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At age 19, Alex Carpenter has risen to the elite ranks of women’s hockey
Something happened on the ice in the Kelley Rink at Conte Forum last March that was so ordinary-yet-extraordinary it’s worth reeling back the tape and reliving the moment. It was a Saturday afternoon and the Boston College women’s hockey team, ranked fourth in the nation, was fighting fifth-ranked Harvard for a chance to go to the NCAA semifinals, the Frozen Four. Harvard struck first with a power-play goal late in the first period. The Eagles tied it up a minute later and took a 2–1 lead in the second. Now, with 4:56 left in the second period, Boston College’s Blake Bolden ’13 fires the puck from the right side, almost at mid-ice. It’s heading left of the goal—except halfway there it meets the stick of Boston College’s sophomore forward Alex Carpenter who, without seeming to move a muscle, re-routes it into the left corner of the net. The goaltender probably never saw it go by.
Did that just happen? Since it was Alex Carpenter’s stick that guided the puck into the net, you could say it was no big deal. It was her 32nd goal of the season—she led her team in goals and assists, with 70 points when all was said and done. Still, you have to marvel at the skill required to make a shot like that—precisely correcting the geometry of a tiny object traveling at a high speed, without looking at your target, which is more than 20 feet away. I was sitting in the stands at the time; I wished I could have seen it again, in slow-motion. But hockey in real time speeds frantically forward. Soon the Eagles were skating off with a 3–1 victory, earning the chance to face Minnesota in the Frozen Four. (Minnesota, winner of 47 straight games, would barely squeak by Boston College on March 22, with a 3–2 overtime victory; the Gophers went on to defeat Boston University for the NCAA championship.)
In the press conference after the victory over Harvard, head coach Katie King Crowley, goaltender Corinne Boyles ’13, MBA’16, and Blake Bolden took questions. Bolden was asked about Carpenter’s tip-in goal. Was she shooting or passing? She said she saw Carpenter open and wanted to get it to her. Said Crowley: “You know Carp is going to put some of those in, those beautiful goals—that’s what she does.”
At that point, all I knew about Alex Carpenter was that she was a phenom. She was the Hockey East conference’s Rookie of the Year in her first season and Player of the Year in her second. Soon she would be traveling to the Olympic Training Center at Lake Placid, New York, to try out for Team USA, which assembles the best hockey players in the nation to compete for the International Ice Hockey Federation world championship and train for the Olympics. If all went well, Carpenter would have a chance to play hockey in Sochi, Russia, in the Winter Olympics in early 2014.
How does a girl grow up to be a phenom in ice hockey? Reading up on Alex, you find the simple answer: She is the daughter of former NHL player Bobby Carpenter, who had 18 years as a pro, including with the Boston Bruins team that reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1990. She started skating when she was two and started playing hockey at six.
But that’s not the whole story. Women’s college hockey is suddenly full of dazzling players like Alex. Boston College’s freshman stand-out Haley Skarupa (who was, along with Carpenter, in the top 10 in the nation in points scored for much of the year) would also be going to Lake Placid for the Team USA tryouts. They would join former Eagles Kelli Stack ’11 and Molly Schaus ’11, both of the 2010 Olympic silver-medal team in Vancouver, along with stars like Minnesota’s Amanda Kessel, who led the NCAA with 101 points in the Gophers’ 2012–13 undefeated season. There would be 30 players competing for 25 positions under the gaze of Harvard’s coach Katey Stone, who the previous summer had been named to lead the national and Olympic teams.
For many of these athletes, I assumed, playing in the Olympics was their highest aspiration. Yet, with the development of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), more women now have the chance to continue to compete after college. The league, which started its seventh season on November 2, is no NHL—there are only five teams and 125 players, all of whom are unpaid. But it’s an option for those who aren’t ready to retire at age 22 or 23. Eight members of the CWHL’s Boston Blades, for example, would be at Lake Placid—including Stack and Schaus.
All of which leads to another question for an athlete like Alex Carpenter: How far can one go in women’s hockey?
