As a player, All-American Sophie Leclerc ’10 led the Cadets to a national hockey championship. Now as the team’s new head coach, she is chasing another championship. But first she has to get her players to believe in themselves
STORY BY SEAN PRENTISS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT FUMAN
NORWICH RECORD | Fall 2020
It’s an hour before game time on Sunday afternoon in early January, and 27 Cadets hockey players warm up in Kreitzberg Arena. The athletes juggle soccer balls and ride stationary bikes.
Halfway into their season, the team rides a near-perfect 10-1 record. But rather than loose and confident, the 2018 national champions look stoic and tense. The East-West Classic, a two-day tournament that draws some of the top-ranked Division III women’s teams in the country, is about to start and the Cadets’ first opponent is top-ranked Plattsburgh State, winner of three of the last four national championships. For the home team players, the tension is understandable.
In the coaches’ office, however, laughter reverberates. First-year head coach and former All-American Sophie Leclerc ’10, M ’12 laughs it up with assistant coach and former teammate Mollie Fitzpatrick ’12, M’17 and volunteer coach Jon Guiffre. Leclerc and Fitzpatrick tell Guiffre about a game of Tic-Tac-Toe the team played that morning, recalling the chaos as players ran around a life-size game board using Norwich jerseys as pieces. Leclerc’s relaxed attitude before the season’s biggest challenge is premeditated. “If I’m freaking out, the girls will freak out,” she says. “When I was a player, we didn’t want to talk about Plattsburgh. They were too far above us.” Not any more. “Now, we prepare for the last game of the season every day.” By that Leclerc means beating every team on the path to a national championship.
Back on the ice, an hour and a half later, the first period ends with Norwich up 2-1. During the second, things unravel, and the Cadets fall behind 4-2. Leclerc calls a time out. The team has played poorly; their slumped bodies show it. Leclerc, her body ramrod straight, says emphatically, “We can think about what we didn’t do right, or we can think about what we want to do.” Leclerc points at her players.
“If we hunt pucks, we’re better than every other team. But I can’t tell you that. It’s up to this awesome group to believe.” Having the team believe in themselves is Leclerc’s goal early in her rookie season. Leclerc wants to beat Plattsburgh, but, more important, she wants her players to play for each other through victory and defeat. Today, it will be through defeat. Norwich falls to the Cardinals 6-3. After the game, Leclerc enters the locker room, where players lean into stalls, skates still on their feet. Some openly cry. Leclerc, her voice growling, asks, “Who thinks we can beat Plattsburgh?” Every hand shoots up, as if they are moments away from playing today’s game rather than moments after losing by three goals. “Losing is a great lesson,” Leclerc says. “Growth comes from mistakes. Everything is a lesson until the last game of the season.”
To an outsider, it feels as if this has always been Leclerc’s team. In three months, the 32-year-old rookie head coach has instituted core values, hired a behavioral scientist, and run endless team-building activities—all so that the Cadets are ready for this season’s national champion¬ship game.
Still, Leclerc has only been head coach since October, taking over from Mark Bolding, who coached the team since its inception in 2007. During that period, he accumulated a record of 266 wins, 68 loses, and 22 ties and won two national championships, the first with Leclerc as his captain in 2011, the second in 2018. This season he serves as head coach at Division I Yale.
Clearly, Leclerc has big skates to fill. But Norwich’s first female hockey star has learned from the best. After being a head coach for one season at Kimball Union Academy, she worked under Bolding as an assistant coach for two seasons and spent the next four years as an assistant coach at Division I Colgate.
Bolding is among Leclerc’s biggest believers. “The sky’s the limit for Sophie,” he says. “There are only so many people who have her aptitude and her presence.” So is Norwich Athletic Director Tony Mariano. “She’s passionate about Norwich,” he says. “She’s one of the very best coaches, and she uses hockey as a vehicle to help her players not just in the game but in life.”
Overcoming challenges has become second nature for Leclerc. A Barre native, she was a star athlete at Spaulding High School, where she played on the state champion soccer and hockey teams freshman year.
