The influence of the Family Stone
It takes about one minute to walk uphill from the old rink to the new one at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn. Nothing, really. And everything.
The Mays Rink, the old one, opened in 1951, and it has all the charm of an engine room. But that's where Katey Stone, the youngest of the four children of longtime athletic director Larry Stone, learned to play and love hockey.
"It's a wonderful life," she says, "when your dad gives you the keys to the rink on Christmas morning."
The Odden Arena at the boarding school is a different deal. Built at the turn of this century, it's a spacious and gleaming ice palace that would be the envy of most college hockey programs. That's where Coach Katey Stone took her U.S. women's Olympic team on November 22 to play in an exhibition against Taft's boys varsity. The gals beat the guys 2-1 in overtime, but the score was less important than the performance; they showed Stone and her staff that they were on the right route for Sochi.
"The fact that they played so well at Taft made it even more special," Stone says. "They found themselves in the same place I found myself."
Her father, now 86, was there, as were her three siblings. Mother Lucille, who greeted thousands of Taft applicants as the receptionist in the admissions office, passed away in August 2012, shortly after Katey, the Harvard coach, was named to lead the Olympic team.
"It was a great homecoming for all of us," says Kelly Stone, the athletic director at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, Conn. "We're all so proud of Katey."
Larry Stone was not only the Taft AD for 34 years, but also was the football and baseball coach. "I think he still holds a New Hampshire high school sprint record," Kelly says. His baseball players were known as "Stone's Clones" because they all had the same batting stance. But if he was set in some ways, he was flexible in others, happily ushering in the era of Title IX at Taft.
And as it turned out, the keys to Mays weren't the only ones Larry and "Lu" gave their kids. All of them became exceptional athletes and dedicated coaches. Mike, the eldest, played pro baseball before getting into coaching and settling down at UMass, where he's coached the Minutemen men's baseball team to 633 victories and eight Atlantic 10 titles. Kelly was a star athlete in three sports at the University of New Hampshire, then moved into coaching and sports administration. Jim, an exceptional center fielder for the University of North Carolina, is now the football and baseball coach, as well as the assistant athletic director, at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J.
And then there's the youngest.
"I'm not sure she's going to want this known," says Jim. "We called Katey 'the Big Banana' because of her yellow hair. Now I just call her Ban."
"There's eight years between us," says Kelly, "but I knew there was something special about her. She played baseball and hockey with the boys. I remember watching her deck a boy when she played on Jimmy's Pee Wee team.
"Now look at her. She's the first woman to coach the women's Olympic hockey team. She's the winningest coach in Division I women's hockey. But you know what makes me proudest of her? Just the fact that all of her players, past and present, call her 'Coach Stone.' I love that."
That uphill climb from Banana to Coach Stone began at Taft, where Katey played field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse. "Man, was she tenacious," says Jim. She chose to go the University of New Hampshire, not only because of family roots but also because the Wildcats offered her the chance to play both ice hockey and lacrosse. On the ice, she helped UNH win two Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) titles (1986, 1987); on the lacrosse field, she was a two-time All-American as well as a member of the 1985 national championship team.
Upon graduation in 1989, she took up the family business, coaching at Tabor Academy, Northfield Mount Hermon and Exeter. She replaced longtime coach Jim Dooley as the Harvard women's hockey coach prior to the 1994-95 season, and within five years had turned a decent program into the 1998-99 team that went 33-1-0 and won the national championship.
"I was so impressed by Coach Stone on my recruiting trip," says Jen Botterill, one of Canada's greatest players, who was just a freshman on that national championship team. "I remember calling my parents from Harvard Square and telling them, 'This is where I want to go.'
"Coach has this amazing ability to motivate you. She has great systems and all, but it's this combination of demanding and understanding that makes her such a great coach. She wanted us to skate with the image of our jerseys flapping in the wind, and that's what I always took with me. And she totally understood that I had a commitment to the Canadian team. Country first, Harvard second."
Botterill, who will be a commentator for TSN in Sochi, would go on to become the first two-time winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in collegiate women's hockey. Under Stone, Harvard has produced 21 All-Americas, nine ECAC players of the year and nine Ivy League players of the year. Nine of her players have been members of the U.S. Olympic team, including Julie Chu, Michelle Picard, Lyndsey Fry and Joesphine Pucci on this year's squad.
So it was pretty much a no-brainer when she was chosen as the first woman to take the squad to the Olympics, to try and wrest the gold medal from Team Canada.
"Gold or bust," says Stone. "In some ways, this has been a coaching utopia. The best part has been to select and coach a team without regard to recruiting, to work with all these incredibly talented women and find just the right mix of abilities and intangibles.
"The worst part? Telling the players, each of whom deserved to be on the team, that they weren't going to Sochi. I hated that. I was once told I wasn't going to be on the U.S. lacrosse team, so I know how disappointed they were."
In many ways, the 47-year-old Stone is still the girl punching out the boy in pee wee hockey. Team USA and Team Canada had two brawls leading up to Sochi, which led Stone to say, "I am not a proponent of fighting in hockey. I am a proponent of standing up for yourself. If players are going to take cheap shots at our players, there's going to be answer for that."
"Katey is fiercely competitive," says Reagan Carey, the general manager of Team USA and a former captain of both the Colby College volleyball and hockey teams. "One of the great things about the Olympic Training Center is your access to other sports. It doesn't matter if the fun event was water polo or shooting or fencing or handball -- Katey does not like to lose."
That's why she wasn't very happy at Team USA's performance at the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid in early November. The women not only lost to Canada for the third time in a month, but also fell to Finland, 3-1, thanks to Noora Raty, the University of Minnesota goalie who stopped 58 American shots.
"To be honest, I was a little worried," Stone says. "We hadn't jelled yet. Maybe the players were more concerned about making the team than about making the team better. We knew we had to step it up."
And they did. "We thought we had been working hard," says Pucci, one of the seven defenders on the team. "But Coach took it up another level. And with each practice, we could feel ourselves getting better."
So that game against Taft wasn't just a homecoming for Katey; it was a test for her other family.
"It's such a big responsibility for our little sister," says Jim. "We were all a little apprehensive about the team. That's why it was great to see them play so well."
That's the team that beat Canada four times in December: 5-1 in Calgary, 4-1 in Grand Forks, N.D., 3-2 in St. Paul, Minn. and 3-2 in Toronto. Those games won't count in Sochi, and Canada is still the winner of the last three Olympics. Then there's Finland, which has one of the best goalies in the world in Raty.
But if a recent exhibition at the Belmont Hill (Mass.) School is any indication, this might be the best team the U.S. has ever sent to the Olympics. The women were playing the Northern Cyclones, a junior men's team from New Hampshire that was bigger, better and far deeper than the Taft varsity. The women won 3-0 on goals by Anne Schlepper, Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight, but even more impressive was their energy and choreography -- the support they gave one another was extraordinary.
"I'm rooting for Canada, of course," says Botterill. "But I do like what Coach Stone has done with the U.S. team. I like their speed, I like the way they play. I like that she had a lot of the players living with families while they trained in the Boston area. She's created a family atmosphere that's clearly working."
"Here's what the Stones believe in," says Kelly. "Discipline. Hard work. Confidence. Loyalty. Commitment. Never give up. It's always about the team. Fun, too.
"If you believe in those things, then it doesn't matter if your opponent is faster or bigger or stronger than you. You'll win anyway. That's what being a Stone is all about."
That uphill climb is nothing. And everything.