By Adam Kaufman
It doesn’t matter how far back in time you go, parents always have relished the idea of their children following in their paths.
Generally, that’s viewed as a good thing, the thought of a young son or daughter walking up and saying, “Mom (or Dad), I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
Those words would melt a parent’s heart.
For many around the world, in all leagues and levels, hockey’s been a family business. It may be just a game to some, but it can be a life-changer for others. For change to occur, however, it must be set in motion. It’s amazing, the simple notion that one little decision at one stage of life can affect a family for generations to come.
In 1974, Guilford, Conn., native Dawn Sprague was a student at Providence College, when she was recruited by the school as a freshman to join its inaugural women’s hockey team, put into existence because of Title IX. There weren’t many women’s sports; the school had only recently gone co-ed and she had never really played the game, at least on ice. Field hockey was Dawn’s game, but PC didn’t have it. Her experience with hockey that required skates was limited to the ponds with her father, two brothers and neighborhood kids, wearing uncomfortable hand-me-down skates.
Still, she was interested. The school provided brand-new equipment, rounded up some figure skater converts and the coaching began, courtesy of Tommy Palamara, a student at the time. The team improved over Dawn’s four years, going from a 0-8-0 mark in its first season to a 20-22-2 record for her college career. Since then, the Friars have won at least that many games in a single season 14 times.
Fast forward several years and Dawn, once a lawyer and a teacher, is now married to Stephen Foley and has worked as a proofreader for the past dozen years. Her time in the game is well behind her. Her daughters, though, have carried on the tradition.
Catherine Foley, currently a Latin teacher and girls’ hockey coach at the Boston Latin School, played for Boston University’s first women’s team from 2005-07. After two years on the blue line, six points and 44 games, she decided to pursue other interests outside of hockey.
But her younger sister — you’d think she sleeps wearing her skates.
The 22-year-old Kelly Foley is a senior at Dartmouth College, and she’s one of three captains for the Big Green women’s ice hockey team. In 83 career games, the left winger has put up 69 points, including 32 goals, and has been honored with countless accolades.
As a junior in 2010-11, Kelly was named a New England Women’s Division 1 All-Star, first-team All-Ivy, second-team All-ECAC and, equally impressive, she was her team’s MVP, guiding the Big Green to a 22-10-0 record and a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals.
Now, as her team intends to be NCAA-worthy once again and she prepares for her senior sendoff into the unknown, a career she hopes will somehow involve hockey despite majoring in history and government, the real fun in this story is not looking ahead but rather looking back.
“Since I’m the youngest of four, my three siblings (Anne, 28; Steve, 27; and Catherine, 24) started skating so I did too, when I was about 10 or 11 months old because my parents didn’t want to get a babysitter, so they stuck me on skates before I could really walk,” Kelly said, laughing. “After that, I just loved it and was a huge rink rat.”
Growing up in South Boston, Mass., the family spent a lot of time at the Murphy Memorial Rink. Dawn, with her playing days limited to PC alumni games, started a girls’ hockey program in Southie, where she coached Kelly when she started her own career as a 4-year-old.
“This was in the ’80s, so it was very difficult to convince parents to let their girls play hockey because girls don’t play hockey,” Dawn said. “The mentality of a hockey player was not what you wanted your young daughter to grow into.”
Some parents came to understand that the girls were protected by the equipment and they could simply go out and have a good time, with no parental bias allowed as all of the kids were required to play equally.
It was clear early on, though, that Kelly stood out among the rest. As a mite, she played for the Boston Junior Bruins, a team primarily made up of boys, as well as the South Boston Youth Hockey Mites, before eventually going on to play at Assabet Valley (Concord, Mass.) and Tabor Academy (Marion, Mass.). A two-sport star at Tabor and captain of both the hockey and softball teams as a senior, Kelly was rewarded as the John Carlton Award winner in 2008, an honor given by the Boston Bruins to a high school student-athlete who excels both on the ice and in the classroom.
Always humble and refusing to view herself as a “watch-out player,” Kelly’s success at Dartmouth, particularly alongside linemates Reagan Fischer and Jenna Hobeika, has been nothing short of incredible. Now, after a 32-point junior season, she doesn’t have a specific total in mind for this season, other than to hopefully reach the 100-point career plateau, which only 32 girls at the school have reached.
To Dawn, however, it’s tough to imagine Kelly attaining any milestone greater than she already has — by following in her mom’s footsteps … or skating lanes.
“To see Kelly playing at the level she’s playing at, I’m really proud,” gushed Dawn, who has not missed more than a few of Kelly’s games during her time at Dartmouth, even when her daughter was out with a fractured fibula as a sophomore. “It’s exciting because part of being a parent, you want your daughter to feel she won’t be held back by stereotypes and things like that, and can still maintain who she is. You can maintain your femininity, and you don’t have to be like a guy to play the sport.
“It’s my love, my passion,” she continued. “I think what she got from me is that nothing could hold her back, that it’s not an all-man’s world. Since I played, I could personify that for her and she could really believe and not feel self-conscious for playing hockey, that it was just another sport and was a part of her.”
Kelly still talks to her parents every day, largely because hockey’s kept her away from home almost entirely since she was 15. Now that she’s long surpassed her mom’s abilities on the ice, though, they don’t talk much about hockey anymore, other than to recap a game here and there. In some ways, that’s because of how often hockey was discussed while she was growing up.
“My parents pushed me when I was younger and were harder on me than a lot of other parents, but just in the way that they knew I could do better,” Kelly said. “They wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t think I could, and I guess they were right. They’re always right.”
When Kelly was very young, the family would go to Dawn’s alumni games at Providence. At the time, she’d watch her mom and wonder what it would be like to do that when she grew up. Back then, when Dawn started the girls’ program in South Boston, she probably wondered the same thing of her daughters.
Now with one daughter a coach and the other a star forward in her final college season, Dawn knew she was making a difference when she first laced up her skates for the Friars’ first-ever women’s game. Kelly’s parents may not always be right, but Dawn certainly had no idea how right she’d become.
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Adam Kaufman can be reached at email@example.com.