Unsung Heroines Of The Rink

Lisa Wilson

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

They glide onto the ice as a few cheers from a small cadre of faithful fans echo across the Hart Center rink on a Friday night in February. A small pile of single-sheet programs rests on the shelf of the shuttered  box-office window. No band plays. No concession stands are open. Admission is free. It is business as usual for Holy Cross women’s ice hockey.

The Crusader women should be the hottest ticket on campus. They posted a remarkable 24-2-1 record last season, only their 10th as a varsity sport. They are sitting atop the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) East with a gaudy 17-3-1 mark, as fierce rival Norwich University pulls up to the Hart Center for the evening’s matchup.

For these athletes, the game is the only thing. The crowds and adulation may come later, after they have built a foundation for their sport; for now, they play simply because they love ice hockey.

The small crowd does not dampen the women’s ardor on this wintry night, and Coach Peter Van Buskirk has them fired up as usual. Playing in December at Norwich up in Northfield, Vt., the Crusaders roared back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the Cadets. This is the showdown.

Women’s ice hockey, which allows no checking, features graceful skills complemented often by unfettered skating; more artistry than anarchy. In this clash, however, a no-holds-barred game—make that donnybrook—broke out. Amid a furious pace, bodies went flying, goals became unhinged, coaches jawed at referees and each other, and the crowd went ballistic. “I’ve never heard such an uproar at a women’s hockey game,’’ remarked Charles Baker, associate professor emeritus of French at Holy Cross.

On hand were a loyal gallery of hollering students; a good number of family, including Stacey Hochkins’ clan from New Boston, Mich., and Lisa Wilson’s dad, Gary, who drove solo from Corunna, Ontario—plus a few faithful faculty members such as Baker and associate professor of religious studies, Alice Laffey.

Fans are treated to a sudden-death game roiling with dramatic conflict. Early in the overtime, Holy Cross seems to have won when Stacey Hochkins ’12, the College’s leading scorer, redirects a loose puck into the net, but the goal becomes dislodged in the ensuing pile-up. The refs disallow the goal, ruling that Hochkins skate-kicked the puck in. “The video replay shows I didn’t make a kicking motion,’’ professes Hochkins. “The puck bounced off someone’s leg, probably mine.”

Peter Van Buskirk

Hockey is a game Peter Van Buskirk loves and respects. He has devoted a large part of his life to fostering its growth and teaching others how to play it. He is known near and far as a gentleman coach. For his many achievements—including three decades of coaching Holy Cross hockey—Van Buskirk has been honored with the prestigious 2010 John “Snooks” Kelley Founders Award by the American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA).

He has succeeded in coaching college men, being named the AHCA’s 1983 Coach of the Year (for Divisions 2 and 3).

He has succeeded in coaching college women, being voted the 2009 ECAC East Coach of the Year, as he guided the Crusaders to a 24-2-1 record.

He has succeeded in coaching high school boys, winning the 1978 Division 1 state title with his Hudson (Mass.) Hawks.

Van Buskirk has also coached year-round at countless camps and clinics from Los Angeles to Lake Placid to his own backyard. He has gained the admiration and loyal friendship of colleagues, players and foes alike. Says John Burke, Rensselaer women’s head coach, “Peter’s professionalism and class are things we should all strive to emulate.”

Ann Ash Zelesky, Holy Cross’ associate athletic director, adds, “Peter is a terrific coach and a salt-of-the-earth-guy. He is the best.” That sentiment reverberates around the campus.

Coach of the Holy Cross women’s ice hockey team since 2000, Van Buskirk served as the men’s head hockey coach from 1979 to 1988—and, again, for the 1996-97 season; from 1991 to 1996, he was the men’s assistant. At various times, he has filled a dual role as director of Hart Center operations.

