’s was A.J. Mleczko (93) who helped propel the program to an unprecedented three consecutive New England prep titles (’91-’93) before moving on to become an All-American at Harvard under Stone as well as a gold- and silver-medal winner for the U.S. in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympic Games, respectively.
In addition to Mleczko, Odden also landed two other future Olympians. One was Tammy Shewchuk (’96), a gifted skater and natural scorer who also went on to play at Harvard, where, by the time she graduated, was the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer in career goals (160), career assists (147) and career points (307) before earning a berth on the 2002 Canadian Olympic team where she earned a gold medal. Away from the ice, Shewchuk is married to Michael Dryden, son of Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden.
The other Olympian coming out of the Taft fold was Chanda Gunn, a goaltender who won a bronze medal with the US team at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games after playing collegiately at Wisconsin and Northeastern and registering a pair All-American honors on her resume.
Not to be outdone, Vernon landed his own golden girl during those formative years. Ironically, that recruit of yesteryear is now employed about an hour down the road at Taft, where she is its girls’ hockey coach. Her name is Gretchen Silverman, but during her days at Loomis-Chaffee, she was Gretchen Ulion.
The name Ulion should ring a bell, as she was yet another member of that 1998 U.S. gold-medal winning women’s hockey team. In fact, Ulion scored the first goal of that gold-medal game, marking the first goal ever scored in an Olympic women’s ice hockey gold-medal game – and she was later featured on a Wheaties box later that year.
Following her graduation from Loomis-Chaffee, Ulion attended Dartmouth College, where, 26 years after her graduation, she is still the Big Green’s all-time leading scorer with 312 points and leading goal getter with 189. She was also rewarded for her efforts by being named twice as Ivy League Player of the Year.
“I can tell you that both Patsy and Bruno were strong advocates for the girls game from the beginning,” said Silverman. “They fought for equitable treatment of their respective programs and continued to grow the game throughout their careers. Both created the model for other programs to follow, which fostered the growth of the Founders League and ultimately the NEPSAC league.
“Bruno would build his team around a few experienced hockey players, by finding some of the best non-hockey playing athletes in the incoming classes and then proceed to teach them how to play hockey,” added Silverman. “We would not have had enough players for a full roster without Bruno’s ability to teach the game and identify those athletes.
“Bruno was a mentor to so many of us both on and off the ice,” she continued. “He helped shape me into a supportive teammate, a contributing community member and a skilled hockey player. As I work with my own players and students today, I find myself reflecting on my years at Loomis and asking myself, how would Bruno have handled this.”
It won’t come as any surprise to those who follow sports at St. George’s School that its home for hockey is known as the Skip and Dolly Howard Ice Rink. Not after Skip was the school’s long-time athletic director and served as its boys hockey coach for 16 years, while his wife, Dolly, headed up the girls program for 29 years.
“Guess what we talked about around the supper table,” quipped Dolly. One thing that was probably mentioned was how she took over the girls program in 1973 and started it from scratch.
“Back then, the girls played on the boys thirds team,” remembers Howard, who also coached field hockey and lacrosse in a highly competitive Independent School League throughout her career. “Back then it was sort of a combination of coaching hockey and teaching how-to-skate classes. We had a few girls who knew something about hockey during those formative years but for the most part, we started from scratch.
“I’d say it took us about 10 years or so to become competitive in the ISL,” added Howard. “We never really got to the dominating point but we did get to the middle-of-the pack and once we got there, we pretty much stayed there. Starting from scratch was difficult, but I know I got a real sense of accomplishment from what our kids did and how they built up the program and I’m pretty sure they did, too.”
PHOTO CREDITS: Taft School, Loomis Chaffee School, St. George's School Archives
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