It’s almost April in Lake Placid—almost mud season, as the locals say—but Mirror Lake is still frozen and you can see dogsleds making loops around the ice. A soft snow is falling intermittently. The Olympic rings are displayed everywhere in the village. As you walk through the gigantic Olympic skating complex in the heart of town, the old wing built for the 1932 Olympics, the new wing for 1980, you see young hockey players coming and going, lugging equipment bags almost as big as they are. There’s a Can-Am boys’ tourney going on. Monitors in the hallways show a video documentary of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” in which the U.S. men’s team prevailed over the U.S.S.R.
Team USA’s women’s trials are in a practice rink just a short way from the showcase arena where that famous game was played. This rink is like a large warehouse space, with a stand of aluminum bleachers at one end and another stand looking out over mid-rink, where cameras are set up and an assistant coach records the action. It’s 10:00 a.m., and the players are in blue-and-white Team USA jerseys, warming up with intricately choreographed skating drills, moving in circles and figure eights. Coach Stone, a former University of New Hampshire player, is skating along at the perimeter. The women move on to power-play drills, five-on-three and four-on-two.
The previous evening, they had scrimmaged against a team of local men. The men undoubtedly considered themselves to be decent hockey players—and they had the size advantage—but the Team USA women skated circles around them, and the scrimmage ended with the score at 17–0.
After the morning workout, I caught up with Alex and Haley at the Olympic Training Center where the athletes eat and board, a short drive from the village center. We sat down in a small meeting room near the lobby to talk about their week. They’d arrived here only days after their grueling battle in the Frozen Four in Minneapolis.
Carpenter and Skarupa were born in 1994—at which time, we noted, women’s hockey wasn’t yet an Olympic sport. It wasn’t yet even much of a varsity sport; Boston College contributed its first women’s ice hockey team to the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference in 1994–95. In the course of the young women’s 19 years, the sport has taken off, with women competing in ice hockey in the 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010 Olympics. As for Boston College, 20 of its team members have gone on to Team USA, including the two Vancouver Olympic medalists. Carpenter and Skarupa have been playing hockey most of their lives with the dream of making it to the Olympics.
This was not their first trip to the Olympic center in Lake Placid, they told me. USA Hockey, the governing body of the sport at the amateur level, has an active program for high school girls called the “U18” program (for players under 18). Carpenter and Skarupa were here a couple of years ago for a U18 tournament against Canada. That’s where they met Coach Crowley, who was coaching in the program then. They remember being the youngest members of the team.
“You kind of bonded over that?” I asked.
They looked at each other and started laughing.
“That’s where it all started,” Haley said, with mock gravity.
“Way back then,” Alex added.
Their momentary amusement at having their life and times chronicled at age 19 was the only glimpse I got of their lighter side. For the most part, they seemed serious, down-to-business, with that air many athletes have in interviews of “why are we talking about this?” when they’d rather be playing their sport, or working out, or resting.
I asked what it was like skating with former Olympians and women playing for pro teams. “We’re all kind of learning from each other,” Alex said. “There’s never a point where you stop learning from each other.” I asked whether she gets advice from her father. “Yeah, definitely,” she said. “I call him every night here and just talk to him, just recap. He’s obviously been through a lot of this stuff, so he can help bring me back down to earth if something is going wrong, or can give me a little boost.”
In the scrimmage that Friday evening, Team USA squared off against a team made up of 16-to-18-year-old boys from high school teams in the area. Younger, quicker, and scrappier than the team last night, the boys succeeded in breaking up the women’s plays a little better, but they couldn’t sustain any offensive control or get many shots on goal. The women consistently took the puck back and started passing it around. By the end of the second period it was 6–0. Both Haley and Alex were skating and shooting like dervishes and the game ended shortly after a Carpenter goal made it 9–1. Haley had one goal and two assists; Alex had a goal and three assists. Between periods a group of reporters gathered around the boys’ goaltender and asked what it was like for him to face the USA team. “It’s ridiculous,” he said, explaining that the action seemed way faster than what he is used to.
The gaggle of reporters moved on to talk to Reagan Carey, the director of the women’s division at USA Hockey. Carey spoke about the way the U18 program has changed the face of college hockey just in the last 10 years. The speed of the game has intensified and the women’s skills are developing rapidly. “The common acknowledgment is that they’re just so much better, and the game continues to grow,” she said.
