I’ve written several features about Jillian Dempsey over the years and, despite having access to a thesaurus, I find myself describing her and her game the same way repeatedly. Dempsey is a cerebral player who can seemingly do it all. There are plenty of faster players and players with better shots out there, but few players have a toolkit as impressive and balanced as the captain of the Boston Pride. She’s a coach’s dream.
She’s one of the best all-around players on the planet.
If the NWHL is still up and running when Dempsey hangs up her skates, she will have a trophy named after her. That’s how impactful she’s been to the league and for the Pride. The upcoming season — scheduled to begin on Jan. 23 — will be Dempsey’s sixth in the NWHL and eighth pro season. She joined the CWHL’s Boston Blades after an outstanding career at Harvard that was interrupted by a silver medal victory at the 2011 IIHF Women’s World Championship with Team USA.
Dempsey, who will be 30 when the season is underway, has won a Clarkson Cup and an Isobel Cup. She shared MVP honors with Allie Thunstrom in the 2019-20 NWHL season and led the league in scoring with a record-setting 40 points in 24 games. With each passing season she seems to add more and more to her game. She just keeps getting better.
“When I stop and think about it, I graduated college in 2013, so I’m heading into my eighth professional season,” Dempsey told The Ice Garden. “It’s hard to believe how quickly that’s gone. I’m now one of the real veterans of the league.
“In a way nothing has really changed,” Dempsey continued. “I have school and I have hockey. I teach during the day, I train, and then I have hockey after school. I’m just carrying on as I have been for what feels like my entire life. I’m a very routine-oriented, consistent person. The college training became professional hockey training and being a student became being a teacher.”
Today, Dempsey is one of the biggest stars in the NWHL and, some would say, the epitome of success for pro women’s hockey in North America. But, back in 2015, she and her Blades teammates were filled with questions about leaving the CWHL to join a new league that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“Looking back, we had just won the Clarkson Cup with the Blades in March. Out of nowhere – at least for me, I had never heard any whisperings about anything – the NWHL was holding tryouts that Mother’s Day weekend. Some of the players, myself included, weren’t sure what it was. Was it legitimate? Do we do it? The majority of our veteran players said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ We wanted to play in a league that would pay us.
“I think that going to the tryout meant that no matter what you couldn’t play in the CWHL the next year, so it was a big risk to take,” she continued. “There was a lot of uncertainty around it and no way of knowing if it was for real. Getting paid to play was such a new idea, it was hard to believe it was a reality. But we took the chance and that first season. There was so much excitement around it. We played at my home rink from Harvard, we had packed crowds, and there was so much energy and passion.”
The success of that year was amplified because Dempsey and the Pride shared the victory with teammate Denna Laing, who suffered a spinal cord injury in the Outdoor Women’s Classic. After Laing’s injury, the Pride — a team that had a staggering amount of talent — began to play like the juggernauts they were on paper. They rallied for Denna. “We won the Cup that year,” Dempsey shared. “I got to be part of that inaugural championship team.”
Dempsey has grown a lot as a player since that first season. For that first Pride team, she was a middle-six center who provided the team with scoring depth and sound defense playing behind national team stars like Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight. That didn’t stop her from finishing fourth (tied) in scoring on Boston for her first two years in the league. When the national team players were gone, her ice time soared, and she led the team in scoring in 2017-18 with 15 points in 17 games.
That ability to step up and flourish playing in a larger role has come to define Dempsey’s pro career. This past season, as Boston’s top center, she was the engine of the best line in the league with Christina Putigna and McKenna Brand on her wings. Dempsey finished the year with 29 primary points at even strength, 77.1 percent 5-on-5 Goals For Percentage (GF%), a +11 penalty differential, and a 62.41 percent success rate in faceoffs. In case you were wondering, those are the underlying numbers of a superstar.
“When I was younger, I know that I sometimes didn’t always, ‘Work smarter, not harder,” Dempsey admits. “But that was always part of my game. I wanted to get out there and buzz and go all out the whole time. I think as I’ve developed as a player, I’ve gained experience about reading situations and learning to be more patient. Playing all these years at a higher level has helped with my play off the puck. Early on, I was all, ‘Go, go, go, go!’ Now I’m a lot more patient off the puck, but I could still use more patience on the doorstep.”
The modest three-time All-Star believes that she has grown into playing center as a pro after spending some time on the wing in college. Dempsey credits her improved awareness and instincts with experience at her position. Playing center requires attention to detail with and without the puck in all three zones and she has that in spades. Dempsey’s dedication to the game has earned her the respect of both teammates and competitors over the years. She always puts in the work and it shows.
As you might imagine, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique challenge to a player who relies on routines as much as Dempsey does. Her gym, Mike Boyle’s Strength & Conditioning, closed and, as a result, her routine was shattered. She immediately purchased an Airdyne Assault Bike, some free weights and kettlebells, and basic gym necessities. She’s not sure how she would have kept up her conditioning – or stayed sane – without her bike and the workouts she has been able to do at home.
Dempsey and McKenna Brand regularly went to the park to shoot pucks and work on stickhandling with the help of some synthetic ice tiles. That dry ice training has helped keep her core skills sharp before she finally got back on the ice in mid-July. Still, it’s been strange for Dempsey and the Pride to not be playing hockey games with December just around the corner.
“I’ve really shifted my thinking to focus on what I can control,” Dempsey said. “My perspective now is we have some extra time, so what are we going to do with it? Let’s find ways to get better individually and as a team until when we can play and compete.”
It’s that work ethic that has made Dempsey a perfect fit as the Pride’s captain. Her attitude is infectious and her mission for the team is crystal clear. As far as Dempsey is concerned, Boston has unfinished business to settle when the season begins. The Pride were favorites to lift Isobel last year, but the Cup Final was postponed and eventually cancelled due to the pandemic.
“We’re hungrier than ever,” Dempsey said. “Last year we were hungry, but we’re even hungrier now. The goal wasn’t achieved. We want it. Not winning it gives us that much more motivation while we train and prepare to compete.”
Dempsey knows this isn’t the same group that set records and won the regular season last year. In particular, she knows the team will miss veteran defender Lexi Bender. But she’s confident in the rookies who have joined the fold and believes that the Pride have all the right energy and pieces to win a second Isobel Cup.
When you look at Boston’s roster for the upcoming season it’s hard to disagree.
Data from HerHockeyCounts.com.