As a student at Hudson High, Van Buskirk was a three-sport captain and a perennial schoolboy all-star. Playing quarterback under Crusader football Hall of Famer Vic Rimkus ’53, he excelled as a hockey defenseman and, also, as a pitcher/third baseman in baseball. At the University of New Hampshire, Van Buskirk was team MVP in hockey and All-Yankee Conference as a third baseman. Van Buskirk resides in the Hudson High and UNH athletic halls of fame. He served as a lieutenant in the Army Infantry during the Vietnam War (1966-68), playing service baseball while stationed in South Korea.

His accomplishments have come through determination and hard work. While serving as the men’s head coach, Van Buskirk taught school in Hudson. He grew up in that town, where his father worked at the family-run Hudson Diner. His mom, now 99 years old, taught Peter in the fourth grade. His brothers Joe and Dick were superb high school athletes as well. In 2001, he married his wife, Susan, and, that year, saw stepdaughter Kirsten Demoga receive her degree from Holy Cross; Kirsten is now an attorney, practicing in Boston.

The current women’s ice hockey players know that, in their coach, they have more than a good guy, they have an impassioned advocate for the game they all love.

“Coach Van Buskirk loves the game of hockey tremendously!” forward Christina D’Ambrogio ’11 says. “At practice, he steps onto the ice with his purple track suit and has his practice plan inside his baseball cap.

“Sometimes when you are walking past his office to go to the locker room, he calls you in and just starts talking about set plays, line combinations, etc., and before you know it, half an hour has gone by,” she continues. “He has such great passion for the game of hockey that he can’t help talking about it 24/7, and that’s what I love about him!”

Flowing from his rich experiences come numerous stories he loves to tell. Many are charming—about playing hockey outdoors and skating against the wind at night. He does not brag. And, as one might expect, Van Buskirk says his AHCA lifetime achievement award is just a matter of hanging around hockey rinks too long.

But those who know him best, know better.

The controversy and confusion don’t end there. Katelyn Doherty ’10, hustling to contain an airborne puck, flattens Norwich’s Julie Fortier along the boards. The contact is ruled coincidental and no penalty is called. Cadet coach Mark Bolding, vociferous throughout, launches a tirade of protest as shaken Fortier is being attended to. (She is, thankfully, uninjured.) With under 10 ticks left, a tie seems inevitable, but a poked puck skids up ice onto the stick of Jocelyn Kratchmer ’11. In a flash, she fires a bullet, missing by mere inches.

Kratchmer deadlocked the score in the third period, 2-2, whistling in a wrister in full stride. “Jocelyn got me off the hook,’’ notes Hochkins. Norwich’s Melissa Rundlett pick-pocketed Kratchmer in front of the Crusader goal and flicked the purloined puck into the net to put Norwich up, 2-1.

Monique Gallant ’11, sensational in the Holy Cross goal, has 26 saves, including several wondrous glove snares on screechers. Forward Nicola Garat ’12, who tied the game 1-all, time and again makes alert steals and slashing moves. As usual co-captain Lisa Wilson ’10 plays inspiring hockey.

The tie seems righteous. Fans roar their approval, knowing they witnessed one helluva hockey game. The Crusader players, however, are not exactly ecstatic. “Two games, two ties and we won’t get another shot at them,’’ sighs a disappointed Wilson.

Even though Holy Cross and Norwich play in the same league, they will not face each other in the ECAC East tournament, restricted to Division 3 colleges. The Crusaders have no pathway to the NCAA’s national playoffs. They cannot dream about the kind of magical ride the 2006 men’s hockey team took when the College shocked powerhouse Minnesota in the NCAA Western Regionals. These skating women attend a Division 1 college while playing in a Division 3 league. Instead, Holy Cross’ trailblazers of the rink have to be happy repeating as the champs in the four-team ECAC open tourney with Division 2 foes St. Anselm and St. Michael’s and Division 1 Sacred Hart. On Feb. 28, hosting Holy Cross knocked off St. Anselm, 3-1, to capture the crown. Hochkins, the tournament MVP and ECAC East Player of the Year, scored two goals. The Crusaders finished with a sparkling 20-4-2 overall record.

