Eric Gray had somewhere else to be. During one of the most thrilling games in his time behind a hockey bench, the Assabet Valley Girls 14 & Under coach knew his schedule was getting tight.
There he was at the end of regulation, tied, 1-1, in a USA Hockey National Championship title game, with overtime looming against a familiar rival that had blown Assabet out prior to Nationals, and Gray was pressed by the hands of time.
Gray had to leave the bench to make his next appointment: Another championship game. The other team Gray coaches, Assabet’s 12 & Under squad, was all dressed up and ready to play for its own title on an adjacent rink.
As Gray made his way out, he heard cheers from the rink he’d just left. Assabet’s Caitrin Lonergan had rushed up the ice and managed to beat Kaitlin Burt, one of the best goalies in the field, to cap a 2-1 overtime win.
Gray turned back, quickly shook hands with the runner-up East Coast Wizards and apologized for having to run to the other rink.
Such is life at Assabet Valley. So many title games, so little time.
And Gray’s 12Us and 14Us were only the half of it in 2012 event that was held in Marlborough, Mass.
By the time the 12Us topped Honeybaked, 3-2, in the tournament finale, Assabet’s 16Us and 19Us had also won Nationals titles.
A clean sweep. Four for four.
Scan the list of teams at USA Hockey’s annual spring showcase of the best of the best, and you will notice the recurring theme that is the Assabet Valley girls’ program.
Founded more than 40 years ago in Concord, Mass., it is the brainchild of Carl Gray, Eric’s father, who didn’t like the fact that his daughters had fewer opportunities than his sons when it came to sports. Tournament titles soon followed.
“The success was teaching them to be motivated to play as a team,” says the elder Gray, who was the recipient of the 2004 Wm. Thayer Tutt Award for his lifetime of service to grass-roots hockey.
He was talking about those early years, some of which included the late Patty Kazmaier, but the principle is as timeless as it is golden.
“Any time you have an ‘I’ in the middle of a team, that’s the quickest way to destroy a team,” Carl Gray says. “If you convince them to play together as a team, that’s probably one of the most important parameters in why we’ve been so successful.”
Successful is an understatement.
At the 12 & Under level alone, Assabet has won 11 titles since 1988 and appeared in 13 of the past 15 championship games. Since 2004, the 14Us have won five titles and added two runner-up finishes. The 16Us have also won five championships in that span. And the 19Us have six championship game appearances since 2003, coming away with three titles.
“Honestly, I think that every year we put together a team, we have a pretty good shot at making it to Nationals,” says Dennis Laing, who coached the 2012 title-winning 16Us and 19Us and has been with the program since his eldest daughter, Denna, now a sophomore at Princeton, was a 10-year-old.
Of course, the wins don’t come without talented players, and Assabet is uniquely positioned to draw from a deep pool of very talented and ambitious young women.
After playing at some of New England’s top prep schools, a good number will go on to Division I programs, some to advancing to U.S. National Teams. In fact, among the 19Us this past season, Sydney Daniels, Brianna Laing, Briana Mastel and Natasha Rachlin – each Harvard-bound in 2013 – played for the U.S. National Under-18 Team.
“I definitely owe a lot to Assabet Valley,” says Daniels, who makes a 90-minute commute from Western Massachusetts to Concord for the program’s only weekly practice. “Every Sunday, you learn something new, you’re always skating, you’re always thinking. It’s a great place to be to develop your skills.”
Daniels led Assabet in scoring with four goals and two assists during its U19 title run, which included a thrilling, 2-1, overtime win over Shattuck St. Mary’s in a Saturday semifinal.
“I think Shattuck brings out the best in our kids,” Laing says of the Fairbault, Minn., prep school that owns five 19U titles.
“It was up and down. They had chances to win it. We had chances to win it. It was intense for me, too. I’m on the bench, my stomach’s turning. [At that level,] there’s some serious hockey being played, and there are some serious hockey players.”
Laing’s 19Us took the title Sunday with a 3-2, come-from-behind win over the Chicago Mission. Later in the day, Laing added another championship to his collection (he’s coached more than 10 title-winners) when his 16Us, featuring daughter Alexandria, beat the Buffalo Bison, 3-2.
“Last year we made it to the final and ended up losing,” says 16U forward Makenzie Kent, who scored the game-winner. “Going to tournaments, we’re all competing for a championship. It’s never, I hope we make it to the quarterfinals. We play to win. And I like that about it.”
Kent, the third of six children in an athletic family, transferred to the Assabet program a few years ago.
“It’s definitely the best thing that’s happened to me in hockey,” she says. “At Assabet, you’re surrounded by everyone who wants to get better.”
“My dad's always stressed academics. ... hockey's just a tool to open doors.”
Kent, who talked about how many of her Assabet friends are doing their schoolwork at the rink each Sunday, wasn’t alone in mentioning education. Lonergan, the 14U heroine, says Carl Gray’s “five most important things are academics, academics, academics, academics, academics.”
“My dad’s always stressed the academics,” says Eric Gray. “And hockey’s just a path to help open doors and create better education, which ultimately allows you to be successful in life later on. That’s the bigger message. Hockey’s just a tool to open doors.”
Lonergan’s long-term goals include attending an Ivy League school and playing for a U.S. Olympic Women’s Team in the future, but on April 1, 2012, she was just happy just to have helped close out the short-term goal of winning a National Championship.
Our team all jumped on me,” says Lonergan after her OT goal. “It was just a great time.”
With three titles in the books, it was up to the 12Us to complete the sweep, which left Gray having to remind his players there was a game to play instead of a sweep to complete.
Thanks to a pair of third-period goals from Charlotte Welch, who led the division in scoring with 16 points, and Julia Nearis, (six goals, six assists on the weekend), Assabet had another tense, one-goal win and another set of gold medals.
“The tide has risen,” says Merril Nearis, Julia’s dad, who with Gray also coaches the 12Us and 14Us, which include his daughter Abigail.
“I think the Nationals scene has really proved the caliber of girls hockey has improved incredibly. With Assabet’s sweep this year, it’s that much more of a tribute.”
Sydney Daniels, who couldn’t stay until that final buzzer of the 12U game, was in the car, texting her Assabet friends at the rink for updates.
“At the end of the day,” Daniels says, “we’re just a big family that supports each other and wants everyone to do their best. It was great to see the younger teams win.”
So many title games, so little time.