Just one day after dropping a 4-1 heartbreaker to the University of Wisconsin in NCAA semifinal action (March 20), the Harvard women’s hockey team, still reeling from their fifth defeat in as many Frozen Four appearances, was thrust into a festive mood. And though the source of that joy — junior Sarah Vaillancourt’s selection as the 2008 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner — didn’t fully soothe the sting of the colossal loss, the recognition was a welcome endnote. And, it turns out, a familiar thrill for the Harvard hockey program as well.
In winning the prize, awarded annually by USA Hockey to the most outstanding player in NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey, Vaillancourt joined an esteemed group of Crimson icers. Since its inaugural year in 1998, Harvard skaters have captured the award six times (A.J. Mlezko in 1999; Jennifer Botterill in 2001 and 2003; Angela Ruggiero in 2004; and Julie Chu in 2007). Vaillancourt, who beat out top finalists Meghan Agosta of Mercyhurst and goaltender Kim Martin of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, is just the second Harvard player to capture the Kazmaier prior to her senior year. Botterill, with whom Vaillancourt, a native of Quebec, won a gold medal with for Team Canada in 2006, is the other.
In a speech March 21 at the Radisson Hotel in Duluth, Minn. — the host city for this year’s tournament — Valliancourt expressed her gratitude to her teammates and the Harvard program. “We were a family all year,” she said. “We’re one in victory and one in defeat. I mean, we had a tough end last night, but the season that we had was unbelievable.”
You could say that. Prior to the loss at the hands of the reigning champion Badgers, Harvard was on a 21-game tear (the longest winning streak in NCAA Division I women’s college hockey history), having last dropped a game in mid-December to Frozen Four contender the University of New Hampshire. Ranked No. 1 in the nation for the majority of the season, Harvard captured the Beanpot, the Ivy title, and the ECAC championship en route to a remarkable 32-2-0 campaign.
Leading the charge was Vaillancourt, the fiery forward renowned for her skills both with and without the puck. As the ECAC and Ivy League’s top offensive producers, she also picked up their player of the year honors. All told, the junior amassed 26 goals and 36 assists for Harvard this season and is currently eighth on the school’s all-time scoring list, with 185 points (81 goals and 104 helpers).
After recognizing her team, Valliancourt came clean about her own wishes to win the award, stating that she’s long dreamed about her name joining the banner hanging in Bright Hockey Center that commemorates Harvard’s past Kazmaier Award winners. “I have to admit,” she said, “I’ve looked at that banner a few times and hoped that I would be on there one day. I’m really, really happy to be on there.”
For coach Katey Stone, meanwhile, watching one of her charges receive the recognition, particularly given the circumstances, held special weight. “It’s awesome,” she said, “I’m filled with pride as if she were my own daughter.” The coach also acknowledged the wider ramifications of the award. “She’s taking it home personally,” she said, “but it’s a reflection of the hard work of all of her teammates and everyone involved in the program. It’s nice to be able to leave on a high note.”
For Harvard defensive specialist Caitlin Cahow ’08, a top 10 finalist for the award, Vaillancourt’s selection was meant to be. After acknowledging the obvious pain of losing, Cahow offered, “I think the great thing about it is that we came together. She had a huge standing ovation. We’re all here in support of her. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It’s exactly how it should be.”