Despite the star-crossed start to her high school athletic career, during her junior year, Leclerc tore her ACL playing lacrosse. Once out of surgery, Leclerc’s temperature spiked. Doctors discovered a staph infection, requiring two more surgeries.
She rehabbed and, after graduating the following year, enrolled at UVM, where she was recruited to play for the Division I Catamounts. During a preseason medical screening, she was told that her ACL was, again, completely torn. She underwent her fourth surgery in two years. “The rehab took so long,” Leclerc recalls. “All the players around me seemed stronger and fast¬er. As I was watching my teammates skate from the stands, I was wondering if I couldn’t be 100 percent Sophie and give everything, is this what I want to do?” But Leclerc has always been the hardest-working star, so that is what she did, she returned to work.
She would need to. As a player, Leclerc went through nearly every bad thing an athlete can experience: along with her four knee surgeries before playing a game of collegiate hockey, Leclerc also transferred colleges, heading to Norwich her freshman year, played club hockey for a semester, helped start Norwich’s NCAA hockey team, served as a captain or assistant captain all four years, had a fifth knee surgery, fell short in a national championship game, and nearly lost an NCAA waiver appeal for a sixth year of eligibility, all before leading Norwich to its first national championship in women’s hockey while also graduating as its leader in points.
In Kreitzberg, the day after losing to Plattsburgh in the East-West Clas¬sic, Norwich plays Elmira College in the consolation bracket. The Cadets outshoot Elmira 33-18 but the game ends in a 0-0 tie.
In the locker room, players look relieved at having tied a nationally ranked team, though Elmira is ranked below them. But Leclerc cannot tolerate losing, especially when her players appear unfatigued. She challenges them, her voice filling with frustration: “When is everyone going to pull on the rope at the same time? When that hap¬pens, we can beat any team in the nation.”
When Leclerc leaves the locker room, she is unusually low. “I’m left wondering what we need to do as a staff to prepare the players. Imagine if the players gave it their all?”
As a player whose skill dazzled opponents in high school and college, one might expect Leclerc to put a premium on talent. But, time and again as head coach, she focuses on community. Her mantra is “The most connected team, with skill, wins.” Her goal these early months, she says, “is how can we speed up that connection?”
It is an ironic but true fact that over the past half century, becoming a NCAA head coach as a woman has only grown more difficult. For Leclerc, it stands among her most significant achievements in athletics.
We can all be forgiven for thinking that Title IX, the 1972 federal law that forbids sexual discrimination by any high school or college that receives federal funds, would help more women break into collegiate coaching. But while Title IX has transformed female athletic participation, it has hindered female coaches. Before 1972, one in twenty-seven girls played sports. Today, nearly 50 years later, that number has skyrocketed to two in five. Leclerc, her teammates, and millions of other American women have played high school and college sports because of Title IX.
Yet, over that same period, the number of women coaching college teams has plummeted, driven by an influx of money into female athletics. Prior to the passage of Title IX, 90 percent of collegiate women’s sports teams were coached by women. By the early 1980s, that number dropped to 55 percent. Today, it has sunk to 40 percent. Studies highlight that as money flooded into women’s collegiate athletics, men be¬came increasingly interested in coaching women’s teams.
Norwich’s own statistics mirror that de facto reality, if not the root cause. Of the university’s nine female athletic teams, five are led by women head coaches. But only three have female assistant coaches. In total, just 37 percent of the coaching staff are women. “When we’ve had openings, we’ve struggled to get female applicants,” Mariano, the NU athletic director, says. “Is it the nature of Norwich or our geographic locations? Regard¬less of gender, I want to hire the best coach for the position.”
Following their disappointing East-West Classic performance in early January, the Cadets continue staggering. Playing Elmira a second time, they lose 3-1. They then lose 4-1 to Amherst, another national contender. Following the sweep, Leclerc gathers her team in their locker room and tells them, “It’s about who is predator and who is prey.”
She turns on a video. “Here are fifteen clips of us being lambs. We want to be predators.” Leclerc is teaching her players a lesson she learned as a play¬er and as a coach: how to mentally never break. “If we don’t have the puck, we hunt it,” she commands. “If it takes four players, we get the puck back.”
After the intervention, the team snaps their four-game winless streak, blowing out Plymouth State, Castle¬ton, and New England College.
