2015-16 Person of the Year: Katie Crowley

Katie Crowley stares warmly at three picture frames hanging on the wall across from her desk. They all show the glory of Boston College women’s hockey teams of years past, but she’s specifically looking at the one in the center. That one is of the Beanpot several years ago, held up by three of her former captains: Kelli Stack, Molly Schaus, and Katelyn Kurth.  

For Crowley, those players, along with Deb Spillane and Allie Thunstrom, are her cornerstones, her rocks, the reasons she is The Heights’ 2015-16 Person of the Year. As she recalls what it was like to have them as her players, she can’t help but smile and think of suffering through practice, sharing a joke in the locker room, and, of course, raising trophies.

“That group was instrumental in bringing our program to a new level,” Crowley says.

What Crowley fails to mention is how instrumental she is the whole BC community. BC Athletics is mired in losses across the board—unless baseball wins out, only softball and women’s soccer finished with a record above .500 in the ACC this year. Football and men’s basketball’s winless year brought mountains of bad press and embarrassment on the University. Even men’s hockey, the preseason No. 1 overall team, failed to meet its own expectations to bring home a sixth national title. Yet women’s hockey’s legendary season provided enough excitement and pride to redeem BC. And the head coach was at the center of it all.

This is the tale of two people, each with an inspiring story. One is “Kinger,” one of the greatest players in the history of women’s hockey. The other, Coach Crowley, has shaped a middling program into the nation’s premier destination for young girls aspiring to become champions—of Boston, of the nation, and of the world. Just make sure to keep track.

“There needs to be more Katie King’s … er … Crowley’s out there,” said Margaret Degidio Murphy, her former head coach at Brown University.

And, however you remember her name—Kinger, Coach, King, or Crowley—one thing is certain: BC would be a little less complete without her.

If you got the puck to her, Katie King was going to go down the ice and score. Courtney Kennedy

She was a little weirded out at first.

I kept calling her Katie Crowley throughout our phone interview, but I honestly could’ve called her anything. Murphy, better known as Digit, doesn’t know one of her former star players as Katie Crowley—that’s her married name. The girl she recruited back in 1993 was Katie King, a powerful forward out of Salem, N.H. The longtime women’s hockey head coach just had to laugh.

“I’m never going to get used to calling her Katie Crowley,” Murphy said. “She’ll always be Kinger.”

As she began the ever-arduous recruiting process, Kinger knew she wanted to pursue hockey. Yet, like her current two-sport star Kenzie Kent, who plays lacrosse in the spring, Kinger also wanted to go somewhere that would let her play softball in addition to hockey. The pickings were already slim enough for hockey—only the Ivy League, Providence, New Hampshire, and Northeastern sponsored varsity women’s ice hockey by the time she had to submit that deposit. Murphy gave her that opportunity, and sold her on Brown.  

What she bought was pure gold.

In Kinger, Murphy found a true power forward, comparing her to the gritty Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Cam Neely. The left winger had an imposing presence on the ice, using her body to power her way through the net. If skating on the right, she’d come down hard and attack the net. You’d often find Kinger as the one prepared to deflect a puck in from a shot at the point, forcing her way around blue liners and the goaltender to give her teams the lead.

“If you got the puck to her, Katie King was going to go down the ice and score,” said Courtney Kennedy, Crowley’s associate head coach at BC and a former defenseman at the University of Minnesota.

When asked who currently on BC women’s hockey has the most similar playing style, the only person who came to Kennedy’s mind as at all similar was freshman fourth-liner Ryan Little. But, for the most part, that toughness and grit are now forgotten attributes. Players today obsess over the finesse side of the game. It’s not a bad quality—the best of the best have all perfected the flashy moves—but what’s the motivation? Who can make the best toe drag around a defenseman to score is often code for who wants to make the SportsCenter Top 10 tonight. But that’s not how Kinger played.

“She was like a freight train,” Murphy said. “You couldn’t stop her.”

Perhaps more players should consider adopting that strategy, because it certainly worked for Kinger. She’s still the all-time leading scorer at Brown with 206 points, topping off her career as Eastern College Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 1996-97. In that time—the pre-NCAA Tournament days—Brown won three ECAC regular-season titles. That tenacity translated to her softball career, too, in which she won ECAC Player of the Year in 1996 and ECAC Pitcher of the Year in 1997.

