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Dempsey and the Pride winning on and off the ice

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The five year veteran is a All-Star team captain

The Boston Pride had just finished off their 11th consecutive victory, an 8-3 thrashing of the Metropolitan Riveters in New Jersey. As the Pride players exited their locker room to board the bus heading back to Boston they were greeted by a young fan Reagan Staley.

Reagan wasn’t just waiting for her heroes to get their autographs though, she wanted to give them her autograph in exchange. Her parents had hockey cards of Reagan made up that she was signing for the players.

“Oh my goodness! This is the cutest thing ever!” exclaimed one player. “Can I have one too?” said another with an ear-to-ear grin. “I’m putting this on my refrigerator,” boasted another.

Finally, Pride captain Jillian Dempsey emerged from the locker room, apologizing to me for being a ‘slow dresser’. I told her it was fine, and it was no problem to wait a little while longer as she exchanged autographs with one of her biggest fans. Dempsey, who is a teacher by day and the NWHL’s all-time leading scorer by night, couldn’t stop smiling as she watched Reagan sign her ‘rookie card’ and caught up with her parents.

The Staleys and Dempsey met for the first time last season at a game in New Jersey. When the Boston captain saw Reagan watching pregame warmups pressed up against the glass it touched her enough to stop to say hi before she made her way back to the locker room to get ready for a game against the Riveters. Dempsey brought over a puck and took some pictures that will certainly be lifetime memories for the four-year-old aspiring hockey player.

“It was so cute. She was here last season on the glass, just looking down and smiling; just the cutest. So I just wanted to get her a puck,” she said, unable to contain the purest of grins. “I met her after and now it’s great that her family can make it out once a year to see us play. That’s definitely a big part of it because I’m a teacher too and my students come to the games.”

“They get excited about it. Of course, we want to keep spreading that message, to make it more visible, but that comes with the growth. We can see the impact that it does have on the little girls that come and get to watch us, and that’s very important to us,” added the Harvard alumna.

For a while during the off-season, with so much uncertainty amongst so many women hockey players, Dempsey was unsure if she would continue to play for the Pride and in the NWHL “I think amidst all of the craziness it was unclear what path to take and there wasn’t a lot of information on one side. A lot of people decided early and they were set in that way,” explained Dempsey.

“It just didn’t really feel right to me, and I was going back and forth inside. Ultimately playing in the NWHL felt right. This is growing, and it’s getting better every year. I get a lot out of it and I think the kids coming to the games on the other side of the glass do too. For me, this was the right choice.”

All she’s done since returning for a fifth season with the league and Boston is continue her assault on the league’s record books, helped guide the Pride to a 15-0-0 record, and the 28-year-old is the league’s current leader in points (26) and co-leader in assists (15). She was also named one of the two captains for the NWHL’s 5th All-Star Game, which will be held in Boston on Feb. 8-9.

All of that is nice for us to talk about, but for Dempsey, it’s all about what she does next. What’s done is done, good or bad. “I just love playing hockey, I love my linemates, and this group is awesome. I come to the rink excited every day,” she replied. “It’s all about how can I get better or help my teammates get better. Just do my job every shift. Try to backcheck hard. Play strong in all three zones.”

During the first two NWHL seasons, Boston was nearly unstoppable. They captured the first-ever Isobel Cup and returned to the Final in the second season before falling in a rematch against the Buffalo Beauts. The past two seasons they have also been eliminated by Buffalo, and it didn’t help that both times they had to travel north to play them on the road. That’s a trip that Dempsey and her mates are doing everything in their power to avoid making again in the upcoming postseason.

“That trek to Buffalo is long. I think having a home-ice advantage is extremely important in this league, especially when it’s a one-game playoff. We feel confident and good at home and the same on the road. But sometimes it takes a little longer to get going on the road,” said Dempsey when asked about the three consecutive playoff losses to the Beauts.

This season’s team is very reminiscent of the first two editions of the Pride. High-scoring, a solid group of defenders, complemented by two outstanding netminders. “There’s just a mentality or an attitude where everybody is excited to be here, everybody’s bought into the culture that we’ve created,” replied Dempsey when asked what has led to the team’s great success this season.

“There’s a sense of everyone is just going out there and doing their job, and knowing that no matter who we have out there they are going to be doing their job and working their hardest. That is an awesome feeling to have that kind of depth, to have that kind of trust in everybody. Staying after practice to shoot extra pucks, training hard in the offseason; it’s nice in these moments to see all of that hard work paying off.”

Currently, seven of the top-11 scorers play for Boston. NWHL veterans Dempsey, McKenna Brand, Emily Fluke, Alyssa Wohlfeiler, Mary Parker, Mallory Souliotis, Lauren Kelly, and Lexi Bender have all established new career-highs in points with nine games still to play in the regular season. Rookies Christina Putigna, Lexie Laing, and Tori Sullivan are all in the top-16 in the league in points and their duo of rookie goaltenders (Lovisa Selander, Victoria Hanson) rank first and second in save percentage and goals-against average.

Head Coach Paul Mara has done a masterful job of blending all of this talent together to become the NWHL’s most dangerous squad. Boston has outscored their opponents by a total of 53 goals thus far this season: three times they’ve scored eight goals in a game and two other times they potted seven. Since he took over prior to last season the Pride has gone 26-5-0.

So how has he been so successful with this group? It goes back to the culture and then traces back to Mara’s guidance. “He has high expectations for us and he kind of takes no-nonsense. He tells us what we are capable of, what we can do, and let’s go out there and do it,” explained Dempsey.

“He also puts trust in us to just go play as long as we do the right things and focus on the details. The consistency from season to season helps too, building on what we started last year. He has really been great for us. We’re excited about what we have here with this group and we just want to make the most of it.”

So far so good on and off the ice this season for Dempsey and the Pride, and as the stakes get higher later in the season it looks as if all roads will be going through Boston.