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Olympic Dreams Forged At Famed Assabet Valley Girl's Hockey Program

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A Sunday morning practice at Assabet Valley: The under-14 team is on the ice, while parents watch from behind. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A Sunday morning practice at Assabet Valley: The under-14 team is on the ice, while parents watch from behind. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

It's another Sunday morning practice at Valley Sports Arena in Concord.

Coach Dennis Laing runs drill after drill while bleary-eyed parents watch with coffee cups in hand.

The players, all girls 14 and younger, are accustomed to the repetition. They form two lines at center ice, wait for a whistle, then spring into action. They work on all the fundamental aspects of ice hockey: passing, shooting, defense.

When broadcasters talk about the countless hours athletes invest to make their Olympic dreams come true, they are talking about Sunday morning practices like this. And there’s a pretty good chance that at least one of the girls on the ice at the Valley Sports Arena will compete in the Winter Games one day.

That’s because they play for Assabet Valley, a pioneering girls hockey program with a long, rich tradition of winning national titles and producing some of the country’s best female hockey talent.

"We expected to win," says Kelly McManus Souza, recalling her days as an Assabet Valley player. "We expected to be on that next Olympic team and we certainly expected to play at the college level, and I think having that expectation is a large reason as to why so many of us got there."

In the 1990s, McManus Souza grew up playing for Assabet Valley alongside future Olympians. She went on to captain the Boston College women’s hockey team. Now, she's the director of player development for Assabet Valley.

When women's ice hockey made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games, the 20 players on the gold medal-winning U.S. team included five who developed their skills competing for Assabet Valley. Every U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team has featured at least one player from Assabet Valley.

At the PyeongChang Games, Kacey Bellamy is keeping the Assabet Valley streak alive. On Wednesday night, Bellamy and the U.S. team take on rival Canada in the preliminary round in a rematch of the 1998 gold medal game.

U.S. Olympic team defender Kacey Bellamy, seen here during a 2017 game, came from Assabet Valley. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
U.S. Olympic team defender Kacey Bellamy, seen here during a 2017 game, came from Assabet Valley. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

And Assabet Valley players past and present will be watching.

Since its founding in 1972, Assabet Valley has established itself as a power in girls ice hockey, winning 51 national championships at various levels and placing hundreds of players on Division I college teams, national teams and Olympic teams.

No girls hockey program has placed more players on Division I college teams than Assabet Valley. When asked for an exact number, McManus Souza says the program doesn’t keep a precise count. But she figures it easily tops 300.

An Earlier Advocate For The Women's Game

When you watch hockey with Assabet Valley founder Carl Gray, it’s hard to hold a conversation. He’s completely engrossed in the game that follows the early Sunday morning practice. The game features two girls teams with players who are 10 and under. Gray knows every player on the Assabet Valley team, her strengths and weaknesses, her hockey background, her family. And he gives a mix of play-by-play and color commentary as the game goes on.

Assabet Valley girls hockey program founder Carl Gray (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Assabet Valley girls hockey program founder Carl Gray (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

One moment he’s correctly predicting a rush up the ice. “Just going to watch for a second here,” says Gray. “Things are going to happen.” The next moment he’s expressing some frustration at the quality of the officiating.

The Assabet Valley team plays fast, moves the puck well, and keeps the opposing goalie busy with shot after shot. And Gray is impressed by what he sees. “This is good action out here,” he says. “For 10 years old, this is good!”

Gray has honed his hockey expertise over the nearly five decades he’s spent supporting the women’s game. Gray was advocating for equality in sports before Title IX was enacted in 1972.

“I've always said to people, 'If you have a son or daughter, wouldn't you want to have the same treatment for your daughter that you do for your son?' It really is a very fundamental question you need to ask yourself," he says.

Gray has two sons and two daughters. So, he asked himself that fundamental question. It was easy to answer, and the Assabet Valley girls hockey program was born. Now, at 79, he’s a respected, grandfatherly presence at the rink. After games, as players leave, they look to Gray for words of advice. Sometimes he offers praise. More often, he lets players know what skills they need to work on.

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Assabet Valley U-14s face off under a wall of national championship banners. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Assabet Valley U-14s face off under a wall of national championship banners. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

When asked what the secret of Assabet Valley’s success, he says, “The key is developing players that are humble, that just enjoy the sport for what it's worth.”

And Gray adds that part of being humble is learning to be part of a team. Gray was part of the engineering team that worked on the Apollo space program, helping devise a navigation system for astronauts.

That work helped him see limitless possibilities and influenced the way he thought about the sports opportunities available for girls.

“You've got to keep an open mind and you've got to understand the equation,” says Gray when talking about science and sports. “[Working on the space program] probably contributed to my thinking you really can do anything if you want to set your mind to it.”

Olympics 'Has Always Been My Goal'

Inside Locker Room 4 at the Valley Sport Arena, McManus Souza, who's also head coach of the program’s 10-and-under girls team, talks to her players about that morning’s win.

“We had some really nice passes,” she says. “That was something I thought we did well.” The girls nod in agreement and McManus Souza continues, “They’re a tough team and they played us hard. They didn’t give up the entire game so that’s how we want to be, all right?”

The girls nod again, then it's time to celebrate a recent player birthday. The girls dive into a couple cartons of cupcakes placed in the center of the locker room.

Assabet Valley player Kristina Allard (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Assabet Valley player Kristina Allard (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Kristina Allard, 14, remembers when she was like those girls, a young player drawn to Assabet Valley by its reputation, and nervous about making a good impression on the ice. Now Allard has her sights set on making the national team and more.

“I strive to be one of the greatest female hockey players that ever lived,” she says. “And I really am working hard to ... get to that point and, you know, get to a national team this year at the youngest age I can possibly get on the team. Being in the Olympics has always been my goal ever since I stepped foot into this rink.”

When asked if she’s looking toward the 2022 Winter Olympics, Allard doesn’t hesitate.

“Yes, yes,” she says. “I'm hoping to be there. I'm working my butt off right now to be there.”

Allard commutes from her hometown of Kingston, New Hampshire, to Concord so she can play for Assabet Valley. It’s about a one-hour drive to the rink. McManus Souza commutes from her home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She makes the trek three to four times a week so she can coach for Assabet Valley and so her daughters can play for the 10-and-under and 8-and-under teams. It’s an 80-minute drive one way.

“I know that when I played we had players from New Jersey on the team, from Connecticut, that traveled all that way just to play for Assabet,” McManus Souza says.

Assabet Valley U-14s huddle around the net before a game. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Assabet Valley U-14s huddle around the net before a game. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

By making girls hockey a priority long before other programs did, Assabet Valley long ago built a reputation that attracted the best players and a tradition that’s being passed to a second generation.

“To be able to have my kids now play for the program and to see the other [former] players that have come back because they want that experience for their kids says a lot about the experience that we had and the opportunities that we were able to create because we played for Assabet,” says McManus Souza. “I think that is the biggest compliment that we can give to the program.”

As the U.S. team takes on Canada for the first time at the PyeongChang Olympics, Assabet Valley players -- past and present — will be more than watching. They'll be wondering who will be the next Assabet Valley player to take the Olympic stage.

This segment aired on February 14, 2018.

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