It was Kinger’s leadership qualities that made her stand out—and why she became a natural fit as a head coach. She captained Brown for two years on the ice and three years on the field. Along the way, Murphy watched as her young star grew more mature and more confident with every step. She wasn’t the fiery captain who would get in your face to pump you up and get you ready for a game. Instead, Kinger’s warm and inviting personality allowed a team like Brown, full of big personalities and star players, to mesh and eye a championship.

She wouldn’t get one at her alma mater. But she did get one representing her country.

A year after she graduated, Kinger joined the United States National Team in the 1998 Winter Olympics, the first-ever Olympic Games to sponsor women’s hockey. Despite being massive underdogs, the Americans took home the gold medal, 3-1, over Canada. Kinger herself was fortunate enough to be on the ice for the final shift, right after Sandra Whyte’s empty-net goal. How did she react to that first Olympic gold?

Well, there aren’t many videos of that game, but one of the few in YouTube’s archives shows a glimpse of King’s emotion. As the camera begins to follow the puck and time expires, you can see Kinger out of the left corner, jumping and screaming, throwing her stick in the air, and racing toward the mob in front of the goal.

“That was the most memorable shift of my career, because you knew you had it, you knew it was it,” Crowley said, looking back on it now. “And we weren’t supposed to that year.”

Her success on the international stage wouldn’t stop there. Kinger went on to grab silver in Salt Lake City and bronze in Turin. When she stepped away from playing, she was the all-time leading scorer for the United States: 14 goals, nine assists, 23 points. Her most successful Olympics was 2006, capped off by a hat trick in the bronze medal game against Finland.

Utah is where she developed her strong dynamic with Kennedy, who also played on the Olympic team. Kennedy believes they connected because of Kinger’s great sense of humor. While not particularly the comedian of the crowd, Kinger has an infectious laugh and is willing to go along with anything.

“That was always great, because I love to tell jokes,” Kennedy said.

And so began the most prolific relationship in women’s hockey history.

Recruiting is a pain in the ass.

Ask a coach at a mid-major in football that doesn’t have any tradition or likely prospects in the future. Every kid in the country wants to play for Michigan, Texas, or Florida. Try selling them on Western Michigan, Texas El-Paso, or Florida International. You want the real thing, the one that everyone watches on Saturday knowing they’ll get to Sunday.

Once upon a time, Boston College was one of those programs.

While the BC men have long been in college hockey’s lore, the women are practically infants. And in their earliest days, they were clumsy infants, at that.

BC began sponsoring women’s hockey at the varsity level for the 1994-95 season. The Eagles had some early success, with a 15-10-1 (4-9-1 ECAC) campaign in their inaugural season. Yet it didn’t get much better. BC had a losing record in the next eight seasons, with single-digit win totals in seven of them. A move to Hockey East didn’t make matters any better.

So when you can’t sell the program or success to recruits, what can you do?

You have to sell the school. You have to sell the future. And you have to sell yourself.

So Katie King sold her recruits—hard—on all three.

She joined BC in 2003-04 as the chief No. 2 to head coach Tom Mutch, an assistant on that 1998 Olympic team. The Eagles suffered through a pitiful 6-22-3 campaign their first year at the helm, with only a single victory in Hockey East play. It’s not that the team didn’t have talent—today, Crowley is convinced that it did—but, as she puts it, it just wasn’t in the cards.  

That was until she got her first big recruiting win: Spillane. A Franklin, Mass. girl who spent two years playing on her high school’s boys’ varsity team, Spillane wasn’t difficult to convince. She was drawn in by the beautiful campus and Jesuit education—things every team at BC sells recruits on—but, more so, an opportunity to take BC to the next level. And Spillane began to do just that, providing steady production with 133 points over four seasons. As the star of the program, Spillane helped BC win its first Beanpot in 2005-06, helping the program get a winning record for the first time in more than a decade.

“She knew what the program was at the time when she was coming in, she knew it had been down,” Crowley said. “She saw a route where she could help build it up and help get it to be successful.”  

With Spillane helping to prove that the coaching duo at BC was a force to be reckoned with, King recruited the best class of her young career. First came Thunstrom, the lightning-fast forward who broke out in her freshman year with a 30-goal campaign, and Kurth, the bruising defenseman out of High Bridge, N.J. Then arrived Schaus—a player who, Crowley said, stressed her out with how long she had to wait for her decision—as the first elite goaltending prospect BC ever had.