As January fades into February, Norwich prepares to face Middlebury, ranked second in the country. Leclerc knows what is at stake, especially since Norwich has gone 0-3-1 against teams she calls “predators” and has walked away hungry every time. Beating the best teams is the final piece of the puzzle for her Cadets.
The day before the game, Leclerc, Fitzpatrick, and Guiffre wheel 27 bricks into the locker room. It is the latest team-building exercise for her players. Leclerc knows those bonds are vital to success, even without reading a recent Harvard study finding that women in leadership roles improve a team’s performance, regardless of gender, in part by “building meaningful relationships.” This can be seen in how Leclerc manages her team. In just four months at the job, she and assistant coach Fitzpatrick have hosted an endless array of potlucks, breakfasts, retreats, scavenger hunts, and other team-building exercises.
Today, Leclerc has players write their name on a brick. She then invites the team to build a brick wall in the center of their locker room. Leclerc asks Amanda Conway ’20 to knock over the wall. With one kick, the senior sends bricks scattering across the floor. “This is what we look like when we get scored on,” Leclerc says.
She asks players to grab a teammate’s brick off the floor and write two things on it: 1) what that other player looks like at their best and 2) how they feel when that other player is at their best.
Leclerc never mentions wins and losses talking about the value of team-building exercises. “It’s for our players to build a lifetime connection,” she says. “If you make that connection with your teammates, you’ll do anything for each other. And that’s what you want in the biggest game of the year.” Leclerc, thinking to her own time at Norwich, points at Fitzpatrick, a teammate for three years, “I’ll never forget Norwich; I’ll never forget our team.”
After having her players write on the bricks, Leclerc asks them to share what they’ve written. Emma O’Neill ’22 says, “Brynn is the hardest worker … and it makes me feel juiced.” Players snap, whistle, and clap. Kelly Madden ’20 says, “Freddie is a warrior. She always beats me in practice. I’m coming for you, Freddie.” More whistles and clapping. Goalie Alexa Berg ’22 says, “Bailey, you make me proud to call you my teammate and sister.”
Once the players all finish sharing, Fitzpatrick and Guiffre wheelbarrow in mortar. Leclerc says, “Your next task is to rebuild the wall.”
As players place bricks and add mortar, Leclerc asks, “What is this wall?” Captain Sophie McGovern ’20 shouts, “It’s us.” Maddie Moell ’22 adds, “When one of us strays, the rest of us pull them back into place.” Emily Lambert ’20 says, “At Middlebury, we have the opportunity to be the mortar between these bricks.”
Once the wall is mortared, the team circles it, arms across shoulders. The locker room pulsates with an energy that mixes a sense of family with a sense of determination. “We can’t be more ready for Middlebury tomorrow,” Leclerc says. Her team erupts in shouts and hoots, and then the players stream out of the room, toward dinner and homework. Only coaches remain.
Leclerc looks at the brick wall in the middle of the locker room. She sees an image of her team, of herself, something strong, resilient, greater than the sum of its parts. Quietly, Leclerc mutters, “It’s perfect.”
The next day, game day, Norwich falls behind 2-0 to Middlebury. Talking to Fitzpatrick between the first and second periods, Leclerc says, “Damn, I want to play in this game.” Then, maybe thinking about how a team can only lose so many predator vs. predator fights until it loses its spirit, she says, “If we lose this one, the season’s over.”
In the locker room before the third period starts, her team still down 2-0, Leclerc stands in front of the brick wall and is a machine gun fire of words: “This is when you come together. Right now. We’re getting the next goal.”
In the third period, Norwich pushes. The women yell and pound sticks after every almost, each nearly. Nine minutes into the period, Norwich scores. With five minutes left in the game, Norwich scores again to tie. Through overtime, Norwich remains a predator attacking another predator.
The game ends tied two-all. Leclerc, talking to her players in the lock-er room, points at the wall. “The wall stuck together today. Coming back from two goals down to the number-two team in the nation. Look at the red faces all around. Our wall never breaks.”
For Senior Day against Johnson and Wales, Leclerc has seven seniors and can only start six players on the ice. The wrong choice might divide her team.
