Belmont Hill’s Claflin Athletic Center was filled to the brim. The crowd ran several deep around the boards as the United States Women’s National Team skated against the Rivers School’s boys’ varsity team.
It was a month to the date before the Stars and Stripes would skate against nemesis Canada for Olympic gold again in Sochi, but Katey Stone’s team was there to get better. They claimed a 3-0 victory, leaving their opponents amazed at their combination of speed and precision passing.
“There were more people than usual, but we took it like any other game – or at least tried to,” Rivers defenseman Miles Gendron said. “Once you looked past the ‘U.S.A.’ on their jerseys, we went out there and wanted to win.
“But they’re just good – really good.”
The game was part of a five-game tour of New England prep schools Stone and her staff put together in preparation for the Sochi games. On the whole, the games were back-and-forth, with Salisbury School (Conn.) and Dexter claiming victories over the soon-to-be Olympians. In return, Team U.S.A. claimed victories over Taft School (Stone’s alma mater) and St. Sebastian’s, in addition to the Rivers game.
USA Hockey had attempted the same kind of scrimmages before the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, seeking out high school teams in Minnesota to no avail, as the teams had already scheduled to capacity, with a state mandate of no more than a 25-game schedule. Then Team USA head coach Mark Johnson told The New York Times in 2010 that the top-tier boys’ high school teams were the closest approximation available to replicating the team speed of the Canadian National Team – the current three-time reigning Olympic gold medalists.
But there’s another advantage the Canadians held before the Vancouver games, that is its pre-Olympics schedule. It has been a longstanding custom that Hockey Canada installed a schedule featuring boys’ midget team to go toe-to-toe as a means of preparation.
In the past, USA Hockey had played the nation’s top women’s collegiate teams – with predictably one-sided results.
With the Women’s National Team training in and around Boston this year, assistant coach Bobby Jay, a Burlington native and former Harvard hockey assistant, set about finding open dates with the area’s top boys' prep school programs.
The result was a challenge for USA Hockey. Salisbury is the reigning NEPSAC Elite 8 tournament champion, while Dexter has been among New England’s top scoring sides this year. Rivers recently wrapped up the ISL’s Eberhart Division championship for this season.
“We have a pretty fast team, so I think it was good for them to skate against a competitive, fast team,” Dexter head coach Dan Donato said. “We do some things that they were excited to play against, like being able to stretch play on the breakout.”
While bringing the women’s team’s tune-ups to New England, many of the members returned to their roots. Team USA features five Massachusetts natives in captain Meghan Duggan (Danvers), Kacey Bellamy (Westfield), Alex Carpenter (North Reading), Michelle Picard (Taunton) and Molly Schaus (Natick). In addition, five team members played collegiately in Boston, representing Boston College, Harvard and Northeastern.
It’s a reflection of the thriving hockey community in the Commonwealth.
“There are a ton of kids playing [in the state],” Rivers head coach and former Olympian Shawn McEachern said. “Playing them and seeing Bobby Carpenter’s daughter [Alex] out there on the wing – I remember watching Bobby play and got to play against him in the NHL – you see players of that talent and there’s been plenty of them that have come through the state.”
For McEachern, a product of Matignon High School and Boston University, the experience conjured memories of his childhood, far before his own Olympic experience in 1992, when Team USA’s college-derived roster placed fourth.
“Growing up, as a kid, I came from the 1980 Olympic era and saw Mike Eruzione score that goal,” said McEachern, who played with Donato’s brother, Ted, in Albertville, France. “You always wanted to have that opportunity to play for the US – not just at the Olympics, but at any event, playing for your country’s a special feeling.”
And, for the game’s next generation, it was just one taste of what might soon be theirs.
“It’s a big honor to play against them,” said Gendron, who is ranked 85th among North American skaters in the NHL’s 2014 Draft midterm report. “Seeing the USA jersey, that’s just a cool experience.”