But no one was more important than Stack. The moment she convinced Stack to come, Crowley said, the program changed. Realistically, it wasn’t very hard. After all, King had been there before.

“I wanted to be coached by someone who had been to the Olympics,” Stack said in a phone interview. “And she sold me on the fact that I would get a lot of playing time early on … We wanted to put BC on the map.”

She certainly did. Stack scored 17 goals and had 37 assists in her freshman season, 2006-07—the best in the program’s young history. The Eagles won another Beanpot and reached their first NCAA Tournament, and BC made it all the way to the Frozen Four before falling to Minnesota Duluth in double overtime. Though early, it appeared that Mutch and King would become a legendary duo in maroon and gold.

Yet it wouldn’t last long. Shortly after the season ended, Mutch resigned amid suspicion of sharing inappropriate text messages with Stack.

And it ended up being the best thing possible for BC.

We didn’t win it, but we got the ball rolling. Now, because of (Crowley), it’d be weird to NOT see BC in the Frozen Four. Kelli Stack

Has it really been 10 years?

When we look back on all she has accomplished, Crowley can’t help but wonder where the time has gone. So much has happened in that time. She has since married Ted Crowley, a former BC hockey player and Olympian himself, in 1994, and had a child, Camryn, who is now 2 1/2 years old. She’s spent a lot of time with Kennedy, who she brought in to coach alongside her after she took the reins for the 2007-08 season.

Oh yeah, and there have been a lot of wins.

Prior to her tenure as head coach, BC women’s hockey was 104-240-29. Since Crowley and Kennedy have been in charge, the Eagles are 220-73-39, with a 119-37-20 record in Hockey East play.

“Wow” was all Kennedy could say when she heard those numbers. Yeah, BC has been that good.

A lot has helped Crowley achieve such a high level of sustained success. One is more institutional support. When she began at BC, she could only offer seven scholarships total. Now, Crowley and Kennedy can fill the team with a maximum 18 players on scholarship. Another is winning the games that matter. With that original core of Stack, Schaus, Kurth, and Thunstrom, the Eagles became dominant—2010-11 gave BC victories in the Hockey East Tournament (the first in program history) and Beanpot, as well as another Frozen Four.

Five years later, winning trophies and going far in the tournament is just old hat.

“We didn’t win it, but we got the ball rolling,” Stack said. “Now, because of [Crowley], it’d be weird to NOT see BC in the Frozen Four.”

But the bigger key has been their message, which has convinced stars like 2015 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa that BC is the place to be. Many, like senior captain Dana Trivigno, truly believe that their best chance of getting to the apex of the sport—the Olympics and a national championship—is with the help of Crowley and Kennedy.

“Her and Court sold me on the fact that, you’re coming to BC, you’re going to get a good education, but, you know, we’re putting a good team together,” Trivigno said. “Having two people who have already done it—the highest level a female ice hockey player can get to—was huge.”

Once they’re here, Crowley can get the most out of her players and turn them into superstars. She has a hands-off approach with the forwards, while Kennedy takes the defensemen. She doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on a particular system and making sure every player can fit into it. Rather, Crowley prefers to allow her players to show her what they can do and use their creativity as effectively as possible. As she watches them on the ice, Crowley also pays close attention to their behavior in the locker room. She’s not the type that has one set style of motivation. If one player needs to be taken aside to have a mistake carefully explained, Crowley will do that. If another needs to be screamed at, she’s got no problem adjusting to that as well. As long as everyone is doing well in the classroom—something Kennedy said Crowley makes sure of—things are probably going to be fine.  

That has all culminated in the last two seasons. BC was undefeated for a long stretch in 2014-15 and finished 34-3-2 with another trip to the Frozen Four, albeit without a victory in the Beanpot and Hockey East Tournament. This season, BC and Crowley took it to the next level. The Eagles’ 40-1 record was the second-best season in the sport’s history, and they took home three trophies: the Beanpot, Hockey East regular-season title, and Hockey East Tournament title. And, for the first time in program history, BC made the national championship game. How did Crowley achieve such a big jump in only one year?

Don’t tell Allen Iverson.

“Alright, everybody switch sticks!”

Katie Burt was confused at first. Switch sticks? What is Coach talking about? That’s like putting on your first pair of high heels. It’s probably going to be disastrous. But it’s equally bad to start an argument with your coach. So everybody on the team dropped their sticks and gave it to the girl next to her. The righties became lefties, the lefties became righties. Pandemonium ensued. Girls were flopping all over the ice. Carpenter, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, could barely move.