The coach has to decide which senior to sit. She chooses Amanda Conway, the best goal scorer in Norwich women’s hockey history, soon to be named the NCAA Division III player of the year and a future fourth-draft draft pick in the National Women’s Hockey League. Before the game, Leclerc tells Conway that she would like to start the other seniors. Conway agrees; she wants the other seniors to shine. Once Leclerc tells the team her plan, captain McGovern asks if she can be the one to sit so that Con¬way can have the spotlight.
Slowly, week by week, the players adopt the mindset of their coach, as they realize that personal statistics— even Conway’s 106 record-setting goals—are meaningless if they don’t serve the team.
They also become more positive and calm in the face of adversity, which is another trait they learn from Leclerc. When coaching, Leclerc rarely yells. Instead, one-on-one and with a smile, she’ll ask a player who screwed up, “What’d you see?” When they answer, no matter what they say, Leclerc has her second pat question: “What do you think you should do instead?” When they answer again, Leclerc will grin. “Yup, that’s it. Right there.” And when they do it right, Leclerc says, “You feel the difference? That was great.”
Asked about this style of communication, Leclerc says, “I let players come up with the answers. If they make more mistakes, it just means that they’re on a slower timeline than other players, which is absolutely fine.”
Asked to describe their coach, her players touch on many of the capabilities that excellent leaders possess. Three players in the hallway: “She is patient.” “She understands everyone has a different background.” “She’ll ask, ‘What did you see?’” Three players coming back from the trainer’s room: “She wants to hear your perspective.” “She’s passionate, skilled, hardworking.” “She realizes there’s not one way to play.” A player outside the locker room: “She’s passionate and determined about the game and the team. She’s awesome.”
The first Saturday in March, Norwich faces Suffolk University in the 2020 New England Hockey Conference Tournament final. Leclerc, who is almost always smiling and calm, can’t stop pacing. She says to assistant coach Fitzpatrick, “I’m nervous because I’m not on the ice. I don’t have control of the play.”
Fitzpatrick chimes in immediately, “You’ve had control of this team since October.” And it shows on the ice as Norwich cruises to an 9-2 win.
With the game over, Leclerc crows, “Big team win!” The players break into applause. She smiles. “I love playoffs.” This is the season Leclerc lives for.
Fitzpatrick hands her the game puck and says, “Your first championship back at Norwich.” Leclerc shoves the puck in her pocket, forgetting it immediately. As always, she looks ahead, preparing, excited for the next challenge. In two days, Norwich will find out who they play in the NCAA playoffs.
Rather than focusing on external goals, like winning games, Leclerc sets the tone as head coach by instituting four core team values: team first, honesty, tenacity, and progress. Of the four, Leclerc says, “My biggest value is honesty. If a player is struggling, I want to be honest. It might not be what they want to hear, but they appreciate it.”
During practice one day, that focus on honesty is seen when a star player lets a breakaway go uncontested. Leclerc, her voice full of joy, talks to her. “This is an opportunity. Do you know how?” Her player stares at the ice. “This is your chance to work on your frustration,” Leclerc says, “which you said you wanted to work on.” She adds, “You’re not letting me down. You’re letting your teammates down.”
After the player has skated away, Leclerc reflects. “Each player communicates in their own way, comes from a different background, has a different hope for sports and life,” she says. “As long as they play with a team-first mentality, we work with those differences.”
One morning over spring break, the team gathers to learn who they will face in the NCAA tournament. Ranked 8th, the Cadets will play 9th ranked Amherst—the team they lost to two months ago 4-1—on Amherst’s home ice in Massachusetts. Whoever wins that NCAA first round matchup earns the right to play 1st-ranked Plattsburgh in the national quarterfinals.
Days later, in what should be a raucous Amherst arena, the rink echoes silence. Fans, friends, and family have been exiled due to the growing coronavirus outbreak. Leclerc captures the mood of the team: “There was chatter about the coronavirus. I was concerned about it being a distraction. It was a quiet bus ride.” This game, with all its distractions, will show Leclerc if she has transformed her Cadets into predators. In the locker room, Leclerc, her voice rising, yells, “How many times do you get a second chance, a revenge game?”
