By Kevin Conway
Maybe it was fate or perhaps destiny. Then again, maybe it was just plain luck.
Whatever it was that intervened that day just six short years ago, it’s turned Noble and Greenough senior Brianna Laing into one of the most dominating prep school hockey players at her position in the country.
Back in 2006, Laing was a young, frustrated forward on her Assabet Valley squirt squad, struggling for points and playing time. But even as an 11-year-old, she knew something didn’t feel right.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t like playing forward, because I loved hockey,” Laing says. “I just knew that my sisters were better than me at forward.”
Enter Northeastern University Hall of Fame goaltender and former women’s national team star Kelly Dyer (Acton, Mass.). After briefly speaking to the wide-eyed Marblehead, Mass., youngster at the end of an all-girls clinic, Dyer gave Laing one of her old sticks as a gift — and a New England girls prep school all-star netminder was born.
“I hadn’t had any thoughts of me being a goalie prior to her giving me that stick,” says Laing, who less than two years later was considered seasoned enough between the pipes to be offered a spot on the Nobles’ varsity team as a seventh-grader. “As soon as she gave me that stick, I knew that was what I needed to play. I knew that I was supposed to be a goalie and not a forward like my sisters or a defenseman like my dad. From that point on, I decided to be a goalie.”
No doubt it’s a decision Bulldogs head coach Tom Resor, entering his 13th season on the girls bench, is thankful for.
“She’s a take-charge goalie,” says Resor, whose club is again considered the team to beat as the defending New England Division 1 champions. “She’s aggressive and challenges shooters. Brianna’s very, very competitive, even in practice where she gets a ton of work, which is where her competitive fire really comes out. Going up against Brianna in practice has obviously made us a much better team.”
Although obviously talented, Laing spent her first four seasons at Nobles as the backup to now-Boston College freshman goalie Taylor Blake, playing only sparingly while honing her crease skills. But when called upon to take over the No. 1 role as a junior last season, the starter for the silver medal-winning 2011 U.S. Women’s National Under-18 team lived up to all expectations.
Laing posted a 22-0-1 record with 12 shutouts for the 13-time defending Independent School League champs behind a minuscule 0.81 goals-against average and imposing .944 save percentage. Those numbers helped her earn a New England Division 1 second-team all-star selection and commitment from Harvard University to play for the Crimson as a freshman next year.
Besides her four-year apprenticeship behind Blake, Laing considers birth order as having something to do with her immediate success in goalie pads.
“In hockey, you have to have a mentality that you never want to lose, and the goalie has to take that even further,” says Laing, who boasts 25 career shutouts for Nobles. “If you have a bad day and let in a bunch of goals, you give your team no shot at winning. So goalies have to be really, really competitive.
“And I’m the middle child in my family. Not that I was always competing with my sisters, but I think I am more competitive because I was always trying to get the attention of my parents.”
Resor admits his Bulldogs program, which has captured 12 straight ISL titles and six New England crowns during his tenure, is the biggest benefactor of having Dennis and Jerilyn Laing’s three spirited daughters in uniform. Besides Brianna, her older sister Denna, now a junior captain at Princeton, helped lead Nobles to back-to-back New England titles in 2008 and 2009, while youngest sibling Lexie is expected to build on her impressive 19-goal, 48-point sophomore campaign of a year ago.
“To have three Division 1-level hockey players in the same family is unusual, especially in the last five years where we’ve seen a real rise in the women’s game,” Resor says. “It’s quite a feat that the Laing kids have done as well as they have in very competitive environments at the club and high school levels.
“They’ve navigated all that very successfully and do a great job keeping all of it in perspective. And they’re not just hockey players but great students, too, which is a real credit to their parents, who have made a lot of sacrifices for them — living in Marblehead, going to school in Dedham and playing (club hockey) in Concord. Their dad coaches at Assabet and mom is involved in a lot of the team activities. It’s a real family affair.”
Ironically, despite her instantaneous success as Nobles’ No. 1 goaltender, Laing did suffer a humble beginning, albeit one game. Her only career loss entering this season came in her first-ever start for the Bulldogs as a sophomore against Choate.
“I thought I should be playing more in my sophomore year, and then we lost that game,” remembers Laing, who owns a 37-1-1 record as a returning senior. “It really hurt at the time. But my mom filmed the game and I got to go home and watch what I did wrong. There were a couple of things I could have done better, but what really happened was I was really, really nervous at the start of that game. I felt a lot of pressure because I was the backup goalie starting a really important game that the starting goalie was upset about and I felt some of team might have been, too. I think I just lost sight of what I was doing — my focus — and forgot how I was supposed to play.
“From that point on, I decided not to focus too much on my technique and just play — for me — and not worry about everyone else.”
Considering Laing’s gaudy career 0.79 GAA, .939 save percentage and 38-game unbeaten streak since, it’s tough to argue that approach.
“In girls hockey, more than boys hockey, goals are hard to come by,” says Resor, whose 28-0-1 Bulldogs beat Lawrence Academy in the Division 1 championship last season. “A lot of games go into the third period tied or a one-goal difference despite one team may be dominating territorially, not giving up many shots.
“We’ve been blessed with a really skilled players and a lot of team speed that generates a lot of (scoring) opportunities,” he says. “But if the game is 0-0 going into the third period and Brianna hasn’t faced a lot of shots and the other goalie has faced a ton and feels hot, then there’s clearly pressure on Bri to be there when the team needs her. And she’s shown incredible ability to do that.”
Thanks to a gift from Kelly Dyer, that is.
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.