“It was so funny,” Burt said. “You give someone the wrong stick, they can’t even skate.”

It’s that kind of laid-back atmosphere that attracts players to Crowley’s coaching style. She and Kennedy make sure every practice has an element of fun in it by never taking themselves too seriously. They don’t mind the repeated onslaught of pranks brought on by Carpenter. They constantly bounce jokes off each other like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.

This season, Crowley tried something drastically different. As the season wound down, she dramatically cut the length of practice from the standard two and a half hours to one. Her players were greatly appreciative—BC student-athletes tend to have more difficulty juggling classes, social lives, and practice schedules than most other student-athletes. None appreciated it more than Burt.

“Best decision ever,” Burt said while bursting into laughter. “I thought it was great.”

Though it indirectly gave the players some R and R, Crowley’s primary focus was to keep the team engaged while she and Kennedy nitpicked the little things. Crowley believes those longer practices hurt the coaching staff more than the team—there’s only so much you can go over in two hours and keep the attention of your players to perform at a high level. And, after returning largely the same roster, Crowley knew what her team was capable of. By cutting the time down, she could concentrate on smaller skill drills, such as having forwards operate in the defensive zone on a strong backcheck or learning how to finish in front of the net. Practicing those intricacies of the game allows them to become habits, just like skating and shooting.

You can tell how much she cares by the way she acts toward her daughter, toward her family as to us. Megan Keller

With the women’s hockey season already over, Crowley and her family took a trip down to Tampa to see the men play in the Frozen Four against Quinnipiac. No one was more excited than Camryn. But what she didn’t realize was that her best friends wouldn’t be there this time.

“And as we’re leaving the hotel room to go to [the Amalie Arena], she said ‘Okay, so I’m going to see Carp, and I’m going to see Haley, and I’m going to see Dana, and I’m going to see Grace [Bizal], and Makenna [Newkirk], and Kenzie [Kent],’” Crowley recalled her daughter saying, with a big smile. “‘And Katie Burt!’ It’s always two names with Katie Burt.”

Crowley’s husband and daughter attend every home game, and try to get to as many road games as possible. And, over this season, Camryn, known as Cami, has grown up around the team. Her bubbly personality has touched each of the players as she bounces around outside the locker room in Conte Forum. Along the way, Cami has changed how Crowley coaches. Somehow, Crowley still puts her family and the team first, giving everyone everything she has. Having Cami around all the time, her players believe, has changed her perspective and helped her see the team as her own, helping an award-winning coach become even better.

“You can tell how much she cares by the way she acts toward her daughter, toward her family as to us,” defenseman Megan Keller said. “She treats us as 23 of her next daughters, and it’s amazing how much she cares and she puts towards us and the amount of time she sacrifices.”

At the same time, her old head coach believes it helps Crowley keep things in perspective. Murphy has dealt with losses in the national championship game before. Instead of thinking too much about it, Murphy said, her kids helped her remember that life goes on.  

But it’s even better when you get to celebrate with your kid. And Murphy doesn’t think it’s going to take long, especially when you’ve got a great coach like Katie Crowley.

“I think they have it,” Murphy said. “I think they’re going to win it all next year.”

Katie Crowley’s office is lined with trophies. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some have the NCAA logo, others say Hockey East. They’re small enough to hold over your head while screaming in jubilation, but heavy enough to remember the weight of the grueling grind that is the collegiate women’s hockey season. Others can be worn around your neck. Those come in three different colors—gold, silver, and bronze—each with a hint of red, white, and blue.

The most impressive-looking is a large glass bowl with “2014-15 AHCA COACH OF THE YEAR” in big letters on its stand. There’s a space right next to it for the one she received for her work this season. I’ve heard it just arrived, a week after we last spoke.

But it’s that picture of her three captains that she looks at with the fondest memories. And, as she stares at it, I ask her that question. Coach, with Carpenter, Skarupa, and Trivigno gone next year, what are your expectations for next season? Immediately, Crowley breaks her gaze at the past—the days of Kinger and Olympic medals and Stack, Carpenter, and all of her prior teams—and focuses on the future with determination, imagining the final trophy she needs to add to the shelf.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

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About Michael Sullivan

Michael Sullivan is the editor-in-chief of The Heights. After shouting out this space to his mother for two years as sports editor, he'd like to give one to his dad. You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelJSully.