WALLINGFORD — In the opening game against Finland, Hilary Knight scored a goal 53 seconds into the game for the U.S. women’s ice hockey team . For some of the staff at Choate Rosemary Hall, she is a familiar face.
Knight is joined on the U.S. team by fellow Choate graduates Julie Chu and Josephine Pucci. Another former Choate student, Phoebe Staenz, is a member of Switzerland’s women’s ice hockey team. Chu graduated in 2001; Knight in 2007 and Pucci in 2009. It’s the first time four Choate alumnae are in the winter Olympics, according to the school’s web page.
Nicole Stock, head coach of Choate’s girls hockey team, played with Knight. Stock was two years ahead of Knight.
“Even as a freshmen, she was bigger, stronger and faster than a lot of the girls in the league — and it showed,” Stock said. “She could fire the puck like a boy. She’s got quite a shot and great hands ... She’s had those skills since she was younger.”
Her abilities allowed her to “outshine most of the league single-handedly,” Stock said. Assistant coach Sarah Nutting coached Knight when she played for Choate, and described her as one of the school’s best hockey players ever.
“She always finds herself in the right place at the right time. She’s incredibly smart,” Nutting said. “She has an incredibly powerful shot and it was apparent when she was a freshman. As a senior, she was such a dominant force in our league.”
Both Stock and Nutting compared Knight to Staenz. She was she fast and like Knight “had an incredibly accurate, powerful shot,” Nutting said.
“She’s a real grinder and battles it out on the corner and around the net,” she added. “She’s very productive.”
Stock said Staenz has an integral role in the growing popularity of girls ice hockey in her home country.
The U.S. women’s ice hockey team is considered a dominant team, along with other countries such as Canada. Girls’ participation and involvement in ice hockey has grown over time, according to Dan Daddio, president of the Wallingford Hawks youth ice hockey team.
“I wouldn’t be able to tell you 10 years ago if I could remember the day or mark the day on my calendar to watch team U.S.A. women’s hockey play for a medal because my answer would probably be a no,” Daddio said. “But what we have today with the Hawks ... what this represents and with the Choate tie in the Olympics, it’s pretty special for Wallingford.”
Tony Carbone, a coach for the Wallingford Hawks, said increasing participation among girls accounts for much of the growth in the sport.
“Prep schools have teams and J.V. teams have been added because of interest,” he said.
There are a number of factors, including family involvement, said Chris Andersen, also a Hawks coach.
“You have people that play the sport because they have older brothers that play,” Andersen said. “I have five girls that played because they were tired watching their brothers play and they wanted to do it. It’s kind of fun seeing the brothers in the stands watching the sisters play.”
The Olympics are also a large factor .
“There’s a growth of teams and acceptance of girls, and the Olympics is something that doesn’t hurt,” Carbone said. “Those are role models for the girls .”
Bob DeMarco, an assistant coach, said Chu was elected class president. She was unable to fulfill the obligation because she had to spend a year with the Olympic team.
“They were pretty special individuals outside the rink and certainly on the ice,” he said.
Each of the Olympic hockey players has at least one thing in common.
“The common denominator for all of them is the work ethic,” DeMarco said. “It’s just phenomenal.”
The coaches said the girls on Choate’s ice hockey team are excited to see former athletes performing at the Olympics. The team gathered at 5 a.m. on Feb. 10 to watch the U.S. face off against Switzerland. The U.S. won the game, 9-0, with Knight scoring a goal.
“It brings all of us, especially the people that coached them and played with them, a tremendous amount of pride to watch these girls,” Nutting said. “They’re all go-to players on their respective teams.”
For the girls currently on Choate’s ice hockey team, watching alumnae compete at the Olympics is a learning experience, Stock said.
“They see it as, ‘Oh, wow. That’s what it takes to get there.’ It’s eye opening,” she said. “... It certainly shows them what it takes, but at the same time, they’re excited to see a friend and former teammate out there competing.”