It has been a tough year for Harvard hockey. Two years removed from a national title game appearance, the Crimson are 1-9-1 to start 2016-17. The schedule, featuring six games against ranked opponents in nine contests, has been brutal. So has the turnover, which has seen stalwarts including Emerance Maschmeyer, Michelle Picard, and Miye D’Oench depart, leaving a younger and less experienced squad to find its way.
A bright light in the tough early going for the Crimson has been co-captain Sydney Daniels. A 21-goal scorer in 2015-16, Daniels got started with a bang this season, scoring three goals in Harvard’s season-opening 5-1 win over Dartmouth.
When asked about Daniels’ growth, Harvard coach Katey Stone speaks glowingly about the co-captain: about her leadership, about how she strives to support her teammates and be the hardest worker. But one thing stands out above the rest.
“She’s a hockey player.”
It is understated, high praise from the winningest coach in D-I hockey history, but it fits perfectly. Daniels brings a focused intensity to the ice. Her puck-hawking, pressing style matches up with a willingness to get physical. It runs in the family.
The daughter of rugged former NHL left wing Scott Daniels, Sydney laughs when asked asked about her father’s impact on her development. “He’s been the greatest influence,” she says. “But I can never sneak anything by him. There’s no short shifting. I’m forever grateful for what he’s taught me.”
It was deep family ties that informed her decision to sign with Harvard. A highly decorated prep player, Daniels averaged over a point a game for Team USA in two IIHF U18 Women’s Hockey Championships (2011, 2012), winning a gold medal in 2011. A US-Canadian dual citizen, she had a number of collegiate options, but there was an attraction to staying close to family in her native New England.
“During the college process, that was one of the biggest things. Family means so much to me and just having them in the stands and able to come to games means the world to me. Being a Mass kid playing in Mass, it makes it even sweeter.”
But while Daniels’s intensity is clear, so is her leadership and love of the game. Some skill players have trouble transitioning into the captaincy, as responsibilities shift from goals and assists to taking care of and enhancing the skills of teammates. Not every talented player can step into the role well. Daniels does. “She understands what it means to wear the jersey and have the ‘C’ on it,” Stone says.
Daniels has had good teachers.
“Coach Stone’s hockey knowledge is bar none,” Daniels says. “She knows so much about the game, from the little details to the grand scheme of it. And just being on the ice with her at practice every day you are constantly learning, and it’s up to you to listen in.”
Stone, who coached the U.S. Women’s Olympic team to a silver medal in Sochi, has clearly had an impact on Daniels’s growth. “Having her there, it’s an amazing feeling of support,” Daniels says. “And then off the ice, she teaches you even more. I’ve developed so much as a person from her guidance and support in my past three years. She’s done so much for me, I’ll be forever thankful.”
The crucible of a tough season can fray nerves. The Crimson are young and still finding their way. For Daniels and the team’s seniors, just two years removed from a run to the national title game, it could be a recipe for negativity. If she’s feeling it, it doesn’t show.
From the moment Daniels skates onto the ice, she’s smiling and joking with teammates. Off the ice, she’s polished, with a direct, thoughtful style focused on accountability as well as something surprising in the face of a tough season. “Our record doesn’t reflect how much fun we are having,” Daniels says. “At the end of the day, that’s what the sport’s about.”
The fifth overall pick in last June’s NWHL draft by the New York Riveters, Daniels has a chance to continue playing after college. It’s something that clearly appeals to her, with a caveat. “I am not quite certain of my plans yet,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out the job world a little bit first. But if I can keep playing hockey, I would absolutely love to. I think the NWHL is so amazing because it is giving kids something to look forward to growing up and something to cheer for in women’s sports, and that’s amazing. I’m hoping I get the chance to play there.”
If she does decide to go pro, it will be a gain for the Riveters’ youngest fans. Throughout the Harvard stands, young women and girls cheer on the Crimson. Daniels lights up when talking about serving as a role model for young girls. “It’s so awesome. Having someone look up to you, it makes you want to be a better person for them to try and emulate. So it’s such a great feeling having all these kids around and watching these games and rooting for us.”
With the tough early scheduling gauntlet behind them, the young Crimson still have the opportunity to turn around the season. Regardless, the early lows of Harvard’s season have not tampered the focus or infectious enthusiasm of its senior co-captain. “Every opportunity I get to say how amazing this program is and how thankful I am to be here,” Daniels says. “That’s it. I’m very thankful. This team and this program is unlike any other thing I have experienced in my entire life and I am so grateful for it.”