The first time Jillian Dempsey (Winthrop, Mass.) took the ice, nothing came naturally.
“I was at the Larsen Rink in Winthrop, and I didn’t like it much,” laughs the Harvard University senior forward. “It was challenging. I couldn’t stand up and I kept falling.”
Struggling on skates, Dempsey looked to her father for guidance and encouragement — something she would find herself doing for years to come.
“I remember my father telling me to keep going, to keep trying, and that I would get it,” said Dempsey. “It’s funny to think of a time that I was frustrated with skating, because now it is like second nature to me.”
It’s more than second nature for one of the nation’s leading women’s college hockey scorers — it is a way of life. Dempsey played her 100th game in a Harvard jersey on Nov. 18 against Boston University, scoring her 114th point on an assist in the game. She has been a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s best player, an All-ECAC and All-Ivy team selection, and has been a member of several United States teams in international tournaments, including the gold-medal-winning 2011 Four Nations Cup team.
But Dempsey is quick to point out that those many accomplishments would be impossible without the support of her family — namely her father, firefighter Jeff Dempsey.
“My father would take me to my 6 a.m. practices or those other awful ice times you have in mites and squirts,” recalled Dempsey. “He was always positive, and he never complained. He would get me up and tell me that it was time for hockey, always took me to the rink, always laced up my skates when I wasn’t able to.”
Not only did the elder Dempsey take his daughter to the rink for practice, but also he took her to women’s college games in the area to show her what was possible if she kept up the sport. One such game set Dempsey on her path toward Harvard in the sixth grade.
“My father took me to watch Harvard play, and I knew right then that this is where I wanted to go,” said Dempsey. “I liked the hard work and attitude of the program, and I liked how they played, so I decided that I was going to go to Harvard and play for the hockey team. So everything I was doing after that was focused on that one goal.”
Having such a narrow focus at only 12 years old still inspires some teasing from her teammates. “Some people try to joke with me about it, saying, ‘Oh, well I knew I wanted to come to Harvard from the time I was in first grade!’ But it’s true, I really have wanted to be here since I was in sixth grade. Some of them didn’t even know they were coming here until the day before they signed.”
It took dedication and a considerable amount of work to get Dempsey to Harvard. At 5-foot-4, she is undersized compared to many of her peers, but she has overcome that obstacle as well as others. She draws upon that tenacity to lead her team as co-captain this season.
“I lead by example by always working hard,” said Dempsey. “Working hard is one of the only things we can control, which is why you have to give 100 percent at everything you do, even drills.”
That mentality is one that is a direct influence of Dempsey’s father. “I’ve always told my kids to work hard on every single drill,” he said when asked about his daughter’s work ethic. “I’ve been around the game for a while, and I’ve seen too many kids not do that and it hurts you down the line. She knows that if you don’t do it properly in practice, it’s not going to be proper in the game.”
When Dempsey needs to give her teammates a little extra motivation to practice hard, she draws upon her father’s lessons and points to a longtime Ivy foe that has given the Crimson fits over the past few years.
“When I see that we’re going through the motions in a drill or just skating, I try to inspire them. I tell them it’s double overtime against Cornell,” explains Dempsey.
The Big Red have gotten out to a similarly hot start as Harvard, and most followers of the women’s game expect the two teams to challenge for the top of the ECAC this season. Dempsey hopes that the Crimson not only press Cornell for dominance, but can finally find a way to do the same to other national powerhouses.
“We’ve always had a solid team since I’ve been here, and we’ve always been in the thick of the ECAC,” said Dempsey. “But nationally, we were always the team that just put up a good fight against national powerhouses but couldn’t win.
“This year more than ever, especially with this freshman class, we honestly believe we can win the national championship. We determined that we want to be a team that no one works harder than. We won’t let anyone outwork us.”
The Crimson also have the benefit of the one of the world’s best coaches — Katey Stone (Watertown, Conn.), who is in the midst of her 19th season behind the bench at Bright Arena. Dempsey credits Stone for building an attitude and culture that not only appealed to her as a sixth-grader, but also helps her team toward their goals.
“She respects us as players. She doesn’t yell, but when we need a little talking to, she knows how to do it,” explains Dempsey. “I know that she has the experience in a variety of situations that can help us. It’s good feeling to be that confident in your coach.”
Dempsey hopes that her days playing under Stone are not limited to the remainder of Harvard’s 2012-13 season. She has her eyes set on a spot on Stone’s international squads for the tournaments leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics. “My next dream is to be a part of the U.S. Olympic team, so we’ll see about that. Whatever happens, I want to play as long as I can.”
But Dempsey refuses to jump the gun. She wants to focus on her last year playing for the team that has guided her hockey journey since she was young. “I’m looking to soak up every time I get to wear a Harvard jersey. Sometimes I just have to stop and think, ‘Wow, I’m really here, and all that hard work paid off.’ ”
Dempsey shares that sense of achievement over her college career with the man that set her on her path. “It has been a thrill to watch her,” her father said. “Thinking back to when she was six or seven years old, I can’t believe we’ve come this far. It’s been a great experience.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.