They accept who they are, a tight-knit group of pioneer women forging their way toward the promised land of Division 1 competition—the only team among the College’s 27 varsity sports that cannot compete in NCAA playoffs. “We’re heading in the right direction ... maybe we’ll become Division 1 in my time here,’’ remarks record-breaker Hochkins.

Van Buskirk has been the women’s head coach since 2000; four seasons ago, his position was upgraded to full time. “I no longer had to manage the Hart Center as well,’’ he notes. Today he and  his assistant, Bill Bowes, have much more time to recruit.

Using his vast network of hockey comrades, Van Buskirk finds himself in far-flung, and extremely cold, places searching for talent.

In Canada’s Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), he discovered Wilson playing defense for the Bluewater Junior Hawks. “She is special, our dynamic leader who has earned the respect of her teammates and can be vocal with them when she has to,’’ Van Buskirk says.

Wilson, a captain for the last three seasons, hails from a hockey family in Corunna, Ontario. She says she loves the academic and athletic atmosphere at Holy Cross. “It’s demanding, but I like the rigid routine. Challenging classes and hockey six times a week,’’ remarks Wilson, who aspires to a teaching and coaching career back home. 

Up in Saskatchewan, Van Buskirk spies Kratchmer and Emily Henry ’11, both playing in the Notre Dame College tournament there. Teammates for the Saskatchewan Prairie Ice back home, the young women are now Holy Cross roomies.

Recently Kratchmer emerged as a mini-media star when a Canadian sports network (TSN) profiled her. In her hometown of Watrous, Saskatchewan, about 2,000 folks showed up en masse for the TV shoot. The charming piece documents how Kratchmer, at age 3, turned in her frilly dancing-class outfit for hockey pads, playing with the boys and enduring sneers of “girls can’t play.” Sam Klassen, an NHL performer, skated alongside Kratchmer as a kid. “She always fit in, and we always stood up for her,” he recalls.

Seven Candians and their 13 American teammates have meshed into a power to be reckoned with.

As a first year student, Hochkins pulled off a hat trick in her first game. She went on to lead the league in goals (25), assists (28) and points (53) while setting Crusader records in those categories. Hochkins and Kratchmer shared MVP honors. This season she’s leading the league again in point-scoring (26 goals, 18 assists).

Shuffling four lines of forwards, Van Buskirk likes keeping the offensive pressure on opponents. Co-captain Kate O’Connor ’09 provides more than the team’s unofficial mascot, Riley, her black lab. Making the transition from defensive prep-school star to a 5-11 power forward, she is always at the center of the storm.

Kathy Kelley ’10, the Darling of Dedham, is a typical Van Buskirk-brand sparkplug. A Massachusetts state champion and Boston Globe all-star, the always upbeat scrapper had three game-winning goals last season. Her dad, Joe, and mom, Mary Rose, have missed only one game in her four years. “They went to see my [twin] sister Kara play field hockey up at Bowdoin College, so I gave them a pass!” Kelley says, smiling.
First-line, first-year forward Caroline English, along with Garat, provide solid punch as do Wendy Nobrega ’10, Christina D’Ambrogio ’11, Rebecca O’Quinn ’13, Meghan Reynolds ’13 and Alyssa Ruhland ’13.

Doherty, out of Toronto, is Wilson’s sturdy sidekick who can also rush the puck. That dynamic duo, along with the likes of Henry, Colleen Krmpotich ’11, Amy Pfund ’12 and Mariah Napolitano ’13, make the Crusaders’ defense impregnable at times. Prime example: Castleton (Vt.) State managed only two shots on goalie Gallant during a Crusader shutout. Gallant and Carly Dominick-Sobol ’12 excel equally as Holy Cross’ last line of defense.

All 20 Crusaders contribute in some way—even injured goalie Lindsay Atkinson ’11,
who opens the gate for her teammates, urging them on as they pour out from the lockers.

So The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pucks skate to the end of an outstanding season. At times they hear the roar of the crowd. For them, playing well is the only thing that matters. And that is enough … for now.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.