Katey Stone told us the announcement would come midday Saturday about who made the cut. She would rely mostly on what she was seeing from the coaching box, with some review of video. “We don’t make any hasty decisions, and we are looking long-term,” she said.
When the national team roster was announced on Saturday, it included Alex Carpenter but not Haley Skarupa. That means Haley will play her sophomore year with the Eagles—but Carpenter will be taking her junior year off from college, focusing all her efforts on workouts this fall with the national team and then, assuming she makes the final cut in December, preparing for the Olympics, which take place in February.
In August, I sat down with Alex Carpenter at a coffee shop in Woburn, Massachusetts, near the gym where she was working out during the summer. She was still four weeks away from the beginning of intensive drills at a rink in nearby Bedford, and was trying to stay off the ice for a while and focus on conditioning in the gym. I wanted to know more about her upbringing and her ambitions.
It turns out she had a double advantage: Not only was her father a hockey player, her mother had been an accomplished figure skater before raising three children. Both parents “grew up on skates, so I did, too,” she said. The family moved several times in Alex’s childhood, as her father pursued his NHL career. Alex went to Montessori schools and started playing hockey on club teams in New Jersey—often surrounded mostly by boys.
I asked her when she began to feel she had a gift for hockey. She recalled playing in a tournament in Philadelphia at age nine or 10. “Our team would get killed every game, like 15–nothing. One of the games we lost like 18 to 3, but I had the three goals. I think that, for me, was when I realized I could do something with hockey.”
I wondered if she could generalize about what kind of girls take up ice hockey. “I think we all have something in common,” she said. “I think it’s something you’re born with, actually. I think it’s something inside you that really draws you to the sport.”
Does it bug you that men have the option of making a career in hockey—sometimes for big bucks—and women still don’t?
“Not really. That [NHL] game’s been developed so many years and women’s hockey is so new. It’ll eventually get to that point, I believe.”
I had read a quote in a newspaper profile in which her father said it was “kind of sad” to see women “keep hanging on” to hockey after college.
“I agree with him,” she said. “I’m not going to play until I’m 30-something years old. Hockey has given me great benefits in life. And I’m grateful for that. But there are other people who need an opportunity to play in my position. I don’t want to hold it all to myself. You get four years of college and a new group comes in. Hopefully this year works out and maybe one or two more and then that’s it. I’m going to move on from hockey.”
As to what, she said it was too soon to know. She’s majoring in psychology, yet, she mused, playing in the pro league after college isn’t out of the question. If she were to want to play in the 2018 Olympics (she’d still be only 24) she’d have a couple of post-college years to stay sharp. “It all depends on what happens; you’ve got to take it day by day.”
As enthusiastic as Alex is about hockey, she shows little enthusiasm for talking about herself. It’s clear enough that she’s naturally reticent, but after talking with a few of those who know her well I realized there was something else: She doesn’t like the “star treatment.”
Babe Ceglarski, her coach at The Governor’s Academy, in Byfield, Massachusetts, where Alex played on the high school girls hockey team, said Alex is “very humble in her accomplishments.” (Ceglarski is the son of Boston College’s legendary coach Len Ceglarski ’51, who guided the men’s team from 1972 to 1992.) “For some kids, it’s all about them. For her, it’s all about the team,” he said. “She doesn’t seek the limelight—it seeks her.”
Her mother, Julie, said Alex is “a very private person” who has always liked being at home, hanging around with her brothers. Asked about Alex’s other interests, she said, “She loves to go fishing, if you can believe that.” Yet there’s no denying her drive and ambition. Her mother remembers being shown a paper Alex wrote at age 10 on the assigned topic “My Secret Ambition.” Alex detailed what it would be like to play hockey in the Olympics with some of the best women players in the world.
Both parents say they have no idea what career Alex will end up pursuing, although her mother said she could see her becoming a hockey coach. Citing her determination and passion, her father said, “Whatever Alex Carpenter tries to do outside of hockey, she’ll succeed—I have no doubt.”