It’s been a long first season for Leclerc, a season with highs but also lows, much like her own hockey career. But the players are learning to mirror their coach. On the ice, Norwich dominates Amherst and wins 3-1. After the game, Leclerc says, “The players are checking off all the boxes. Revenge win. Fighting through ups and downs in the game. No power plays. There were a ton of opportunities for these players to falter. The players rose.”
Two days before facing Plattsburgh State University in the NCAA quarterfinals, the Cadets skate at Kreitzberg Arena. During the middle of practice, an athletic trainer enters the arena. Leclerc, seeing the trainer’s face, knows the news is bad. These last few weeks, Americans have learned the words coronavirus and COVID-19 and new meanings to quarantine and self-isolation.
“It’s done,” the trainer says.
Leclerc stares at her team. In this moment, the players don’t know their seniors have played their final game.
Leclerc blows the whistle, gathers her players. “For the first time, I don’t know what to say.” Then she mutters, “It’s all done.” The rink quiets except the sound of crying.
The pandemic has not only ended the season prematurely, but has shut down Norwich. Players have one day to vacate campus.
The team decides to play one last game. Instead of battling Plattsburgh, they joyously play each other. Forwards play goalie. Goalies skate. All 27 players at once chase after the puck, their last chance to be predators. The coaches watch from the bench. “They just want to be together, which is a testament to their bond,” Leclerc says. It is a testament to her leadership that this team comes together in its worst moment. Rather than playing for a national championship, they play for their 27-woman family.
When time runs out, the players gather at center ice and do one last Norwich stick raise and slap, as if they’ve just upset Plattsburgh. Then the underclassmen create a tunnel of raised sticks for the seniors to skate through.
Off the ice, players describe this year’s team, Leclerc’s first Norwich team. One says, “We are passionate.” Another says, “This is not a job.” Another offers, “We enjoy coming to the rink.” A player adds, “We are tenacious.” A teammate adds, “We’re a machine.” Another chimes in, “We all have different roles.” Another player says, “It doesn’t work if someone isn’t doing their role.” A player sums this season up: “We’re family.”
In a hallway of the arena, players and coaches gather for a banquet. Instead of formal attire, players wear sweatpants. They lean against cinderblock walls. With their season ended by a pandemic, not wins and losses, Leclerc tells them, “There’s no other banquet I’d rather be at than eating pizza near a stinky locker room with you.” Players bite into Depot pizza. “At 4:30 this morning, I was thinking about my journey with you,” Leclerc says. “At our first meeting, every one of you said, ‘I want to win a national championship.’” Leclerc pauses. “There’s no doubt we were winning the national championship,” she says, breaking into a grin. “We have a brick wall in our locker room.”
Leclerc’s first year as head coach, Norwich went 23-4-2. Three more wins, and they would have earned their third national championship. But Leclerc knows her first season, this pandemic season, is about more than wins and losses. She tells her players, “Thank you for letting me get to know you, for growing with you.” Leclerc pauses again. “I don’t want this to end.”
But time listens to no one’s wishes, especially during a pandemic. Soon players shuffle off for homes far from Kreitzberg, hockey bags slung over their shoulders, sticks in hand. Leclerc focuses not on games won, lost, or canceled by COVID-19 but on her love for this Norwich team. As her players trickle out, Leclerc says, “For a whole year, every morning, you wake up saying you’re going to win the national championship. There’s this certainty. Then you watch the players walk down the hall¬way, headed to the airport. It doesn’t feel fair to anybody.” She pauses, thinking about how all other seasons end with a buzzer and victory or defeat. Not with an email declaring the season is over. “The season doesn’t feel finished,” Leclerc says. “Having a pizza party after a practice shouldn’t be the way the season ends.” She wants to take the time to celebrate the players, to let their successes and growths sink in.
But then, as always, she looks toward tomorrow. In the emptying hallway, her voice quiet and determined, she says, “We’re winning the national championship next year. We are.”
Associate Professor of English Sean Prentiss is a former rec-league hockey player. When not skating on his homemade ice rink with his daughter, he is writing. His most recent books are Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Desert Grave and Crosscut: Poems.