Just before the start of the school year, months before the final selection of the Olympic team would take place in December, I met with Boston College coach Katie King Crowley (a three-time Olympian with gold, silver, and bronze medals) in her office down a short hall on the second level of Alumni Stadium. The football team was running through drills on the field below; ice hockey practices wouldn’t begin for another three weeks. I had asked the coach to review video with me, hoping I could see Alex’s game at a slower speed, with stop-action.
Crowley was wearing a maroon jersey and olive-colored capris. When I first saw her last March it was at a press conference after her team had lost 4–1 against Northeastern University. She made a terse statement about how it looked like “the other team” showed up wanting to win, “and I don’t think my team did.”
She seemed severe then, but today she is warm and engaging—almost sunny. She smiles often as we talk about Alex. “Alex is so intense,” she said. “She’s an intense player. Serious, but not serious. Once you get to know her she’s a little more loosey-goosey.”
Crowley said some players feel they learn from watching video of practices and games, while others feel it makes them overthink. Alex would come up to her office just about every week to review video, she said.
Then she connected her laptop to a large flat-screen TV on her wall. She called up the March 16 game against Harvard I had watched from the stands. What is it that makes Alex’s game special? I asked. Is it just that she’s more aggressive? “She’s aggressive,” Crowley said. “The thing that Alex has, I think, is almost innate. She sees things that other people don’t see. And that’s going to be hard to show you.”
As we watched players skating back and forth, keeping an eye on how Carpenter, wearing number 5, moved with and without the puck, Crowley kept up a quiet almost meditative commentary. “A lot of people think Alex isn’t fast. You see Haley skate and you think ‘Oh, that kid can fly.’ And then you see Alex skate and people think she’s not as ‘flowy’ as Haley. But the way she reads the play and the way she reacts to the play is different than most players. She reads things before they’re going to happen. Which is so unique. See how that kid is pushing her and she’s not falling over, a lot of kids would fall over.”
“There she is protecting the puck. She’s almost faster with the puck than she is without. And see that extra effort? That’s what you’re always going to get from Alex. Here she is, coming around, she makes a move to come through that kid, which is actually unbelievable, she gets a little bit tripped, tries to put it in the middle, she goes into the wall headfirst. She’s the first one up. Skating, hustling back to get that puck. That’s Alex. She’s so strong-willed. And has that intensity and drive to be good.”
And then we come to That Play: the tip-in goal with 4:56 left in the second period.
As coaches say, it’s usually the little things that make the big play. And as we watched the action unfold, it became apparent that Carpenter made that goal happen in several different ways. I wondered at the time if it was just a lucky tip-in. Now I could see the whole play, and could see how her hockey instincts kicked in. Alex was battling for the puck near center ice with a Harvard defender. It squirted out and Alex was soon contesting near the left of the net. She’s shoulder to shoulder with Harvard’s Sarah Edney. Suddenly Carpenter bursts toward the wall and regains the puck. “She goes and gets the puck, beats them to it,” Crowley narrates. “When you look at it, that kid should have beat her to it. But Alex reacted quicker. She goes and gets it, finds her defenseman again, actually makes a nice play to not give it to that defenseman coming down the wall. Alex reads that and sees Blake [Bolden], one of the best shots in college hockey, wide open. Blake makes a ridiculous play, right back to Alex and she tips it in. That’s just a phenomenal hockey play right there.”
It made me think of John McPhee’s famous profile of Bill Bradley when he was a basketball star for Princeton. When you play the game long enough, Bradley said, “You develop a sense of where you are.” Carpenter has that on the rink. She found Blake wide open and got her the puck, sure. But then in an instant she got herself into an open spot in front of the net, too. She knew just where to be.
We watched it again. Referring to the Harvard players, Crowley said, “And you know they were told, don’t let number 5 stand in front of the net by herself,” she said. She let a little exclamation out as Alex tipped it in: “Ha!”
Update: On January 1, 2014, Alex Carpenter ’15 was named to the U.S. Olympic women’s ice hockey team, as were Molly Schaus ’11 and Kelli Stack ’11. Brooks Orpik ’02, a defenseman with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was named to the men’s ice hockey team.
Read more by Dave Denison